This week on Product Love, I sat down with Brendon Stead, the SVP of Product and Engineering at Sound United. Brendon has spent his career delighting consumers by delivering world-class, audio-visual components in product management and development roles.
On this episode, we discussed alignment, and what qualities make a strong product manager.
Speaker 1: Hey there product lovers. Welcome to the Product Love Podcast, hosted by Eric Boduch, co- founder and chief evangelist of Pendo and super fan of all things product. Product Love is the place for real insights into the world of crafting products as Eric interviews, founders, product leaders, venture capitalists, authors and more. So let's dive in now with today's Product Love Podcast.
Eric Boduch: So welcome to Product Today. I'm with Brendan Stead who's the senior vice president of product development and engineering at Sound United. Brendan, why don't you give us a little background to kick us off?
Brendon Stead: Sure. I'll start at the beginning. I was born in what's now called Zimbabwe as about fifth generation there. And interestingly, one of my grandfathers was a Finnish carpenter who built loudspeakers. I didn't know when I was a teenager that I'd end up in this business. We moved to the U. S. in high school, graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in physics and somehow found my way into an audio company which you guys would know as Logitech or Ultimate Ears. Then I did a small stint, about 15 years at Harmon. I left there to lead the Altec Lansing business. Ultimately we sold Altec Lansing technology to inaudible where I joined. And then we were acquired by Sound United four years ago in February. So that's kind of how I got here.
Eric Boduch: Talk to me about how you got into product management.
Brendon Stead: So I started off in hardcore engineering, but really enjoyed the process of defining how products were competitive. And I think the first thing I did was some industrial design surveys where we had, I think, six different designs done by Ziba design in Portland. And then I took them to high schools and middle schools and colleges, and we did user surveys. And then I fell in love with the whole idea of working with consumers to make stuff that they want. So that started me in that direction. And then it'd be very heavily involved in the product planning sessions and then ultimately became a product guy. And then at Harmon, the product management team reported into me for the entire duration that I was there. And that's been a common theme through my career is having the product development piece, which is product management and engineering all within my team.
Eric Boduch: So, tell me about your time now at Sound United. What current problems are you solving? What teams do you currently oversee there?
Brendon Stead: So I'll start off with the team. So we have roughly 400 engineers around the globe and included when I say, I mean, product developers. So 400 product developers. So in there we have product managers, we have all the UX things like ID in UX and what have you, we have program management office, and then we have the bunch of hardware guys and a bunch of software guys. So we're roughly half and a half hardware software. Now, it's a new connected streaming world software becoming increasingly more important to our business. And like I said, these teams spend the globe. We also have a collection of some of the finest acoustical engineering talent and electrical engineering talent as it relates to high- five audio. And so that's the group that we manage. For us, in audio the key is to figure out where the school of fish is going, right? So think about it done on made 110 years ago. Gramophones and you know, it's a good thing. They figured out how to make long play records and then cassette decks and CD players and et cetera, et cetera. And so for us, looking at future use patterns around how consumers will interact with our products is going to be critical for us to catch that next school of fish as it goes by. So trying to figure out who they are and how people age into our product categories, because they're higher end, but there's some young folks like my kids for example, will never have cable running through their house. So how are we going to get audio video signals and then provide playback for them in the right way? So that's a long- term thing that we're working on in the short term, but it's basically just getting all the streaming services integrated in the context of current wifi and ethernet networks.
Eric Boduch: Talk to me about how streaming has changed industry as a product person. It's always been interesting watching the evolution of the music industry as someone who grew up passionate about music and passionate about products, specifically software. In my case, it's been interesting to watch how that industry has changed.
