New Sound for a New Era: The Origins of Sonos

Fans of business success stories know the familiar arc they follow… 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.

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.

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.

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.

While 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.

This intrepid band went to work, holing up together in a large open room above the Santa Barbara restaurant El Paseo, with the afternoon smell of Mexican tortillas deep frying to make crisps. The beginnings were not auspicious.

“The room was arranged like a school classroom, with rows of desks and John at the teacher’s desk, elevated,” recalled Nick Millington. “He’d be working on a prototype amplifier, testing it with sine waves, which was annoying. I was trying to get the audio transport layer developed, and it kept not working and making horrible noises, right in front of the CEO watching me work all day. So I invested in headphones.”

Whilst the challenge of inventing a multi-room wireless home audio system might have been enough, the team also collectively had made bright-line decisions around ease of use — meaning set-up would have to be fast and intuitive for anyone, it would have to integrate well with any technology or service, and it would have to deliver superior sound in any home environment.

Sonos’ first product, the ZP100, earned praise for simple set-up, ease-of-use, and great sound.

Recalls Andy Schulert: “We’ve got our first 15 to 20 prototypes, we feel great about them, we take ten of them to someone’s house to try it out. We set them up, and it’s a colossal failure. They barely worked. We had to dial back to just two, figure out the issues, then add a third, and so on. Excruciating, but worth it.”

By Summer 2004, Sonos had tackled the bugs, prototypes were beginning to function with the necessary reliability, and the team had started sneak-peeking the system to others in the industry. This confirmed what they had been beginning to recognize: the hard work to that point had paid off in the form of something genuinely new.

The industry reaction along the way was electric, featuring a demo at the 2004 D: All Things Digital conference that put Sonos on the map. As the late Steve Jobs was unveiling Apple’s Airport Express on the main stage as its solution for home audio — one that required users to return to their computers to control the music — Sonos was in one of the hallways demonstrating more advanced functionality and full user control in the palm of the hand.

Tom Cullen gives Bill Gates one of the first public demos of Sonos’ ZP100 and CR100 at CES in January 2005.

Breakthrough music experiences often debut with certain signature songs. MTV, for example, famously launched with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by The Buggles.

How about Sonos? The first song played for the public on Sonos’ first product, the ZP100, was The Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” at full volume, produced by long-time Sonos supporter/adviser Rick Rubin.

Sonos engineers could affirm the “no sleep” part because of all the work they’d put in leading up to the ZP100’s launch. But getting the experience just right for customers required a more practical approach to selecting songs for testing, dictated by the early days of scrolling through long alphabetical-order lists of songs and bands.

So the most-played song by Sonos engineers for testing was “3AM” by Matchbox 20, for no other reason than it was at the top of a list. The most-played band: 10,000 Maniacs.

Mieko Kusano recalls another encounter that summed it up:

“Among the first outsiders to see our early zone players were a team of engineers and executives from a well-known consumer technology company. It was our first meeting with this company, and it was before our launch. We had our Zone Players up and running, our controllers up and running — and one of their guys took our controller and bolted from the conference room. Totally took us by surprise. A few minutes later, he comes back with the controller, all out of breath. He’d taken it all the way out to the parking lot to see if it would still work. And it did.”

Sonos as a brand and company built a sturdy foundation in those first years, when its culture first took shape — one that puts the experience first, is relentlessly progressive, and one where people treat their customers as they would want to be treated. It continues to attract world-class talent looking to be pioneers, who are willing to push themselves to break new ground, within a set of principles established in 2003.


Images via Sonos.