Craig Hubbell first became aware of Tectonic Audio Labs when he was the CEO of PlayNetwork, the company that provides in-store music and entertainment for retail, restaurant and hospitality environments.
Not long after he retired from PlayNetwork, helping it grow 10-fold in revenue, Hubbell was recruited by Tectonic’s board to help take the audio technology company to the next level as CEO. “At PlayNetwork, it was all about technology in art….at Tectonic, it’s really how science supports the art. We’re hyper-focused on how humans interact with technology through voice sound in music.”
The company uses unique bending wave technology for its enterprise audio equipment, which differs from traditional speakers that rely on pistonic vibrations of cone diaphragms. The approach was originally created by the British Ministry of Defense to minimize the sound in cockpits. Eventually the technology was sold off to Tectonic Audio Labs, which hired mathematicians and physicists to leverage the bending wave concept for commercial use.
Hubbell talked with Chief Executive about the challenges of reeducating the buying public on audio technology, how the company recruits for talent and more. Below are excerpts from this conversation.
What are the biggest challenges you face as the CEO of Tectonic Audio Labs?
We have to reeducate the market first. You have to convince people that the technology actually works. And so for us, that’s very scientific, right? We have to bring data to the table. We have to demonstrate that the technology produces a better performance than the traditional audio speaker. And sort of once you get through that educational process, the next hurdle is [proving it to the customer]. They want to hear it. I want to hear it not only in a sample device, but I want to hear it in the product that I’m going to create. And so we spend a lot of time right now designing in our transducers and our speakers into products that are in market or are going to be brought to market so that the individuals that are working on those products can actually hear the difference directly.
What we have found is that when you hear the experience, you become a believer and that really opens the door for us to then maximize the opportunity. That’s really what we’re attempting to do in the market today is to bring that education forward faster to get people to buy into the technology at a scientific and database level. And then once we have them on the hook, what we’re really attempting to do is then begin to utilize them in products that they’re going to push to market that are both voice enabled as well as sort of traditional speaker type applications. And the great news is we’re seeing huge momentum in that area of the business.
There are a lot of applications that our technology is being considered for. Smart speakers are obvious and make all the sense in the world. Portable speakers and soundbars. Of course. Those are easy jumps to make. But then you start diving into home appliances, musical instruments, headsets, electric vehicles looking for replacements to the traditional speaker in cars. We have commercial truck customers looking into the product. Lots of promise but we remain challenges around that educational component.
What would you say are the biggest industries that Tectonic is focusing on that have the biggest need for this technology?
Each of the core markets that we are chasing are greater than $1 billion of opportunity for us. When you look at smart speakers and IoT connected homes, they are substantially larger than a billion-dollar market and a huge opportunity because the technology fits directly into those types of products. Everything again, from home appliances to the smart speaker application. Unified communications is another growing market opportunity for us, such as teleconferencing systems for conference rooms, board rooms, places where people are trying to communicate worldwide through business communications tools. If you’re sitting around an 18-person conference room where everybody at the conference room has a similar listening experience, there’s a strong value proposition associated with that. And then you move into things like consumer electronics and portable speakers, Bluetooth speakers. Again, same type of equation there. If think about the consumer and commercial marketplaces, we play in both spaces today, and that’s $2.2 billion. Each of these markets are of a significant size and for us, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface and see lots of upside opportunity as we continue to grow and get adoption around the technology.
Tectonic is in Woodinville, Washington—in the Seattle metro area—it’s obviously a competitive market for tech talent when you share a region with Amazon and Microsoft. How do you guys recruit tech talent?
Especially these days, right? I think every company struggles with the ability to get the right type of talent in their organization. We’re extremely lucky for the size of company we are. We have three really strong individuals that bring audio and product expertise to the business. [Chief Technology Officer] Marcello Vercelli, [vice president of engineering] Tim Whitwell and [vice president of operations] Phil Bunch, who have just a tremendous amount of experience in the space. Tim was one of the original scientists that worked on the technology. He is incredibly well versed in what we’re trying to accomplish it and a huge asset to the organization. Because of that sort of high caliber talent and the way that these guys are known in the audio space, we pick up a lot of interest from other audio engineers, simply because they understand who these guys are and what they’ve accomplished in their past.
When you combine that, I think with the uniqueness of the technology, what you see is a lot of people gravitating towards the business once they understand the power of the technology. It’s unique, it’s new, and it gives them something new to play with related to audio technology that really just hasn’t been in the market and known in the market effectively. The other thing that we have done, is we’re hiring a lot of audio engineers directly out of college. So what we’re doing is we’re recruiting into channels where we will hire somebody that graduates. If they’ve got an interest in audio engineering, we will actually educate and train them from the ground up. And what that does for us is it allows us to get quick adoption from them on the technology because the technology is different than traditional audio. We find that that sort of new approach and a fertile ground for knowledge is to some degree a great way for us to develop talent. By investing in those young engineers, what we’re doing is building our own home team. And that’s been highly effective for us.