Welcome to the second edition of Garage Greatness, the weekly blog where we examine famous inventions and companies that can be traced back to the garage! The garage is a natural place for entrepreneurs and tinkerers to explore their passions, and many of the world’s greatest companies found the start within the humble walls of a garage. If you’ve got a garage on your property, you are only steps away from this level of greatness, so why not learn about the stories behind these household names? Today, we’ll be examining the smart home hardware company, Nest, best known for their Learning Thermostat.
Welcome to Garage Greatness.
How often do you adjust your home thermostat? Many thermostats are outdated eyesores, installed by contractors who are more interested in getting the lowest possible bid than they are in the comfort of their home’s future inhabitants. Also, most homeowners use their thermostat in an inefficient way, and since home temperature control accounts for as much as 10% of total energy usage in the US, even just slightly wasteful habits can mean hundreds of dollars of cost for each household – hundreds of millions, across the country. Tony Fadell is the man behind Nest, the smart thermostat that is designed to solve these problems, and he is more qualified than anyone to create cutting edge technology: before he was prototyping a thermostat in a Palo Alto garage, he was creating the iPod and iPhone at his previous executive position with Apple.
Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest, is a force to be reckoned with. During his time at Apple, Fadell was responsible for some of the brand’s most iconic profits, and he certainly has the skills to back a project of that scale. When Fadell was a child, he visited Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and marveling at the automation on display inside the “homes of the future” – A premise that has been advertised, but never delivered, for over fifty years. Although we’ve previously covered an automated garage door opener that can be controlled from your phone, innovations such as these are slow in coming and the Nest stands out from similar products for several reasons.
Fadell started Nest in 2010 to redesign what he and his cofounder, Matt Rogers (also known for his previous work with Apple, as the head of iPhone software development), called the “unloved” objects of the home. The company’s first design is the Nest, a smarter thermostat designed to operate your home without you ever having to interfere. After leaving Apple, Fadell searched for a new home to move into with his wife and kids, but during the house-hunting process he became disenchanted with the design of the thermostat, since every house he toured had an old eyesore attached to the wall. He applied the same design principles that he had learned at Apple to the thermostat, and came up with something amazing.
He wanted to control his entire home from his phone, and to Fadell, that seemed like an obvious step. There was no reason that a thermostat couldn’t be a tiny computer, connected to the internet and leeching from the home’s power supply, that was as smart as his phone. Nest’s thermostat incorporated many of Fadell’s original ideas, including the learning feature that defines the product. During the first couple weeks of use, the Nest learns your habits, and begins to automatically adjust things in accordance with your preferences. By interfacing with other other smart home products or using integrated motion sensors, the system detects when you leave your home and adjusts the temperature accordingly.
Also like an Apple product, Nest has a minimalist design that matches any interior and is far more attractive than an old white rectangle. The nest is a sleek disk about the size of a hockey puck, ringed in stainless-steel and designed as one giant knob. Rotating the Nest changes the set temperature, and pushing the front face confirms. More complicated interactions come from the device’s App, instead of a confusing array of buttons on the thermostat itself. From the beginning, Fadell has tried to design a product that is a better thermostat, not a thermostat with more extraneous features. This is a smart home product without the fancy tricks or useless gizmos. “It’s a thermostat,” says Fadell, “It’s not supposed to cook you breakfast.”
The Nest was built in response to the realization that thermostat technology hasn’t advanced since it was first created. Some of their competitor’s machines incorporated calendars, weather displays, or photo display modes, but Fadell and Rogers didn’t want to overcomplicate a device that was designed for a simple purpose. The Nest was not designed to replace your smartphone, just to work with it to simplify your life.
Fadell himself has a strong personality, and his personality is the heart and soul behind his company. He is loud and happy by nature, and even when Nest had just 16 employees and was run out of a garage in Palo Alto, Fadell has held the entire team to the same high standard he holds himself. That was in May 2010, when the company could still fit inside a garage, specifically one with a gently sloped floor that sent employee’s chairs rolling away from their desks – by September 2011, the company had grown to 70. In time, the company would release a second product, Nest Protect, which is a smoke and carbon monoxide detector that incorporates some of the streamlining and intuitive design of the Nest thermostat.
Although over a hundred previous Apple employees work at Nest, the company is sure to distance itself from the technology supergiant. Fadell states that Apple products have become too sterile and that they don’t “feel like home,” a dangerous situation for a home good’s company. Instead, Nest is drawing inspiration from the company that recently acquired them – Google. Although Nest is still run autonomously, Google acquired the startup in 2014, a move that some have hailed as a sign of Google trying to buy the “Apple genome.” One thing is certain: Nest is a unique team, uniquely positioned to pioneer consumer hardware ideas that will remain relevant for decades. The team at Nest have combined Apple’s use experience with Google’s reach, drawing from consumer product design, smart phone electronics, web service design and machine learning specialists. The combination of fields and skills makes Nest a force to be tracked in the modern tech sphere.
Fadell didn’t exactly start his company from nothing, but he was responsible for molding Nest into the powerhouse that is today, and it was his leadership that led the company to a multi-billion dollar acquisition by Google. Although their product is simple, every step of producing the Nest has been thoroughly examined and designed to present the best possible product. With a visionary leader like Fadell at the helm, and a company of Google’s power backing the startup, there is no doubting that Nest will be an industry leader for years to come. All of this, from a start designing a thermostat in a garage.
We hope that you enjoyed learning about Nest in this episode of Garage Greatness! We’ll return next Monday with an exploration into Harley-Davidson, one of the most recognizable names in motorcycles and a classic symbol of American engineering. Harley-Davidson has been around for over a hundred years, through economic upswings and downturns, and has been producing quality bikes for that entire time. Next week, learn about how four childhood friends experimenting with a lightweight engine created a brand that would outlive them all.