Brendon Stead: Yeah. I just go through the last evolution. So we had the iPod docking thing, which was huge, right? So, businesses went from zero to a million overnight and then that petered out and was replaced by Bluetooth. And now wifi is taking over and wifi allows the products themselves to connect directly to services as opposed to having to go through another smart device. So that provides all interesting information and data on use patterns that is helpful for us to improve our products. Now, as we look forward, we anticipate that 5g will further impact streaming and making it more ubiquitous, not just in the context of your own network. Now, how do you see 5g impacting it? Well, some folks in urban areas don't have wifi routers. They just have devices that connect directly to 5g. So the 5g network is their network so that wherever they go, they don't have to like create a new login or something to get access to their content. It's just, it's there on the greater network.
Eric Boduch: Interesting. And now you talked about some of these moves, as we get more and more bandwidth, is that going to mean we're going to see more high fidelity services too, like I'm a user of title, right. I get the high fidelity music. Do you see that as a trend in direction where that becomes standard or is it not that important to an average consumer?
Brendon Stead: I am very hopeful that we'll see higher fidelity. So, 5g has so much bandwidth than audio even in the higher bit rates. But, that isn't really that big compared to some other files like video, for example. So I'm really bullish that that's going to be something that happens. And we, as high- end performance companies where we sell$ 35,000 pairs of loudspeakers and$10, 000 amps, you can hear the difference and we want access to the content. And today it's quite difficult as a user to actually find really good high resolution content and being able to have a music service come out. We're so guaranteed and being uncertified would be really cool.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, definitely. We made the jump into some nice speakers and a nice amp system too. So finally made that leap and I had a tough time selling it to my wife because she was looking at the cabling, the size of the speakers, all that kind of stuff. And she was like aesthetically concerned about it, but then she heard the music and sat down for three hours and just loved what the output was. So I do, hopefully we keep improving the bar so to speak that we can get from streaming services. I'm curious, you talked a little bit about your teams. What does it look like at your business as far as the ratio between product managers, to engineers, to designers, to audio engineers?
Brendon Stead: Yeah. So from a product perspective. So, the way we're structured right now is we have product planners that live within the brand and set the overall direction. And then we have the product guys that are category experts. There's a guy in charge of audio, video receivers, for example. And he will provide services to all of the brands that need an audio video receiver. And then we also have regional product managers that represent that region. So the number is pretty good. So we've probably got 20 or 30 people involved in the planning process out of the 400 or so that we have. And then in terms of UX, we're pretty heavy there because we, in our UX, we have not only the apps and the onscreen displays that we do for the TVs and that are rendered, but we also have to do a lot of technical spec writing to make everything work. So those are all a big part of that team. So probably got 15 to 20 folks in a UX and ID working on that every day.
Eric Boduch: Okay. Quite a few teams you're working through alignment, is that a challenge?
Brendon Stead: It is a challenge. So the reason that we have so many different teams is largely because we've grown not only organically, but through acquisition. So you may have seen, we recently purchased Bowers and Wilkins. And so we're in the process of the post- merger integration there. So every time we bring in a new company that requires new alignment and figuring out best practices and what have you. So the things that we rely on is we have a very good annual operating calendar where specific activities have to occur to support our business plans. And that's done with everybody involved. So that's a unifying, a cadence that keeps us together. And then we have a very detailed product development process. So once we've defined what to do now, we don't have friction that's just automatic. We call it the well- oiled machine, the parts where every business that I've been a part of struggles is going from a basic one line concept to an actual product definition. And that's where we have the most amount of friction between folks. And a lot of that has to do with opinions on how things look or how they should sound or what features should be determined. So ultimately, if there is, we're tend to be a very collaborative culture and we have a lot of consensus, but like anything there's going to be five or 10% of things that there isn't full bombarded consensus. So then we agree to disagree and then the guy that's approved to make a decision takes it and we support him. And so right now, the brand leader, if it's saying industrial designers, CMF called material finished issue, and we can't agree in the end, it's the brand presidents job to make those decisions. But obviously, standing on the shoulders of the advice of the experts that he has in the business.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, yeah. Now you've talked about a lot of different product lines, right? I wanted to jump back into that because the business is diverse. How do you manage and position the different product lines? How much effort goes into that? Because a lot of companies, especially in software and tech, they're often one product companies or maybe derivations of a single product, but you guys have a number of different products spread across different parts of the audio industry, but then also different price points too. So how do you guys think about that portfolio?
