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How CEO Patrick Spence brought Bluetooth to Sonos

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The Vergecast interview

Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence sat down with The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel for The Vergecast once again, this time right after a private Sonos press event in New York City last week. Sonos had just unveiled a few new products, notably its first ever Bluetooth speaker the Sonos Move.

Spence came on The Vergecast to answered some questions about the new devices, what it took to finally bring Bluetooth to a Sonos device, and if Apple’s Siri will arrive on Sonos’ new speakers. Below is a lightly edited excerpt of the conversation.

Nilay Patel: Tell us about the move, tell us why you finally made a Bluetooth speaker because that’s a big deal for Sonos.

Patrick Spence: It’s a huge deal for us and... as you think about it, we have built a core set of capabilities inside the company around sound and sound experience. And as we looked at feedback from customers, and as well the opportunities that were out there, we felt like listening shouldn’t have to necessarily stop at the front door. And so taking everything we’ve learned from producing great sound and easy experience and freedom of choice in the home, we felt it was time to take it outside the home. And we’d kind of dipped our toe in the water with new technologies beyond Wi-Fi with what we did with AirPlay. So supporting AirPlay helped us get comfortable with delivering a Sonos-like experience over wireless protocol other than Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth was obviously one that helps us deliver the kind of experience outside the home that we want to deliver, so it was a natural next step. But we had to not only deal with Bluetooth, we had to also deal with battery technology, which was also new for us, because we’ve always, to this point, worked in a situation where you could plug the speaker into the wall.

So both of those things were important engineering challenges for us and getting over the philosophical hurdle of always being on Wi-Fi.

Describe the Move for people in case they’re not familiar with it.

So we think we are setting a new bar for a portable outdoor speaker. And so it’s a Sonos speaker like you would expect, which you can use with your Sonos system in the home, when you’re around your home, and when connected to Wi-Fi. But when you leave the home, you can actually take it to the park or a beach, and use Bluetooth to actually connect to it as well.

I think what’s different than many speakers is our awesome sound, obviously, but as well the durability that we put into this thing. We have tested this to no end. In fact, in one of the drop tests we actually broke a piece of concrete with Move, which is pretty incredible. It’s been water resistant. We put it up against sand, dirt, dust, sweat, mustard, ketchup, you name it. And so we’ve built something that I think is very practical for real-life outdoor uses and not something that was just kind of the technology that you could introduce, but rather something that was thoughtful about the way customers are actually going to use this product. So we think it’s built for the long term like all Sonos products, and we think customers are going to love it.

And how much does it cost?

It is $399.

We got to talk about that number. That’s a big number. But you think people are going to jump on it?

You know, this is an amazing-sounding product and it’s extremely durable. It’s very versatile and in the age of thousand-dollar smartphones, it is absolutely a value at that price point. It’s something that’s going to last for years. There’s many Bluetooth speakers, there’s even some smart speakers out there that are a lot cheaper, but they’re also not built to last for years. They’re not going to get better over time with software, they’re not part of a system, they haven’t gone through the durability tests that we have. So this is for people that really recognize quality and quality products. This is for people that are into Sonos and understand what good sound, good experience, good quality is all about.

And when can people get it?

They’ll be able to get it... preorders will start September 5th and you’ll be able to buy it in stores September 24th.

The last time you were on the show, I think I asked you a question everybody asks like, “Give me an outdoor speaker.” And this thing is ready to be an outdoor speaker.

Yes.

Do you anticipate that the aftermarket’s going to build weird mounts and stuff, and people are just going to hang them outside?

Absolutely. We worked with Sonance to introduce architectural and outdoor speakers earlier this year and we’ve seen some good return on that business, but I do think that there will be people that... there’s already people that put Sonos One outside, or have put Play:1s, have put Play:5s outside. There’s different accessory companies that create those great brackets and different things to make it happen. So no doubt there’ll be people that create those as well. But I think for most customers, they’ll put it on the included charging cradle that comes with it and have a place for it in the home and then carry it outside when they want to go in the backyard and listen to great music, or if they want to take it to the beach or park or what have you. I think that will be the majority use case.

So you took over as CEO of Sonos, and one thing — and we were talking about it earlier today — you’ve talked about it before, is increasing the product cadence, moving a little bit faster. It seems clear that Sonos as a company, as a culture, did not want to make a Bluetooth speaker for a long time. You’re here with a Bluetooth speaker. Talk about how you actually effected that change.

Well, it starts with having had an amazing founder who when he passed the reins, when John MacFarlane passed the reins to me, I said, “Stay on the board and stay involved” in terms of where it was. And John has now started two successful companies, software.com and Sonos. And John said, “Look, you’re the right person to take us into the future, and you’re going to want to make a series of changes which I may not agree with and I will get in the way. So I’m going to step off the board and I’m going to completely step out of the company. And I’ll always be there should you need any advice or just want to use me as a sounding board, but you need to make the changes you think to get us to the next stage.”

And so it started there. And he was so right, because even a month later we were going through a number of changes which I knew were pushing the organization in an uncomfortable way, and one of those things was around the acceleration of the product road map. And so there was really a bias to action and this drive to boldly innovate. And so what I really tried to do with the team, I got the senior leadership team set. So we hadn’t had a stabilized senior leadership team, got that team set, and I really worked hard with the product team on unleashing a lot of innovation that was there.

