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Sonos CEO on the lessons from the rise and fall of BlackBerry

On the latest episode of ‘Most Innovative Companies,’ Sonos CEO Patrick Spence shares lessons he learned from 14 years of building BlackBerry.

Sonos CEO on the lessons from the rise and fall of BlackBerry
[Photos: Sonos]

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Complacency can be a company’s downfall, says Sonos CEO Patrick Spence. “There are some people who are explorers, versus those who are builders, who incrementally make the products better and better—and you need to have both in your organization,” he says. “You need to protect the exploration efforts. I spend a lot of time protecting those innovation efforts at Sonos.”

On this week’s Most Innovative Companies podcast, Spence details why organizations should embrace innovation even when they don’t need to. “I have the experience of having lived through, and put my blood, sweat, and tears into 14 years of building BlackBerry and seeing what happens when you’re not continuing to push yourself outside your comfort zone,” Spence says.

“You have to be mindful and you have to be aware of what’s happening in the competitive dynamic, but you also have to be careful not to just react,” he says. “You have to know who you are, what customers you’re serving, where your strengths are, and play against that.”

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That’s the proactive energy he’s brought to Sonos since 2012, now a $2.5 billion public company—including a willingness to consistently embrace discomfort and “get out of the house,” launching new products and pursuing collaborations with brands like Audi and Ikea, which, as he puts it, made people at Sonos “internally uncomfortable.”

Every innovator faces the same dilemma—knowing when to change and push forward versus staying the course. When finances are good or it looks as though easy times lie ahead, it often feels more comfortable to avoid what might seem like “unnecessary” innovation.

Spence began his career at what he calls a “small Canadian company” called Rim, and over the course of 14 years was part of the team that launched the BlackBerry and built an $80 billion global business that employed 17,000 people. Fast-forward to today, however, and all of that is gone.

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“We started to rest on our laurels to some degree,” Spence says. Both the brand and the business were strong, but BlackBerry got caught up in trying to compete with products from a hardware standpoint—including launching its first touchscreen product, the Storm—and then later hesitated when it came to going wide with its software, choosing to keep BlackBerry Messenger proprietary.

“We ran into a classic innovator’s dilemma, where half the company wanted to keep BlackBerry Messenger proprietary to sell more hardware, and the other half recognized that no, this is an opportunity to pivot and become the standard and leader in instant messaging and communication,” Spence says.

His experience at BlackBerry clearly informed much of what he is doing at Sonos, and is the reason why—even as Sonos has successfully positioned itself as the leading at-home audio experience company—he is now pushing for further innovation.

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Listen to the episode for the full interview.

You can listen and subscribe to Most Innovative Companies on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

James Vincent is the guest host of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies podcast. He is also a partner and CEO of FNDR, where he has helped founders of some of the world’s biggest companies, including Airbnb and Snap, use the power of narrative to give voice to their vision. Before FNDR and for more than a decade, Vincent worked alongside Steve Jobs building Apple’s narrative.
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