Sonos, founded in 2002 by John MacFarlane, Trung Mai, Thomas Cullen, and Craig Shelburne in Santa Barbara, California, created the first high-end wireless speaker for the home. Its first product took three years to develop. MacFarlane explains how Sonos stayed the course as a crucial deadline whizzed past without a product release.
--As told to Will Yakowicz
When we were readying our first product, we planned to release it in the fourth quarter of 2004. We had decided, after working with our target consumer, that our products wouldn’t be like most consumer electronic devices. Typically, the day you bring one of them home is the best day, and then it gets progressively worse from that point on.
We wanted a product that got better with time, and that was the challenge to the team. It was hard to do, so we couldn’t go to market fast.
When we got to our 2004 deadline, the product hadn’t reached the quality level we wanted. We didn’t ship until March 2005. At first, we thought it was a huge loss to miss the holiday season, but holding off our first product until it was ready, especially a high-end piece for the home, actually was better.
The advice guiding this decision is among the best I’d give anybody: Settle on what your product priorities are and stick to them. Our priority was what we call “right product.” That means quality. Next was “time to market,” then cost. You can’t have all three as your top priority, and you have to decide their order of importance.
A lot of companies will prioritize time to market. Samsung, for example, has a cadence it wants to keep, so its first priority is time to market. Therefore, right product is going to slip down that list. Having these discussions about priority before you go into development helps you through a long product delay, especially for your first product, because if everybody’s on that page before you are in that scenario, it’s still hard, but it’s a lot easier to get through it. Also, it doesn’t look like your decision to hold the product is arbitrary. It looks like you’re just being true to your intent. So it was tough, but everybody had signed up to it.
We were explicit about making priority calls, because there is a lot of pressure [to ship on time]. When you stick to priorities, those priorities filter through your values and start guiding company behavior. The company becomes more disciplined, and team members hold one another accountable for upholding those values.