Portrait of a Startup: Slim Devices

Like its devices, network digital music device maker Slim Devices is moving up in the world. The company has just moved to slick new digs in Mountain View, right next to AOL and VeriSign. Though not exactly Fifth Avenue, it’s a definite upgrade from their last office, two miles north in an industrial area tucked under Highway 85.

Last week I spent an afternoon with the company whose Squeezebox devices have attained near cult status amongst music fans with a DIY inclination. Leaning back in one of the company’s two fancy new leather chairs (though there were three of us in the room, so one guy had to stand), I was one of the first outsiders to take in the company’s newest device, the $2000 Transporter, a fully geeked-out network music machine. (The New York Times is running a snippet on it today.) Dolly Parton and Beyonce never sounded so good. And no, they were not singing a duet.

Slim Devices is like that: some parts awkward, some parts polished. It’s perhaps too trusting of its self-tuned ear for innovation, but at the same time unusually eager for feedback. If it sounds familiar, you might remember our posts on Slim Devices’ main product, the Squeezebox, a cheaper ($250 to $300) network audio player that Om has raved about a couple times.

The company is not so boring either. Operated almost entirely in the Valley, Slim Devices is profitable on a sliver of seed funding, and set to do $10 million in sales this year. Led by a 27-year-old CEO, Sean Adams, with little-to-no senior management, the company employs only six engineers, and 20 more employees to take care of assembling the product and answering customer calls. It has open-sourced its software, with outside enthusiasts/developers dreaming up plug-ins that are quickly made into core features.

And that is what has made Slim Devices so special – its ability to foster a community, and then harness their enthusiasm. Om had written about them putting the customer in charge for Business 2.0. Slim chief technology officer Dean Blackketter told the magazine, “The more we open up to our community … the more it helps us.” You can see that in the number of people writing hacks for their SlimServer music software.
Squeezebox started as a garage project of Adams in about 2000, right after he sold his first startup, an ISP. He had dropped out of college, lost most of his newfound riches in the stock market, and had to take a day job.

After a Slashdot post (which linked to the above picture of the not-yet-21 Adams soldering one of the devices in the close vicinity of a beer) brought in 30,000 visitors to the company website in two hours, and a good number of pre-orders, Adams quit his coding gig and charged would-be-customers’ credit cards in advance to buy parts to make products for them.

Over the last five years Adams has formed a company around the product, employing a group of his friends and coffee shop buddies. In the last year the company has become higher profile, hiring a pro designer to make Squeezebox pretty, pushing European distribution, and winning praise from David Pogue. Just under 50,000 Squeezeboxes are installed around the world, sold in large part through direct orders off Slim Devices’ web site.

Though the audiophile demo was nice, the coolest part of my visit was a tour around the company. The diversity of tasks — from guys assembling and packing and shipping Squeezeboxes in a back room — to Adams in his lab, highly reminiscent of his underage-drinking self

— to customer service reps wandering around with headsets on — is mighty impressive. “It gives us complete control over the whole experience,” says Adams. The utopia probably can’t last for long – the company knows it needs to go mainstream. (Maybe not Best Buy yet, but possibly Magnolia, says Patrick Cosson, who heads up sales and marketing.)

Back at home in San Francisco, setting up my tester Squeezebox felt more like feeling around in the dark than I might have hoped. The manual seemed to be quite a few versions behind the latest build. But the device has worked smoothly so far, and it sure looks pretty. If you’re going to pick a little guy to root for, Slim Devices would be a good one.