Last week I was invited to visit Bose Headquarters in Boston to speak with their Emerging Business department. Here's what I learned.
Bose as we know it
When most consumers think of Bose, they think headphones or bluetooth speakers, maybe even their mom's Chevy Suburban from high school with the Bose system built in.
When most professionals think of the Bose Corporation, they think industrial powerhouse. A corporate giant responsible for completely commercializing devices like noise cancelation, quiet comfort technology, all the while making boat loads of money. Bose is the company that made the sound equipment retail stand sexy.
Many professionals don't buy into the Bose sound, claiming it to be nothing more than a $100 speaker with a $300 price tag. Bose also has the reputation of squashing competitors. I've heard horror stories about them finding small startups interested in noise cancelation and then burying them with paperwork and legal fees, effectively putting them out of business. Bose does not own noise cancellation, but you'd think they did with all of their patents and lawyers.
Bose as I knew it
I have also had my share of Bose skepticism. Their aggressive marketing has often rubbed me the wrong way. There are so many incredible products out there, yet its abundant advertising and promotional presence combined with the fact that you'll find a Bose speaker in almost every sound retail location across the US, I've been led to wonder: how much money are they putting into selling their product, and how much money are they putting into making it?
Bose as we should all know it
My visit last week showed me a completely different side to Bose. That of its founder.
You may have never even heard his name before (and he would want it that way), but Amar Bose was the real deal.
Until last week I hadn't known of an entrepreneur whose passion for sound ran as deeply as mine. Amar Bose is the quintessence of innovation and not only in the world of sound. Bose has made breakthroughs in a remarkably broad range of disciplines, including acoustics, aviation, defense, even nuclear physics. One goal was to bring high quality audio to consumers, which he accomplished. What's even more impressive is the unconventional way he got there:
Away from the spotlight
Easily, he could have been seen as the Steve Jobs of sound. A true visionary, responsible for innovative products like noise cancelation software and sub compact speakers, Bose cared deeply about sound. The spotlight's glow, however, held no romance for him. Instead, he was always looking to the future and felt his products would speak louder than a keynote.
A strong relationship with MIT
Amar received his undergraduate degree at MIT and eventually taught electrical engineering and computer science there for over 40 years. In a popular science interview from 2004 he says "Teaching has never been a priority at MIT; it's mostly lip service. With a few very notable exceptions, the priorities are writing papers and making tenure. There were professors who had an enormous influence on me, but it wasn't in the subjects they taught. The benefit came through conversations in which they conveyed their way of thinking. That was what I wanted to give to my students: I wanted to teach thought, not formulas." Even when he was running the business, he remained a professor until 2001. He leveraged a community of like-minded engineers and makers to drive innovation. And he did it all from his backyard.
Bose is a privately held organization
Surprising, right? All those super bowl spots and retail stands were created not by a publicly traded corporation but by a privately held company? Staying private allowed Bose to maintain control over his innovations and the individuals that he knew would be pivotal to his company's success. In that same interview from 2004, he states that most of the profits on the company's estimated sales of $1.7 billion are plowed back into research. "One of the best decisions I ever made was keeping the company privately held, so we can take short-term pain for long-term gain," he says. "Public companies have to look good every 90 days to please the markets."
As of 2014, MIT owns Bose
Perhaps one of the most impressive facts about Bose is that when Amar passed away in 2013, he left the majority of his company to MIT. Now, Bose retains just enough to maintain its business, while all of its profits go to MIT. Like a true visionary, Amar was always looking to the future and this decision to put Bose in the hands of MIT is evidence of that. "I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs. But I never went into business to make money. I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn't been done before."
He trusted his employees
The first 15 seconds of the video above explains it all. The man would show as much excitement over an employee's invention as he would his own. He trusted his employees to make, he didn't desire complete control. He was more concerned with thought than formula and this spirit rings true in every Bose employee I met.
All of this I learned during my recent visit to Bose and I was blown away that I hadn't known it before. Here was a scientist and a visionary concerned with one thing and one thing only: constant innovation. Whether it be acoustics, shock absorption, or coal driven power, every day, Amar Bose woke up and saw that his business was thriving, which in turn allowed him to continue his own research and development. Noise cancelation took 17 years of R&D to master. The Bose Wave radio, 14 years. As an inventor myself, if I were given 17 years of funding to develop noise cancelation, I'd have full faith in the MBAs too.
Was I wrong to be skeptical about the Bose Corporation? They run their business in an aggressive way, filled with marketing, patent attorneys, sponsorships, etc. I am struck by how Bose handled the business and research aspects of his company, and to what success. He knew that experience of donning those quiet comfort headphones and switching on the noise canceling button would be more emphatic than any billboard. Still, the balance he found, the careful integration of each field and the resulting Bose business model was a driving force in that success.
From One Ear To Another,