Nobody Wanted to Buy Tony Fadell’s Early Inventions

(p. C7) Tony Fadell began his Silicon Valley career in 1991 at General Magic, which he calls “the most influential startup nobody has ever heard of.” He sketches his early persona as the all-too-typical engineering nerd dutifully donning an interview suit only to be told to ditch the jacket and tie before the meeting begins. He started at the bottom, building tools to check the work of others, many of whom just happened to be established legends from the original Apple Macintosh team.

General Magic failed at its ambitious goal: to create demand for its ingenious hand-held computer at a time when most people didn’t know they needed a computer at all. In other words, though the company had a great product, the product didn’t solve a pressing problem for consumers. Mr. Fadell offers candid reasons why such a smart group of people could have overlooked this basic market reality. Relaying the “gut punch of our failure,” he describes what it’s like “when you think you know everything (p. C8) then suddenly realize you have no idea what you’re doing.”

Four years later, Mr. Fadell landed as chief technology officer at Philips, the 300,000-employee Dutch electronics company, where he had a big title, a new team, a budget and a mission: The company was going to make a hand-held computer for now-seasoned desktop users who were beginning to see the need for a mobile device. Using Microsoft Windows CE as the operating system, it launched the Philips Velo in 1997. This was a $599.99 “personal digital assistant”—keyboard, email, docs, calendar, the works—in a friendly 14-ounce package. All the pieces were there, the author writes, except “a real sales and retail partnership.” No one—not Best Buy, not Circuit City, not Philips itself—knew how to sell the product, or whom to sell it to. So here was another “lesson learned via gut punch”: There is a lot more to a successful product than a good gadget, even an excellent one.

. . .

He uses his problem-solution-failure style to share stories about how he built the Nest thermostat and the Nest Labs company—from fundraising, building a retail channel and navigating patent litigation to marketing, packaging and customer support.

The best moments in this section, and perhaps the most difficult for Mr. Fadell to write, are about the acquisition of Nest by Google. He pulls no punches in describing what an outsider might call a botched venture integration. Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest in 2014 but within two years began to consider selling. “In utter frustration,” Mr. Fadell walked away. The lessons in these pages are as much for big companies acquiring startups as they are for the startups being acquired.

For the full review, see:

Steven Sinofsky. “Running The Tortuous ‘Idea Maze’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 18, 2022): C7-C8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 17, 2022, and has the title “‘Build’ Review: Failure Is the Mother of Invention.”)

The book under review is:

Fadell, Tony. Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. New York: Harper Business, 2022.

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