Brendon Stead: Well, so I'll just name the category. So we have those, so audio, video receivers, Hi- Fi, a Hi- Fi would be high in amplifiers, turntables, et cetera. Then we have obviously loudspeakers and we call them component loudspeakers. Then we have soundbars, headphones, wifi speakers, Bluetooth speakers, and many systems. So many systems are the, you remember the old executive desktop systems from the past, those are still very strong in Asia and Europe. So it's like a three piece system with a CD player and a tuner and a pair of speakers. So those are the categories that we live in. And then when we look at brands, we try to buy brands that operate at different price points than the ones that we currently own. So for example, Bowers and Wilkins is very high end loud speakers and nothing in the definitive technology or Polk really has brand rights to play in those price points. It'd be a lot of market development to earn the right to be there. And if you can buy a company like Bowers and Wilkins, then it's easy to just get that. Now what happens... And so that's in an acquisition mode, in an operating mode, any good brand president's going to want everything. And so life's about as a world of choices. And so a lot of times the brand presidents will want to go after the same fish. Not necessarily the same school of fish, but the same exact fish. And then you need to find a way to broker that. So the brand presidents all report into this, the COO and it's his job to manage the portfolio and keep the brands, ask the right questions around where the brands are going you up, what right do they have to play where? And so it's ultimately to his accountability and the brand leaders are trying to maximize their own PNLs.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, yeah. But, at the same time you want, like if I'm going out and looking for a new system based upon my level of education expertise, budget there should be just probably a small number of brands to choose between. As opposed to this issue of too much choice where I don't know where to start, what to buy, where to go because of brand overlap. So do you manage closely to that trying to have relatively clear cut distinctions for consumers to understand where they would want to go between the different brand offerings. Is that accurate? Or am I reading into it too much?
Brendon Stead: Well, we talk about that a lot and I don't think we've perfected it. And we improve in that regard every year, but our view is to do fewer things that are bigger. That's the direction that we want to drive.
Eric Boduch: Got it. Now, you were talking about where the fish are going. I'm kind of curious, right. We talked about 5g and the impact where 5g could become the wifi network in a lot of scenarios. And you talked about wanting to build product to where fish are going. Can you share some thoughts on where you think fish are going?
Brendon Stead: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that there's three areas that generally drive change in the audio video business. So it's the content format itself. So I referred to that earlier with the gramophone, filament tape, and CD. And so what is the content format? So I think that Piras, as we touched on, is going to happen and that's going to enable a bunch of business. The other areas that we're changes come from is how you control the products. So the first products we had, you'd have to physically walk up, put on the gramophone, dropped a needle, and then winded up and let it go. And then all the buttons on the front where you could just hit play. And then we had a remote control and we had a Bluetooth remote control. And then we did the whole universal remotes and then apps. And now we're in the world of voice. And I think in that area, some multimodal control is going to come into play. So voice is really good to talk to things where you know what they can do and what you want them to do. But voice is not really good for discoveries. Then having lists or icons is way better for discovery. So, being able to swipe through the display and see all the songs that you have in that library and then say, play this one in the living room, use both of your hands and your voice. That's we think there's going to be some interesting control applications there. And then the other one has to do with the physical interfaces, the most recent new physical interface that we launched is HDMI 2.1. So that brings a lot of cool stuff, including AK resolutions, but it's way more than just AK. So that's a physical hardware change to put in a new transport. So if you buy an AK TV, our AVR is not ready to go with the interface so that you can get the content from the AVR to the TV. So that's beyond AK, we're talking about 16K in the future of the standards committees that come in, so the content will get even prettier and prettier. So that's what we're seeing right now.
