Tony Fadell Is Trying to Build the iPod of Crypto

The product guru made Ledger’s new hardware wallet—a tiny vault for digital cash—flashy and fun. Plus, with this gadget you’ll never get FTX’d.
stax wallet
The Ledger Stax—a hardware wallet for crypto folk—has an E Ink touchscreen on which its owner can display an NFT. Its makers hope to attract more non-nerds to Web3.Photograph: Julien Faure

When I come to Paris to see Tony Fadell’s new device, a clean rain has washed the city and the sun is out. Fadell and I hail a taxi. When he gives the address for Ledger—a maker of hardware wallets for the cryptoverse—he speaks in French, but even after six years abroad, there’s still Detroit in his voice. 

At the meeting we enter, everyone is speaking English. People are sitting at a large table. On the walls are labels such as PHOTO ASSETS, VIEW FROM LANDING PAGE, USER FLOW, with big printouts taped below. Fadell strides to the front of the room.

“We’ve got seven weeks to pull this off,” he says. “Are we going to pull this off?” 

The people in the room say yes, they will pull it off. They sound confident, weary, but ready for the next round of work. Each person says what they have done since the last time they met. Fadell responds with questions. What’s the drop-dead date on the plastic blanks? Where’s the press release? Are we recording the click-click-click? I want to hear it!

The click remark reminds everyone, as if they needed it, that Fadell once led the team at Apple that created the iPod, with its elegant clicky wheel and revolutionary interface. He also cofounded Nest and created its smart thermostat, which Google then acquired. 

Fadell circles the room to examine the printouts, which describe the product rollout. A man with a video camera follows him, recording the moment for posterity and promotional use. 

Tony Fadell hangs out in the Donjon, the security lab inside Ledger's Paris headquarters.

Photograph: Julien Faure

Fadell stops to examine a group of photos of the device: a hardware wallet called Ledger Stax. A hardware wallet is a utilitarian thing. It’s a physical lock for digital secrets. When you own cryptocurrency, your balance is protected solely by a private key that can be devilishly hard to keep safe. Ledger’s wallets, made of steel and silicon (and, OK, plastic), act as tiny vaults, but so far they have been off-putting. Much like crypto itself. Fadell is reinventing this gadget, his first major design project in years. He has come to believe that by giving it the panache of the hottest consumer gadgets, he will redirect the crypto field, just as he helped kick off digital music and the smart home.

Fadell looks at the photos of the credit-card-sized wallet and its innovative E Ink touchscreen. When Ledger reveals it on December 6, it will cost $279. That's a rounding error for those who buy Bored Apes. To add a bit of flair, the screen wraps around one side, giving it the equivalent of the spine on a book. But the photo doesn’t show this enough. “It’s very rectilinear and 2D,” he says. “Not enough spine. I’m not feeling the curve.” He frowns. “And it’s so dark.”

David Sloo, a user experience designer who worked with Fadell at Nest, picks up on the critique. “Can we be less Darth Vader and more Rebel?”

Fadell agrees. “It’s really who we are—it’s all about the Empire.”

His remark is a segue to the next panel, marked MANIFESTO. A handful of slogans are taped to the glass.

Crypto is the new money.

Security is a human right.

Welcome to a new era of financial freedom.

The first touchscreen device made to protect your most valuable assets.

Fadell looks the hardest at one that reads: 

In [L] Stax We Trust.

He is not satisfied with the prominence of the [L], the Ledger logo, which appears in a custom military-style typeface. The brand is what people should remember. “In five years, every time you see that L you’ll think Ledger,” he says. “Like the Apple logo stands for the brand.”

The comparison seems absurd. The company is nowhere near that size, its product is alien to most Earthlings, and its niche—crypto—has been undergoing months of shock treatment. Fadell seems unfazed.

“It’s coming together,” he says. “Forty-nine days!”

