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The ultimate sound experience

"Sonos is a sound experience company making it easier than ever for millions of listeners around the world to play more, hear more, and feel more" ... Founded in 2002 by John MacFarlane, and others, he took his first prototypes to the "D2: All Things Digital" conference in Carlsbad, California where Steve Jobs told him that the Sonos controller's scroll wheel might violate Apple patents related to the iPod. For MacFarlane, that meant he was heading in the right direction, and went back to innovate some more. Today, the brand is recognised as a world leader in sound quality.

“Hero-entrepreneur dreams up a great idea, finds a sidekick or two to help it come alive, clashes with and defeats the entrenched incumbent, and rides to glory as the credits roll” …

The story of Sonos might seem like that, from a distance. Its four founders – John MacFarlane, Tom Cullen, Trung Mai, and Craig Shelburne – conjured a daring vision based on technology that didn’t exist at the time. Fuelled with the insight earned from success in the first phase of Internet-based business-building, they chose as their next mission a new way to bring music to every home – wirelessly, in multiple rooms, from PCs and the Internet, with awesome sound. They hired an amazing team who built amazing products from scratch, and music devotees all over the world found a new brand to fall in love with.

What are the frustrations and failures they experienced on the journey? Are there larger lessons to be learned? The story of what Sonos did and is doing might be familiar to many. With first-ever details, what follows is the story of how.

John MacFarlane moved to Santa Barbara in 1990 to get his PhD from University of California-Santa Barbara. Instead, he saw the promise of the Internet and built along with Craig, Tom and Trung. After merged with in 2000 to create Openwave, they moved on to figure out together what to do next.

Whatever was going to be next, they knew they wanted to stay together, and stay in Santa Barbara, due to the roots they and their families had begun to establish there. It was, perhaps, the beginning of a habit of unorthodox choices to add both a degree of difficulty and a fresh perspective to the work.

As Tom describes it, the view from Santa Barbara contained four big insights drawn, in his words, from being “at the core of the Internet as it was blowing up”:

  • 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 digitisation just getting started all around them, with nearly unlimited possibilities for more.
  • Finally, as Tom would say, they realised 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.

With all of their experience, resources and insight, the four founders naturally turned to music in the home.

John’s first pitch to his three partners was actually around aviation. The notion was an offering to enable local-area networks (or LANs) for aeroplanes, with passenger services provided within them. That idea did not generate the enthusiasm John had anticipated, so it was back to the drawing board.

But that drawing board soon became filled with inspiration from the four friends’ mutual love of music, and mutual frustration with the pain of storing hundreds of CDs, dealing with the tangled spaghetti of stereo and speaker wires, and enduring the expense of custom home wiring for multi-room listening experiences. This became the opportunity to apply their unique talents, resources, and insights.

The vision was simple: Help music lovers play any song anywhere in their homes.

The one problem, in 2002: Almost none of the necessary technology existed to achieve that. The next great start-up involving music and technology would take root between the global hubs of both more than 90 miles from Los Angeles, and more than 250 miles from Silicon Valley. With a vision that was pure imagination.

In 2002, great music in the home meant wires hidden behind bookshelves and furniture, connecting to speakers the size of bongo drums; audio jacks plugged into the right holes on the backs of receivers and players; physical media primarily in the forms of compact discs and tapes – and if you wanted a multi-room experience, an afternoon (or weekend) drilling through walls to snake wires from a central receiver to speakers throughout your home.

Whiste the original Napster had risen and fallen as a means to find music online to play on the personal computer, digital music was still new, and the idea of streaming music directly from the Internet was far-fetched. Pandora, iTunes, Spotify, and the rest of today’s leaders in music streaming services did not exist, nor did the iPhone. The top Internet service provider in 2002 was still America Online via dial-up, and fewer than 16 million U.S. households had high-speed broadband.

Undaunted, the founders went to work scoping out their vision and seeking uniquely great talent to join them.

Their first step was to translate what they imagined onto paper.

According to Cullen, it took about three months and looked like this:

This very basic sketch, though updated and enhanced in multiple directions, remains part of the foundation of Sonos products today.

You can read the full story here

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