We have the most incredible product team in the world and they have amazing ideas, and what I tried to do was just create a culture and a system where it’s okay to talk about these ideas, bring these ideas forward, and look at what’s next. And culturally, there were some sacred cows around things like Bluetooth, and that was important to get us to the stage we were at at that point, but it was holding us back from the true potential of what I think we have for the future. And so that was one that we had to work through as a team and so--

Tell me what that conversation.

So there was a lot internally, a lot of conversation internally and debates and yelling around, “We are never going to do a Bluetooth speaker.”

I think a lot of Vergecast listeners, their dream job is to be in a meeting where people are screaming at one another to make a Bluetooth. I’m going to be honest with you, that’s sort of my dream job, I’m just getting a piece of it.

And so the greatest thing is that there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of passion around it and around these kind of things. But if we go back to what we’re really trying to do, which is serve the customers, then you start to get over the religion around particular technologies and look at how can you make experiences on those technologies better, and what can we do uniquely that others can’t.

And look, we have always bit off engineering challenges that are super hard and that many others would never bite off, like trying to build the platform that’s going to support all the streaming services. People thought we were crazy. People thought we were nuts to try and do multiple voice assistants and now others are trying to do the same thing. So we’ve always bit those things off and so when it came to Bluetooth, part of my position was we have done much more difficult things. We create a really good experience here and we will make it better than most Bluetooth speakers out there, just by nature of the fact that we know what we’re doing when it comes to wireless and there’s some things we can do.

And then of course as we get into it, the team wants to create something awesome and so they’re doing Bluetooth tests which are well beyond what I think most companies would do to make sure that’s going to be a great experience as you go through. But there was a lot of passion getting through it.

What was the big argument against?

Just that it would never pass the test of somebody leaving the party and you’d lose the music. We never wanted the music to stop, and so in a situation where somebody walks too far away and all of a sudden the music stops, that’s a really disappointing experiential thing. Or you may have had the challenge where sometimes it doesn’t connect properly to a particular product...

Yes, I’ve used Bluetooth.

You may have had that experience, and so how do you reliably make sure you have that connection and do some things to make sure its going to a little more reliable than people are used to? And you’re not going to get it to the reliability that we want over Wi-Fi, but those were... but I’d say a little bit more of it just becomes cultural inside a company over a period of time. When you’re fighting against something and now all of a sudden it’s like, “Okay, we’re actually going to use this,” that’s a lot of cultural weight to work through. And it just takes time. It just takes time.

And part of it is also giving people the permission to make a mistake and fail as you go through it. So it doesn’t have to be perfect as we go through it, we’re going to get through this together as we go explore it. And so it just becomes a lot of conversation and debate as you get through it, but it’s one of those things where there are a few times... so I had really laid down the law, and this was one of those things I think that John would’ve disagreed with, which was we are going to do at least two new products every single year. And that was very different for a company that had introduced one new product over the past two years before that, so really changed the cadence.

And there was a lot of questions of, “Hey, does this mean we’re just going to ship something that’s not very good?” And I knew inside the company, given where our quality bar was, that that was never going to be a problem because we have such amazing people that hold the quality bar so high that we could come down quite a bit and still be the best in terms of where we were. So we weren’t going to sacrifice that quality.

And I really feel, now looking back two years later, that I was really just unleashing all of the people inside the organization, giving them the permission to do what they already wanted to do. Because all of our product development people, they want to ship great products and they want to get more into the world and they have really strong views on amazing new things that we can do. And so it was really giving them that permission and then breaking through the sacred cow of Bluetooth.

And the other one was that we are a hardware company and all we will ever do is build our own products. So when it came to the IKEA side of the equation, similarly that was a sacred cow of this notion of working with another company to build a speaker was something that, “Well, Sonos wouldn’t do that.”

And having had my experiences that I did at BlackBerry, I’m very careful about thinking about things that we will or will not do. I think it’s worth exploring many different possibilities as you think about the capabilities you have in an organization. So it was something where we spent a lot of time with IKEA upfront and they didn’t come in with a preconceived notion, they didn’t tell us what to build. Some partnerships, people will approach it in that way. They didn’t have a fully formed opinion, we didn’t either, we looked at the customer sets and we looked at some concepts that we had together and we said, “Okay, let’s try this together.” And I said to the company, “This is worth exploring to see if there is something here. We have an amazing system and we have some technologies and capabilities which can help IKEA deliver products that will be part of this Sonos ecosystem and I think bring new people into the Sonos family, so let’s give this a shot.”

And that had a lot of angst around it early on, a lot of people uncomfortable, but I’ll tell you a month into it, people are really excited by what’s been produced, and the engineers that worked on it were very happy at the end of the day with the sound that you get out of the two products that IKEA has made.

And so I’m glad you raised this because it’s a thing that I am most proud of, is the ability for the company to grow and evolve from where it was is everything. As we think about the decades ahead and we think about where we’re going to play and we think outside the home and opening up the system, I am just so excited about our road map and the possibilities that exist. And I’m so proud of the team for having taken the chance to look at doing some things differently.