Eric Boduch: Interesting. Now, let's come back to your time at Harmon. You were a VP of product engineering there. I'm curious how you see product versus engineering and whether in your industry, in particular, you feel like product managers should have a technical background.
Brendon Stead: So I think it's very helpful if they do, but not necessarily a requirement. So in one of our product guys actually came from our training department and he's been out in the world training for years, how to sell our products versus the competition and he's just a freaking industry expert. And while he's an enthusiast, he doesn't necessarily have the technical background. And he's a very effective product manager. And we have engineering leads by category as well. So the product manager has a lot of support. So the product managers themselves doesn't have to do a lot of technical work. They just basically work with the engineering leads to figure out if it's something that we can actually achieve, or if it's a flying carpet.
Eric Boduch: So what skills make a great product manager in your industry? How do you test for that in interviews?
Brendon Stead: Yeah, that's a good question. So I think communication is probably the most important and also business acumen and being able to communicate to the decision makers within the company, what investments need to be made. What does the ROI look like over what period and what do you have to believe to believe that to be true and basically convince management to make major investments in products that if you can't do that, you can never going to get anything off of the ground. So they're able to do that. Well, you have to be an expert in your markets and channels, and you need to have very clear, simple descriptions of why those channels and markets are going to actually buy the products and who the consumers are and what's driving their behavior. So being able to come up with a portfolio that has clear differentiation from the competition and our other internal brands, under an identification of the consumer, all tied to financial analysis, this is, Hey, this is a great investment. How you interview for that? You can ask someone to build a business case that's pretty straightforward. Ask them what an MPV and ROI and IRR, what the differences are in those financial ratios and get a sense of, if they've lived in the financial world. Then with respect to a market, if you know the market well, and you have a former product manager that has participated in that market, I would certainly encourage that person to be part of the interview panel to get an assessment of the depth of market knowledge of program manager.
Eric Boduch: Let's talk a little bit about how COVID is expected things, right. Managing a global product team during COVID- 19 couldn't have been easy. I know we've gotten... I come from a company that's mostly, well, it's all software, so that in some ways it's easier, but obviously you're not just software, there's a lot of hardware components that adds a huge amount of complexity. Talk to me about how you approached continuing the business, continuing to build products during COVID what your strategy was.
Brendon Stead: Sure. Well, one of the advantages we had was all of the multi- sites, I've got 16 different cities with engineering teams in them on every time zone on the planet. And so we work, we have essentially been working remotely for the last 10 years. So we're used to Zoom or Skype or bring inaudible. Prior to COVID I would be doing four or five of those video calls a day. So we were pretty well trained for using video. The hard part has been my inability to travel. So part of how I kept everyone together was I was on the road all the time, then visiting all of the sites or many sites as I could. And having senior managers meet in certain locations to keep the human connections together. So I think one of the things we observed earlier on was that people handled COVID totally different and it has to do with a number of things. Like, for example, for me, I'm used to working remotely because I'm always all over the world. I have a nice home with a private office, so it can be quiet. I have a nice backyard where I can go relax if I need to. And things are pretty good. At the other end of the extreme, we have folks that are in a two bedroom apartment with the toddler and it's very, very stressful for them. So what I'm referring to is not only do we have to run the business, but we have to work much harder assessing where people were at from like a mental health point of view. And then coming up with a matrix of how we would restart our offices. So just at a high level software folks, all they need is an internet connection to the PC, right? So they can work from home, a guy that's going to go use the anechoic chamber to measure the frequency response to the speaker has to be in the lab. In most cases, technicians or people that are actually building prototypes or assembling PCBs, they needed lab space. So all the way through the breakdown, we came up with protocols and scheduling and appointments where people could go in and do specific evaluations or specific jobs at a hardware level. And then we have the range in between. For us, we didn't really miss a beat in terms of getting our jobs done. But what we found