During those 49 days, the arc of crypto will bend into a dunk tank. Timing, as product gurus know, is everything. Stax might be coming at the perfect moment. It could as easily be the worst. 

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Ledger was founded in 2014 by members of a Bitcoin collective called La Maison du Bitcoin. They wanted to build a wallet for crypto purists. These people would never leave their private keys on a phone or laptop—too hackable—or park their holdings in an exchange, which is a trusted, centralized institution and no better than a bank. (“Trust” is a pejorative in this world.) That was the year thousands of people lost their investments in a hack of crypto’s flagship exchange, Mt. Gox, wiping out many customers’ life savings. 

Ledger’s savvy consumers would entrust their keys only to a hardware wallet, something they could hold in their hands even when servers went down and exchanges went bust. You’d begin a transaction on a phone or laptop and use the wallet to verify it. Your private key, marooned on its Alcatraz, would never cross the gap to those less secure devices. 

The company’s first wallet, released late that year, was nothing special. But it satisfied a need among some crypto folk. Subsequent models got tiny displays. Ledger ultimately sold more than 5 million of its wallets, which it says now secure 20 percent of the world’s crypto and more than 30 percent of NFTs. True believers wear Ledger wallets around their necks. 

By 2018, however, the crypto market had plunged into one of its cold spells, and Ledger’s sales were flat. An early investor named Pascal Gauthier came to believe that a fusty mentality was hindering the company’s growth. “The French engineer decides everything, which is why the French always come up with innovations, but we’re shitty at taking them to market and making it a business,” he says. He became part of a boardroom uprising that put him in charge. 

Gauthier, who had worked in ad tech (first at Yahoo and then as COO of a successful French company called Criteo), wanted to move Ledger from the “B to G” market—business to geek—and sell to the wider, nontechnical world. He wanted to mix Ledger’s rigid security focus with the verve of Steve Jobs-level creativity. “Maybe it’s delusional,” says Gauthier, who dresses as if awaiting a Sun Valley invitation, in an ever-present black Patagonia vest. “But I want to build things at scale, to build a company in Europe that will compete with Apple, Google.” 

He felt Ledger needed to shake off a bit of its Frenchness. “If you want marketing and sales, you need Americans,” he says. “There is no other way.” 

Gauthier started by wooing an expatriate he’d befriended. Ian Rogers is an Iggy Pop-ish 50-year-old with long blond hair, tattoos on his fingers, and a résumé loaded with trophy jobs, albeit trophies seldom found in the same case. He played in a high school band called Albino K-Mart Shoppers, was webmaster for the Beastie Boys, CEO of Beats Music, cofounder of Apple Music, and digital czar of the luxury-brand juggernaut LVMH, a gig that brought him to the City of Lights.

CEO Pascal Gauthier dreamed of turning a European company into a global tech giant that could rival Apple. 

Photograph: Julien Faure

By 2020, though, he was open to Gauthier’s pitch. He’d long been interested in crypto, having read the foundational Satoshi paper in 2009. Gauthier was offering him a chance to participate in what he regarded as a nascent revolution of ownership, anchored by the Gibraltar-like certainty of cryptographic private keys. “We know this technology will matter in the future, because a lot of humanity, if not all of humanity, will own digital items,” he says. “It’s just like it was in 2008, when people said not everyone would have a smartphone.” 

He also respected the business model—Ledger sold actual devices, not dicey promises of perpetually rising markets. Private wallets embodied for him the decentralized ethos at the core of the crypto vision. “The people at this company wouldn’t work at Coinbase,” says Rogers. “They don’t want to work at a bank. They believe in self-custody.”

Still, Rogers wanted to do his due diligence. Fadell, a parent friend from his children’s school in Paris, took it upon himself to investigate. At that point Fadell was living a quiet life as an investor. During the first months of the pandemic it was a super quiet life. “Tony never crossed the fucking transom of his door,” Rogers says. Fadell was busy giving product advice to the companies he funded and writing a business book that drew on his career, a pursuit usually signifying a career’s end. But Rogers had gotten him curious, so he took a hard look at what the company considered its biggest strength—its security

Ian Rogers, the chief experience officer, joined Ledger to pursue an interest in crypto and became an avid collector of NFTs. 

