Sonos – The vision was simple: Help music lovers play any song anywhere in their homes.
The phenomenal technology Sonos has produced and brought to the industry since 2002 from John MacFarlane, Tom Cullen, Trung Maj and Craig Shelburne. They chose to make a new brand of music in the home that would allow users to go completely wireless.
John MacFarlane holds PhD from California Santa Barbara and also Tom, Trung and Craig built Software.com and completed the merger of Phone.com to form Openwave.com in 2000. The all chose to stay in Santa Barbara, California and built the great brand.
The brand of Sonos was built with:
Four Big Insights
First, the proliferation of standards meant the Internet is a programmable platform.
Second, the collapse of costs for the brains and nervous systems of computers – integrated circuits, central processing units, and other technologies – meant these components were fast becoming commodities.
Third, the four founders could see what the builders were buying, and thus they could see digitization just getting started all around them, with nearly unlimited possibilities for more.
Finally, as Tom would say, they realized that for networking, “what would be large scale would become small scale.” Wide-area networks would create markets and bring reliable capability to local-area networks.
Sonos: The bolder the claims, the less copy required..
“The question was, distributed intelligence or central intelligence? We chose distributed, not because it was easier – it wasn’t! – but because it was the right architecture for the experience we wanted to deliver.” – Johnathan Lang
In what ultimately became one of Sonos’ key patented technologies, the team customized a process called delegation expressly for multi-room, wireless music to enable transition for any and all speakers without any drop-offs. Along with a novel approach to time-stamping the digital bits of music playing via audio packets, they made it virtually impossible for a Sonos system to play music out of synch – and easy for users to link and unlink rooms, and to fling music to and from any room in the home.
“The alternative approach to networking would have been to use others’ access points. We were convinced that would lead to a bad user experience – for example, someone in the house hitting ‘print’ would stop the music. Which would be awful.” – Johnathan Lang
Tom Cullen gives Bill Gates one of the first public demos of Sonos’ ZP100 and CR100 at CES in January 2005.
“Keep in mind that the notion of mesh networking existed, but not in any audio products. Almost no one anywhere was working on embedded systems with Wi-Fi. There were no good Linux drivers with Wi-Fi. We were building our own hardware that we hadn’t fully tested. Nick’s the best developer I’ve ever worked with, by far.” – Andy Schulert
Sonos’ first product, the ZP100, earned praise for simple set-up, ease-of-use, great sound.
The early industry encouragement didn’t mean they were free from new setbacks. Sonos had committed to a fall 2004 ship schedule for its first products, and co-founder Trung Mai had spent most of 2004 hopscotching across Asia with foam models of the hardware to find the right contract manufacturer. Once secured, Jonathan Lang jumped in and took over responsibility for overseeing the factory lines – another career first for him. As the product lines were rolling, he noticed what he described as a “small issue” with the controllers, specifically with a glue agent that wasn’t working right.
“I had to make a call,” he said. “But I already knew the Sonos thing to do was stop the line, scrap the products, be late, and go find a glue that worked. John and the leadership team let me make the right decision.”
Part 3“Easily the best.”
At long last, on January 27, 2005, Sonos shipped its first product, the ZP100. Industry accolades, strong product reviews, and positive media coverage followed soon after, and sustained over the first months and years of availability. Reviewers lauded its simplicity of setup, design, reliability, and great sound. The dean of product reviewers, Walt Mossberg (then at The Wall Street Journal), wrote, “The Sonos System is easily the best music streaming product I have seen and tested.”
With so much positive response from the media and industry, Sonos executives thought they’d be overwhelmed by a flood of revenues. Instead, sales were decent, but not amazing. As Tom Cullen described to Fortune in a 2012 profile on the company:
“We were just sitting there going, ‘everybody loved this,’” recalls Cullen….
“Why aren’t we going to $500 million [in sales] in a day?” Then, the recession hit the company hard. “The world stopped. After all, nobody needs a Sonos,” says Cullen. At the time, the company was working on a larger wireless speaker, but didn’t have the capital to follow through. Some staffers, including Cullen, borrowed money from friends and resorted to paying employees out-of-pocket [Trung Mai, in particular, did this more than once, according to Cullen].
Sonos determinedly stayed the course, making key bets on next-generation systems and technologies with conviction that consumers would catch up. The company relied on John’s instinct to anticipate trends and take advantage of them, even if it risked being too early.
And in that way, the story concludes where it started. A group of people, in many rooms around the world, focused on a daring vision: any song, in any room, always sounding amazing.