is that when we did surveys of folks people were maybe stressed and frustrated. And I think what we observed is that the Zoom calls, the video calls are very transactional. And you miss out on that little snippets of time, like when you're forming a meeting and people are coming together and you're like, Hey dude, I haven't seen you in a while. How's things going, how's your weekend, that kind of a deal. So are like little chit chatty human interfaces were completely gone because slamming into one video call after the next. So we started to do a daily water cooler. This was the way in the beginning where we just get everyone on the phone and they can make it in the time zone and just chat no agenda. And which is very unusual for my team because we're so driven by agendas and processes. So by and large, I'd say that we've done okay. We've had some instances where we've had folks given them permission to work in the offices due to hardship like if you've got a screaming toddler and you're trying to have a conference call, we make conference rooms available for folks, but we've been very careful with the following the local legislation or rules or directions in terms of how we handle safety. And I would say, I feel like as a company we've done quite well in that regard, but it's getting to be the end. And I think it's not going to... It can't last forever, we need to get back in the offices and back to the ways of working in the future.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, no, I'm definitely desperate for some normalcy. You talked about one thing that at the beginning of COVID, I don't... There's a lot of concern about getting people productive, getting them up and running in the remote environments and you guys had a head start versus some other companies there. But, I think something that people overlooked was just the mental health aspects, especially when work life gets completely blurred. People are probably more productive, but at the same time, some of that productivity probably comes at expense to their mental health. And especially in those environments where you were talking about where small apartment toddlers, what have you, right. There's special circumstances. What have you guys done to try to help out in that area? Have you've done anything in particular. I mean, I do think that that water cooler idea is a great idea of keeping those connections going that are informal, not necessarily agenda driven.
Brendon Stead: Sure. Well, I was fortunate enough to attend a webinar like two months into COVID. This company that we use to assess executive talent they're out of Minneapolis and they called MDA and they had done some extensive surveys of mental health and they had a report out in this webinar. And so that gave me a lot of positive direction. So one of the things they observed is people in my demographic were okay with it because we went through SARS. I had team members get SARS. When I was at harm, you've seen nine 11. We've seen a lot of tragedies and seeing the country or the world economy take a hit, and then we get back on our feet. So this is not our first goat rodeo. And we tend to have a little bit as the older generations, a little bit more financial stability potentially, and maybe a better space. The ones that survey said we're suffering the most were the young generations, who've not experienced the global crisis, don't have a lot of financial stability and is the lack of hardening through going through multiple issues. So I thought it would be the opposite, but I hadn't really paid that much attention. So we were proactive talking to my leaders in the team and saying, we need to go find everybody that we think is in a bad state. And so we proactively went and looked at for folks and it's difficult to ask those questions, but we actually figured out some things where we, I think we really improved folks lives by letting them come into the office simply for a mental health reason that if they were in a bad situation. One of our guys still living at his parents' house and he just needed to get out and get into the office. So we try to do the personal thing. We also try doing happy hours and what we realized just really quickly, was a happy hour after work is just one more video conference like nobody wants to go. So that part didn't work out. And then as a senior leadership team, we from time to time gotten together like at the beach or something just to see each other, where we can sit out in the fresh air and be far apart from each other. But I think that when we're all said and done, and we take the time to think about it, someone should write a book on how to do it better because I think if we all get together and talk about what happened, I think there's ways that we could've done better. And I think mental health is a big part of it. One of the observations that we made is that we were super efficient and we got our work done in the operational side. But in brainstorming and planning, we just sucked on this footprint. So that's the one thing we'd like to understand a little bit more about.
Eric Boduch: Yeah, I can understand that, but it brings up an item I want it to dig into, which is a little bit about product innovation. How do you in normal times instill a drive for innovation in your group, in your companies?
