Cloud-based music players such as Spotify are the future of music consumption, and it wants to complement that with quality audio hardware
Shenzhen and Dallas-based hardware startup Sugr isn’t just in the business of delivering high-quality audio in a small cube, it wants to — in Sugr CEO Sean Song’s own words — deliver a “sweet life experience”, hence the name, Sugr. Whether or not he took inspiration from The Archie’s hit single “Sugar, Sugar“, that is entirely up to you to speculate.
Its Sugr Cube product is yet another IoT graduate from Kickstarter, raising US$59,680 from 414 backers. The cube-shaped, palm-sized audio speaker has one feature that differentiates itself from most other miniature speakers in the market — lack of a Bluetooth function.
What it does, instead, is that it syncs to your smartphone via Wi-Fi, and connects to leading cloud-based music subscription service Spotify or online radio channels to play your desired songs.
But is that necessarily a good thing? Wi-Fi connections can get wonky, while Bluetooth seems to be more stable. In addition, it’s more easily available since it’s embedded into your smartphone. So why the exclusion?
“I was in a meeting one day, and there was a Bluetooth speaker on the table. My phone accidentally connected to it and played some of my personal voice messages, it was an awkward situation,” says Song in an interview with e27.
Red-faced and flustered from that experience, Song stomped out of the office, and sought to create a new kind of portable smartphone speaker — OK, the first part was made up, but he did create a new speaker.
“I wanted to make a speaker that would not interfere with your calls, messages or emails,” he says.
Song explains that in a conventional Bluetooth speaker and smartphone relationship, the phone is the “master” while the speaker is the “slave”. So any audio the phone plays will automatically be outputted to the speaker. In Sugr Cube’s case, the speaker is the master, while the phone is the slave.
“The phone will act as a remote control. Only the music that you want to play will be played on the player. Messages, phone calls and emails will not interrupt your music experience,” he says.
Song is not ruling out implementing Bluetooth, however, since many of Sugr’s retailers, business partners and customers have requested it.
He does point out that Sugr Cube can still function in an offline environment, as long you sync music to its 4GB internal flash storage.
Getting the right material
The path from conception to production was gruelling, and Song says he and his team almost gave up. Twice.
“We are a small team and did the electrical and software work ourselves. But building the wood case [that houses the speaker], that is a whole other product,” he says.
The Sugr team spent over five months searching for the right partner. Many rejected Sugr’s idea because it was either too difficult to mass produce or commercially unviable. Song considered pivoting to a simpler and cheaper solution such as plastic, but he chose to persevere.
Song says that the wood also had to be tested to make sure it could survive high humidity conditions. They eventually found the right wood supplier in December 2014.
Looking at it now, the effort seemed to have paid off.
Despite its size, Sugr Cube, with its one-piece sturdy wood casing, looks like it could have been bought in an audiophile shop. What is also interesting is how Sugr Cube’s controls are seamlessly embedded into the wood casing. There are no buttons or labels; you tilt the speaker to left or right to change tracks, or tap the top of the speaker to play or stop the track.
Other challenges faced
Besides getting the right casing, Sugr also faced challenges beyond the development process.
“We wanted to go global, but didn’t do enough research. We got FCC ratings needed for the US market but when we wanted to enter Japan and Singapore, we didn’t obtain the necessary certification. That took a long time to get,” says Song.
Since Sugr’s team consisted of mostly engineers, it also faced hurdles carrying out effective marketing strategies.
“If we were just a solution provider or technology provider, we might not need marketing tools. But since we have to face consumers, it is important to strategise and hire external help,”says Song.
Even during the development and engineering process, this advice might still apply, as one might not have all the necessary technical expertise.
“As a team, you need to find out which parts you can work on your own and which parts you should leverage on external resources. For example, open source software or other solutions,” he adds.
Currently, Sugr is working on a new iteration of Sugr Cube. It is also toying with the idea of making vertical speakers, or rather, speakers that project sound only to the group of people within its designated range.
Expanding to the US has helped Sugr a lot, Song says, by letting it leverage on the Kickstarter platform to receive funds. Besides that, Sugr also raised US$500,000 of seed funding from early stage VC ZhenFund.
Song is also bullish on the US IoT market.
“The US IoT market is more mature than Shenzhen. The Wi-Fi networks there are more stable and most consumers there use it. But Shenzhen is a young city with young people who are willing to try new products. So that’s an advantage,” he says.
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