Photograph: Julien Faure

Fadell’s guide to Ledger’s operations was its chief technology officer, Charles Guillemet, who joined the company in 2017. Inside its headquarters, behind a giant medieval-style door off a Paris lane, Guillemet created the Donjon, a jacked-up security lab that verifies the resilience of every aspect of the hardware, down to the chip circuits. Inside the Donjon, motherboards get probed as if in a 21st-century version of Frankenstein’s lab. Lasers connected to oven-sized oscilloscopes poke at chips to observe how they might fail. Guillemet told Fadell he was appalled at the idea of people securing their assets on laptops or iPhones, which he deemed hopelessly vulnerable. He despised fingerprints and facial recognition. Your biometrics are public, after all, and can be counterfeited. 

The more time Fadell spent with Guillemet and the Ledger team, the more convinced he became. “I didn’t believe in all that crypto hype, but I believe in the technology,” he says. He told Rogers that Ledger was the real deal. Rogers became the company’s chief experience officer in January 2021, and later that year, to bolster the company’s storytelling acumen, he hired an editor in chief, former Vice executive Ariel Wengroff. She oversaw a crypto education project called Ledger Academy and kicked off a podcast and video series. Some of the engineers at Ledger didn’t understand why those nontechnical hires were necessary. Gauthier saw their resistance as part of Ledger’s problem. “I was saying we could sell tens of millions of devices, have billions of revenue, billions of valuation. And they were like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”

Charles Guillemet, Ledger’s CTO, convinced Fadell that the company’s tech was the real deal. 

Photograph: Julien Faure

But Rogers’ most significant contribution might have been igniting the interest of his friend Fadell. He had seen a weakness in Ledger’s plan—the device itself was unlovable. To unlock the wallet, you had to enter a four- or eight-digit passcode using an incredibly awkward interface, like writing an essay on a home security panel. He began pondering what a better solution might be. 

Fadell met with Gauthier at a Paris café, and they agreed that Ledger needed its next product to have broader appeal. They parted ways, but Fadell kept brainstorming. When he hit on a vision, he met with Gauthier again. “I want to be the chief designer on that,” Fadell told him. Gauthier immediately agreed. 

Fadell started the gig full of ideas. As the guy who swept away the pain points of first-generation MP3 players (big and clunky, engineering degree required to select a song) and thermostats (ugly, no connectivity, impossible to program), Fadell was quick to understand the shortcomings of Ledger’s wallet. Its screen was tiny, it lacked a keyboard or keypad, and its appearance and charm were on par with an early-2000s USB stick. The startup instructions warned users to set aside a minimum of 30 minutes. 

In his mind, the wallet should be about the size of a credit card and have a touchscreen. The setup time should take no more than three minutes. You should be able to personalize the lock screen to display anything you want. He also envisioned people owning several wallets, one for each category of digital collecting or banking. He liked the concept of stacking them on top of each other, like a cash bundle of $100 bills. He came up with the idea of having magnets to snap the units into a tidy stack. That feature provided the name for the device: Stax. 

Fadell surveyed all possible electronic components, talked to suppliers, and began prototyping, using green plastic toy blocks and magnets. One design constraint was battery life—Fadell wanted people to be able to leave their wallets untouched for months and still have power when they retrieved them. That meant the screen had to use energy-efficient E Ink. (Color would have been nice, but the tech isn’t there yet.) Fadell took apart a bunch of Kindles and ReMarkable tablets to test how the screen might display a keyboard and other buttons.

Stax wallets have customizable E Ink displays.

Photograph: Julien Faure

The screen wraps around one edge, creating a spine that an owner can label.

