Three things I learned about Product during the early days of Sonos

I can still remember interviewing at Sonos, it was a strange experience in many ways but turned into one incredible and life changing journey. Why was it strange? Well Sonos’ original headquarters in Santa Barbara was an old motorcycle dealership off of State Street. When I first arrived I was sure I was in the wrong place, all I could find on one of the doors was an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper with the words “Rincon Networks” on the center.

Luckily I had arrived to my interview early, like, very early, so I was able to do a lap around the block and confirm that I was in the right place. I couldn’t quite figure out if there was a front door so just knocked on the glass facing a room where I saw someone walking by.

The person walking by turned out to be Craig Shelburne, the co-founder and at that time CFO of Sonos. It was that first day that I realized there was something pretty different about this company. This wasn’t like the startups you saw in movies with a big fancy office packed with free food, foosball, and kombucha on tap.

While I could write a whole article about the early company culture at Sonos (and if you like this article maybe I will!), I’ll try to stay focused on Product. So why was it important for me to give you all this backstory on my first experience with Sonos? Because from that day forward I saw how company culture directly connected to product and how the simplicity of Sonos, was, and still is, hard to truly capture.

The reality is, if you have Sonos, it has changed the way you listen to music, period. There aren’t many products in the world that offer the kind of magic that Sonos does. The other two companies that I can think of that offer a similar experience are Tesla and Apple. These three companies stand out because if you have one of their products, you don’t just use it, you love it.

When I started at Sonos we were running out of funding, the product wasn’t done, and we were early, damn early, to a market that didn’t really exist yet. What we had is what you see in the image above, a product called the ZP100 and a controller, aptly named the CR100. Yes, Apple threatened to sue us for our controller design and in the early days I can still remember skeptical retailers saying, “the iPod is going to fail, and you’re going to fail with it!” Over the next nine years I saw Sonos grow from thirty something people to over one-thousand, raise over $300M and build a product that changed an industry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to condense down what I learned about product at Sonos, especially during those early years, and decided it was time to put it into writing before I get much older. I’m turning forty this year so it felt like the right time to do it 🤷‍♂️

Before I go any further I’ll also make it clear that I did not work on the Product team at Sonos, I started as a Sales Engineer, then worked in US Sales, then led Sonos’ International expansion into Asia, Australia, Latin America, and Canada. I was lucky enough to be at Sonos early and get to interact a lot with Tom and John (two of the four Sonos co-founders) along with Rob and Mieko who together really crafted a vision for what the future of music would look like. I saw us go from a buggy thing in a market that nobody thought would ever exist, to a bulletproof product that has now become a household name.

And here’s what I think contributed to the success of the Product in the early days:

Clear focus on finding the best people — this is #1 for a reason. Sonos focused on finding the best-of-the best when it came to building their initial team. Two people that were absolutely instrumental in making the first version of the Sonos hardware and software what it is are Rob Lambourne and Mieko Kusano. Everyone really cared about making the best product in the world, not just something that would sell, but something that would truly change the way people listen to music. Later on Tom Cullen convinced Chris Kallai to join the team who went on to pioneer the standalone speakers like the Play:5, Sonos One, Playbar, and the list goes on.

I can still remember hearing about how Tom ended up getting Chris to join and I hope I don’t get in trouble for sharing this…but I think it shows just how awesome Tom is as a founder so I hope he’ll be okay with it! 🤞

Tom knew Chris was the guy to lead the development of our next generation stand along speakers, at the time Chris has build a very cool sub called the MicroVee for Velodyne. The MicroVee used extruded aluminum, and I can still remember Tom saying, “he built a fucking sub using extruded aluminum, this is our guy!” Tom went up to Chris, actually at the Velodyne booth at CES and started the conversation. The conversation continued, but Chris made it clear, he wasn’t going to leave Velodyne. Well, Tom didn’t give up and at one point actually flew out and took Chris out to dinner and told him that we needed him and he had to find a way to make it work.

Chris joined and well, if you have a Sonos One, Five, Soundbar or Sub in your home, he’s a big reason why you love them so much. My takeaway here was loud and clear, don’t just hire great product people, work relentlessly as a founder to find and hire the best.

