Sonos Founder MacFarlane Passes The CEO Baton To Spence

As the clamor of competitors nears a 10, Sonos co-founder and CEO John MacFarlane announced in a blog post yesterday that he was turning over leadership to the audio firm’s president, Patrick Spence, after 15 years at the helm.

“There isn’t a person who better embodies Sonos’ values and culture,” MacFarlane writes, while acknowledging that there is a time in a company’s lifecycle when “the culture must move beyond the founder.” 

All this is happening, he observes, as “the smart home is on the cusp of becoming an experience beyond early tech adoption.” 

And therein not only lies the opportunity but also the problem for the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company.

“Since its founding nearly 15 years ago, Sonos has amassed a devoted following among audio enthusiasts for its high-end, Wi-Fi-connected speakers,” writes Aaron Tilley for Forbes. “But now its business is endangered by a new breed of speakers powered by artificial intelligence assistants from the likes of Google and Amazon. They’re starting to eat into the company’s bottom line.”

“Sonos has made a shift to become more competitive in recent months, with UX updates and increased compatibility with music services like Spotify and Apple Music. Even so, MacFarlane announced in a letter last March that the company would be laying off employees, mentioning Amazon/Alexa by name,” reports Brian Heater for TechCrunch.

The Canadian-born Spence was named president in July after serving as chief commercial officer for four years. Before that, he was managing director of Research In Motion, as the company that made BlackBerry devices was known in its heyday. 

“Honored to take the @Sonos reins from my mentor & friend @JohnLMacFarlane. So proud of our team,” Spence tweeted.

“Spence is expected to continue Sonos’ push into music streaming and voice control. MacFarlane said the company will also continue working on home Wi-Fi and partnering with other companies,” writes Dara Kerr for CNET.

Indeed, “in an effort to avoid the disruption faced by his former employer, Mr. Spence said Sonos customers would ‘soon’ be able to play music simply by calling out a request for a particular artist or track, through tie-ups with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s rival Assistant,” Tim Bradshaw writes for the Financial Times.

“It’s really about building that sound platform for the connected home, Spence said, pointing to collaborations with Nest’s smoke alarm and internet-connected doorbells.”

“MacFarlane, 50, has also left the company’s board of directors, though he will remain an employee to help mentor colleagues and work on other projects. He said he left the board so Mr. Spence would not feel like he was always looking over his shoulder,” writes Nick Wingfield in a much-cited piece for the New York Times.

“I don’t want to be that founder who’s always second-guessing,” MacFarlane tells him.

He also told Wingfield he had planned to resign as CEO “earlier, citing his wife’s bout with breast cancer and his aging parents as factors. But last year he delayed his plans when Amazon’s Echo speaker unexpectedly began to eat into sales of Sonos speakers.”

“Sonos specializes in high-quality, multi-room Wi-Fi systems, while the Echo is a single-room Bluetooth speaker built around Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant,” explainsAppleInsider’s Mikey Campbell. “Voice control appears to be a key differentiator, however. While Sonos speakers offer native app-based control for more music services, people can simply ask an Echo to stream a station or song from services like Spotify, Pandora, and Amazon Music.”

“I fell into that trap where I’ve been watching voice recognition for years,” MacFarlane told the NYT’s Wingfield. “I tried Echo in the beginning and wrote it off. I had too many distractions at that time. I wasn’t playing at the level I should have been playing at in all frankness.”

How often do you hear that from a leader?