Photograph: Julien Faure

One of his dreams was to extend the screen along the edge of the unit, so people could label it. None of the E Ink displays he saw could do what he wanted, so he contacted an old friend, the UK venture capitalist Hermann Hauser, who had once been involved in an unsuccessful ebook device with advanced E Ink. That company, Plastic Logic, was now based in Dresden, Germany, and was making custom E Ink displays. And they could bend! The curved display had at that point been used only by an obscure Russian phone called the YotaPhone. Fadell wanted to produce hundreds of thousands of screens with a dramatically sharper curve and at a low cost.

Adding a touchscreen to the wallet presented a risk, though—a sophisticated attacker could, with the right equipment, pick up electronic signals leaking through the screen and figure out the pin code that unlocks the device. So Ledger’s engineers had to shield the screen so it emitted no digital exhaust. They also wrote their own driver, the code that helps render pixels on the screen. “You’re compromising security if you use a driver written by someone in China that you’ve never met,” Rogers says.

Meanwhile, Fadell was increasingly showing up at Ledger as the de facto lead of its new flagship product. (Though he never became an employee, Fadell says he was granted significant equity.) Not everyone welcomed him. Put magnets on a hardware wallet? Add a curved screen? From a supplier who’d never done that before? Plus, Fadell can be exacting to the point of infuriating. “I can’t tell you how many times they’d say, ‘Oh this seems difficult—a rolled screen?’” Fadell says. “And I’m like, ‘I’m telling you, we’re going to do this thing. How many times do I have to say, just trust me, it’s going to happen.’”

Early on, Gauthier had to convene his engineers and quell a possible rebellion. “They were saying all those things had never been done before. And I’m like, shut the fuck up. If he says we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it.” Apparently, they bought in: Some of those engineers described Fadell’s style to me much the way he likes to be viewed—grueling, but inspiring. Like his former boss Steve Jobs. (Maybe if I spoke French I could have cornered them and gotten more candor.)

Ledger saw other benefits of having Fadell onboard. Early in 2022, Foxconn, the manufacturing giant that Ledger retained to assemble the Stax units, said that it wasn’t going to meet its February 2023 deadline for shipping final products. Maybe June? “We were freaking out,” Gauthier says. Fadell told him, “I got this.” He wrote to Foxconn’s CEO, explaining that the deadline was important and it would be a great favor if he looked into it. “Fifteen minutes later, boom, we were back on track,” Gauthier says.

When I arrive in Paris in October, the first prototypes are finished, and the team is working out the remaining bugs. Sitting with Fadell and Wengroff in Rogers’ apartment in the Marais section—a fourth-floor walk-up accessible through an unmistakably Parisian courtyard—several units are neatly, um, stacked on the table, alongside a plate of fresh croissants. On the spine of one of them is the phrase, BANKS ARE DEAD. I watch as Rogers buys an NFT. He does the actual selection and transaction on a phone. The Stax wakes up when it’s time to verify Rogers’ private key, alerting him that a pending transaction awaits his verification. Punching in his passcode on the display—sheltering with a cupped hand so I can’t shoulder-surf—he buys it. Within a few minutes, he can view the image on his phone and edit it so it shows up in gray scale when he ships it to the lock screen of his Stax.

Ariel Wengroff joined the team to help Ledger break out of its “business-to-geek” niche.

Photograph: Julien Faure

It may be a stretch to imagine a mass movement toward crypto coins and digital goods. Ledger’s very long-term vision is that with secure, well-designed hardware as a bedrock, people will gravitate to crypto to verify their identity and credentials. Think driver’s licenses, passports, proof that you passed your dentistry boards, Taylor Swift tickets, and voter ID. Rogers says that when he attended the NFT NYC conference earlier this year and digitally verified he had the token required to register for exclusive events, an irony struck him. “The technology I use to get into parties is more secure, easier to use, and better than the technology that I use to get into our country! Fast-forward into the future and your government document is in your hardware wallet.” 