Pay attention to every detail — at the time I found this incredibly frustrating, and then at some point it clicked. I can tell you the level of insane attention to detail at Sonos is like nothing I have ever seen before and I’ll give you an example.

When retailers first started carrying Sonos we had an insert in the box with a big red stop sign on it that told customers not to return the product to the retailer if they had an issue but to talk to us first. This made sense to me, we knew people would get confused, not realize they had to plug Sonos into their router, and then return it to the store saying it didn’t work.

Well, the team designing the box and materials in the box did a number of focus groups to understand the initial experience and the feedback was that seeing a red stop sign right when you opened the box wasn’t great. This led to what I think ended up being six-months of work and more iterations than I can count until we landed on a new insert which started with something like, “you are about to experience a truly magical experience.”

At the time I didn’t understand why it made sense to spend so much time on something so small. That’s when I learned there were dozens of other small things like that that people were relentlessly obsessing with. Why? Because to make a product that people are truly fanatical about, you have to obsess over every single detail.

Another great example is a product feature we had been getting requests for, constantly, an alarm clock. For those of you with Sonos today, you probably don’t think twice about that fact that Sonos has an alarm built in. Well, early on, we didn’t have that feature, but customers really wanted it, so the product and UX team set out to build it.

Nine months later…still no alarm clock. At the time I remember talking to some of our largest retail partners who kept asking about the feature, and I said, it’s coming, don’t worry. But I was worried…what the heck was taking so long, I felt like this should have been a quick one or two week project.

So that year when we were at CES I grabbed a beer with Rob Lambourne who was leading UX on the alarm. I still remember sitting down with him in Vegas over a beer and saying, “Rob, why is it taking sooooo long to add a simple alarm function?”

He responded by saying, “well let me ask you, when you set an alarm and other zones are linked, do you want it to play in those rooms too? And what about the volume level, should it be the same as you last left it? What if that’s full blast? Also what if you lose your Internet connection and your alarm can’t play the music you had selected, what does it play? And how do you make all of this easy for a user to understand and configure?”

🤯 It was then that I realized how much thought really went into every little feature we made, and how important it was that with put this level of time and energy into these decisions.

Spend as much time with customers as possible — this one might seem obvious but I’m actually surprised how many companies still build products based on feedback from focus groups and internal design sprints. Now I’m not saying companies shouldn’t run focus groups or do design sprints, these are super important too…but going deep with your customer is fascinating and it takes doing some weird stuff.

One experience I remember is when I joined one of our PMs to fly out to customers homes to spend time with them, see how they used Sonos, and watch them just live their life with Sonos rocking away. It felt awkward at first, we were walking into people’s homes, sitting on their couch, we’re human so we also had to use the bathroom at some point too.

I remember asking our PM, why can’t we just call them on the phone or send them a survey to ask them these things? Well it turned out that we did both of those things, but we met with customers in-person as well because there was something that you just couldn’t capture over the phone or in a survey.

There were a lot of takeaways from these visits but what I really took away from that experience is what you can get from actually being in-person with a customer seeing them use your product as they naturally would. Yes, you could bring that same customer into your office and let them use the product in a simulated living room, or you could call that customer while they’re at home and ask them a bunch of questions…but it’s not the same.

At Sonos, we were building more than a product, we were on a mission to change the way people listened to music. As I write this I’m listening to a Sonos Play:5 on my desk (sure it’s overkill but it’s awesome), and when I have dinner I’ll move into the living room and the Playbar move center stage. Tonight, I’ll go to bed listening to an audiobook on the Sonos One, and I’ll wake up tomorrow and make breakfast while rocking out to Sonos.

What is so magical about this is that I’m not alone, I’m just one of many Sonos customers around the world that have integrated Sonos into our daily life.Not a day goes by that I don’t think, fuck — we did it, we changed the way people listen to music, and now you know a little bit more about how we did it.

If you liked this article please give it as many darn claps as you can. I’ve had a lot of hesitations about sharing more of my journey at Sonos and as a founder on Medium…but this year I told myself it was time to get over that and just write, so I’m doing it.

But those claps mean a lot and will keep more articles like this coming 👏

Thanks for reading 🙏

co-founder at Bold Metrics| previously at Sonos | I write a lot and take way too many photos