Brendon Stead: Yeah. So good ideas can come from anywhere. And we're working on an innovation process where it makes it really pretty straightforward for anybody to provide us an idea and ideas can come from our suppliers. They come from like our factories and we can see what they're doing. They come from technology partners like Amazon or Intel or Broadcom or something like that. Also we can see out into the industry and see what is going on in terms of the trends, like looking for where the fish are going. And then from time to time, we will hire a consultant firm with fresh eyes to go and do a consumer insight survey to try to challenge what we're doing. So we do that pretty much annually. And then we have the actual experts who are in the category. So we are really, really good at incremental innovation. And so if you look at our market share in our core businesses like ADR, every year we get incrementally better and we know how to do that. And we have a nice business. There was harder for us to find a new school of fish, because that a lot of times your incumbent thinking gets in the way and you have that whole innovator's dilemma. I'm sure you've read the book. So those are the ones who struggle more with, but we tend to get a bit of outside help there to provide ideas. And then a lot of engineers... A lot of great ideas come from the engineering guys where they just make something cool. And they, okay, what do you guys think about this? And some of our greatest products have come out through that route.
Eric Boduch: Cool. The other thing I want to touch on was metrics, from a product standpoint, what data, what metrics do your product managers keep an eye on? What are the important north star metrics? What are the supporting metrics? How do you look at data and metrics in your business?
Brendon Stead: All right. So we think MPS is really the key metric that we track as a business and by brand and by category and it's net promoter score. And then what we try to do is when we talk about our products to say, how do we pull in some of the ambivalent people into being really supporters? And do we need to spend any money finding out what the detractors are saying? So we do a lot of keyword scrubs, not only in the MPS verbatim, but on the consumer online reviews like an Amazon or Crutchfield. And we can find out what's going on, how people are experiencing products and then feed that into the system to make things better. And that's all to drive the ultimate goal, which is to increase the earnings of the company. So the product manager needs to have a couple of different prisms... the facets in the prism that they look into. One is the consumer insights and what the consumer is talking about and what they want. On the other side, he's going to be a businessman because ultimately they're PNL owners and they need to drive profit and loss. And then the third area that they look through is into the actual product development activities themselves like to make sure that those are consistent with driving the NPS growth, achieving the financial goals of the business, and then delivering them on time. And then with respect to the actual product development, the three things that they should care about is cost, schedule, and performance, all of those to be on track, were they communicated correctly, signed off, and do we know that those things are going well?
Eric Boduch: Okay. Well, this has been a lot of fun. I wanted to turn this to a couple of questions about you. What's your favorite product?
Brendon Stead: Well, my favorite product, that's a tough one. I think I'd probably say there's a couple of candidates. I think my favorite one is probably the JBL Creature. So this was a very innovative industrial design that when I showed it to the Harman board, they laughed at it. And ultimately we ended up selling so many of them it was ridiculous. So it was one of those totally radical ideas for old traditional audio company that I had to like burn down the walls, to be able to get the right to ship it. And then ultimately it was a huge financial success.
Eric Boduch: I was just reminding myself of what that looked like. So as I pulled it up on my computer, as you were talking about it, and it was what I was thinking, it very unique look to it.
Brendon Stead: Yeah. That's a story for another time. But, you can imagine me sitting across the table from Sydney Harmon, who was like 93 at the time, and then going this guy's crazy. What is wrong with this guy?
Eric Boduch: Where are you nervous about bringing that product into that room?
Brendon Stead: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Eric Boduch: But, you did anyway.
Brendon Stead: I did it anyway. Yeah. And I guess that's another aspect of product planning is true innovation takes courage. I can always get a sense of when I'm onto something when the organization is all tingling and people are like, that's cool, but I just don't know. Those are the ones that can sometimes be breakthroughs. So that's a great product.
Eric Boduch: So one final question for you today. Three words to describe yourself.
Brendon Stead: Loyal, creative, and committed.
Eric Boduch: Great. Brendan. I had a lot of fun. This was a blast and I hope you had fun.
Brendon Stead: I did, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the opportunity and hope you enjoy the rest of your day.
Eric Boduch: You too.