To advance this vision, Ledger has so far only met with consultants from Estonia, a nation known for embracing any futuristic scheme that comes its way. A delightful wallet can only do so much; it’s not going to win over people who struggle through 40,000-word crypto explainers in allegedly plain language and still can’t figure it out. Does Ledger really believe it can transform the industry?

“That’s the hope,” Fadell says. “To have that iPod moment for digital assets. You can’t just integrate it into a phone, no matter how much you try. You need to have a real physical key in your life that holds the digital.” 

As we sit in Rogers’ sunny Paris flat, it all seems plausible. Less than a month later, the blockchain world would blow up at the hands of a bogus crypto king in the Bahamas.

In early November, Gauthier, Rogers, Fadell, and Wengroff visited New York City, and we met in a downtown bistro. As the espressos were being pulled, I asked about the fuzzy-haired, short-pants elephant in the room. Only a week earlier, a young crypto magnate named Sam Bankman-Fried had presided over the biggest disaster in crypto since Mt. Gox. “SBF” had allegedly redirected a chunk of customer deposits from his multibillion-dollar crypto exchange FTX to cover the failing high-risk investments handled by a trading company he controlled. When customers went to withdraw their funds, some of them discovered they couldn’t. His crew had annihilated at least a billion dollars’ worth of wealth, stiffing more than a million customers and demolishing crypto’s reputation. 

The implosion capped off a convulsive year. The price of cryptocurrency has sunk, and NFTs have gone from galleries to Goodwill. Considering all this, launching Stax now could seem like introducing a new cocktail in the lounge of the Titanic, just as the ship smacked into the iceberg. 

Non, non!” insist the folks at Ledger. They say that FTX has been a boon for their company. It was a vindication of self-custody. People who had been holding their digital assets inside exchanges were now pulling out their funds and moving them to hardware wallets. The previous day, a Sunday, Ledger had set a sales record, and now it was on track to break it again. 

Wengroff, Fadell, Rogers, and Gauthier gather on the street outside Ledger HQ.

Photograph: Julien Faure

As customers poured in—and existing users who hadn’t fired up their wallets in months suddenly decided to update the firmware—Ledger’s servers were temporarily swamped, and for an hour or so, customers couldn’t update their software. Some got spooked. The company’s support team sent out an ill-worded message assuring everyone, in a tweet, “Your assets are safe.” Of course they were—that’s what self-custody is all about. But after SBF and other meltdowns, that phrase had become a signal that a house of cards was falling and your assets were gone

If even savvy crypto folk get panicky at a hiccup like that, just imagine the reluctance of Web3 holdouts. Might it be unrealistic for Ledger to expect newbies to pay almost $300 for a wallet that has a cool picture on it but still depends on a somewhat impenetrable ecosystem and an existential question of reliability?

To the Ledger-ites, the promise of crypto and the necessity of self-custody will prevail. It’s a logical outcome of the last half-century of atoms moving to bits. Still, Rogers admits that no matter how slick Stax is, it interacts with systems that have massive barriers to entry. After breakfasting at the bistro, I spent an hour with him trying to get set up to trade crypto and buy NFTs. While getting the wallet to authenticate me was easy, getting the currency needed to buy the funky artworks Rogers likes proved frustratingly difficult, and apparently impossible to complete in the time we had. “Crypto is where the internet was in 1993,” he finally said, in a tone somewhere between wistful and pissed off. That doesn’t bother him too much—the iPod, after all, came out in the early, awkward days of digital music and took a few years to catch on. “The only question in my brain is, are we the Apple of Web3?” Rogers says. “Or are we the BlackBerry or Nokia of Web3?” 

We’ve already seen the FTX of Web3, so there’s nowhere to go but up. For now, Tony Fadell’s latest technology tour de force stands as a friendly hardware ambassador for a future that’s still far away for most of us, and a glimpse of how we might wind up with something useful, accessible, and enriching—from what so far has been a blockchain of fools. 


This article appears in the February 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

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