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Interview: Dennis List, Founder and VP of ROCKI WiFi

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Dennis List - Founder/CEO Rocki

Dennis List – Founder/VP Product and Marketing Rocki

For less than a hundred clams, Rocki will turn your existing speakers into a “smart enabled” wifi setup. After running a successful Kickstarter campaign (raising over $200K in three weeks), Rocki founder and VP of Product and Marketing Dennis List talks about their product, Kickstarter and more.

Can you tell us a bit about the history behind the Rocki?

ROCKI was first conceptualized by founders Nick NM Yap and Dennis List in February 2013 as Project RHM (Revolutionize Home Music). Both Nick and Dennis had earlier been driving forces behind a successful (audio/video) media player hardware brand. At that time everyone’s focus with streaming was on video, and both Nick and Dennis have always felt that music was very overlooked and underdeveloped even though the necessary technology is available.

With a strong background in [the] audio/video streaming industry, Nick and Dennis believed there was much room for development with music and technology. The ROCKI brand name was decided for the obvious music reference, the product shape and because it’s short and zingy so you are unlikely to forget it. A team with extensive experience in media streaming hardware and software was assembled to work in a crowdsourcing manner, each contributing to the project what they are best at.

Instead of developing a wifi speaker which most other companies were doing, we decided to develop products that would enable all speakers to have this Wifi and multi-room feature. The logic behind that is simple: Our aim is to revolutionize home music and if we developed a brand of speakers, it would only apply to a certain group of people in terms of sound / quality / brand image perception. Whereas a product that works with every speaker would address everyone, the entire home audio market including those who already have speakers and don’t want to replace them. It makes sense not only from a vision angle, it certainly also makes a lot of sense from a potential market size angle.

Three foundation criteria was set at the start:

  • Sub-$50 price point, necessary to be a significant mass market product
  • Small and compact so it is a plug-in rather than “yet another box”
  • Scalable and flexible development platform so we could support existing open standards and at the same time develop new ideas on the platform

In August 2013, after having gone through four hardware solutions, the fifth design finally met all of the above criteria. From there we were confident we had a winning product that no one else has managed to do successfully and so we started making plans to bring ROCKI to everyone.

rocki2How do Wi-Fi Speakers compare to Blue-tooth speakers?

To stream music wirelessly, Wifi is in many ways superior to Bluetooth. In a home scenario, Wifi is always connected thus eliminating the need to pair each time before use. Wifi also caters to a multi-room and multi-user scenario to allow a complete and total social experience to enjoying music. And of course, there is the sound quality issue, where Bluetooth was designed for speech and the audio is heavily compressed while Wifi is able to stream even uncompressed formats.

What are the key factors people should use when determining what type of speakers to purchase?

Purchasing speakers is a highly personal choice, that’s why there is such a diversity of speakers in all shapes and sizes, price range, sound quality and design style. First decide on the size of the speakers according to where you expect to use them – in the living room, bedroom, study room, bathroom, kitchen, garden, garage? Or perhaps you expect to bring it around [to different locations] often. The next thing to look at is sound quality which also depends on what type of music you mostly listen to. Classical music, rock and hip hop sound better [on different speakers]. Does the style match your personality and home decor? And finally at the cash register, price is a final factor.

What’s new these days is there’s an additional factor to consider: How easily will I be able to play my music on these speakers? since music these days does not get delivered in one dominant format. Music can be stored on your phone, on your computer or network drive, or in the cloud delivered by a streaming service. And that will continue to evolve. It wouldn’t make sense to have a wonderful set of speakers that wouldn’t play your music, would it?

That’s why we’ve designed and built the ROCKI plug-in, so that you could easily turn any speaker into a Wifi speaker that plays all your digital music. We hope that in the future speakers will be built in a way that they will be able to handle all that and have the ability to keep up with the evolution of music and technology – that’s what ROCKI Inside is seeking to solve for every speaker manufacturer.

Screenshot_2014-03-10-21-58-47smallPurchasing speakers is such a subjective thing. How do you manage the supply chain and refunds?

Indeed, that’s why at ROCKI we are focusing on what we do best, the technology part of playing music, enabling all speakers to play streaming music, instead of producing and selling speakers. There are plenty of speaker brands [that] are very well developed in supply chain and refunds. Purchase the speaker of your choice, and simply purchase a ROCKI plug-in for only $49 and you immediately have a Wifi speaker, even if the original speaker has limited or no wireless capabilities whatsoever. The ROCKI plug-in is designed to be very affordable and compact so it is easy for the supply chain to stock, manage and sell in a mass market way. It’s the ideal cross-sell for any speaker and audio system.

The speaker market is a crowded field. Can you give us a high-level pitch on why we should choose Rocki?

ROCKI works with all speakers (any speakers with an audio-in), so you have the maximum choice selecting one according to your taste in sound quality, budget, and style. Say you are in the market to get yourself a Wifi speaker. Why limit yourself to that handful of Wifi speakers that a couple of brands are producing? You could choose any speakers of your liking and simply plug in ROCKI. And because ROCKI works with all speakers, you could have speakers of different quality, size and budget in different rooms – a high fidelity set in the living room, a decent all-in-one unit in the bedroom, a simple budget one in the kitchen or bathroom, and all of them plugged in with a ROCKI for your very own home music network, playing music everywhere in your home, controlled right from your phone.

I don’t have much luck streaming music over Bluetooth in my house and my Wi-Fi kind of sucks. What kind of bandwidth is required to use your speaker setup?

Wifi signals no matter how weak are stronger than Bluetooth and travel to greater distances, since Wifi was originally designed for networks while Bluetooth is designed for near communication between personal devices (cable replacement of 2 to 3 meters). The bandwidth required for streaming music depends on the music source. Most digital music is stored in 128Kbps to 320Kbps (streaming radio is typically lower). So anything between 0.2 and 0.4 Mbps would be sufficient; even in poor Wifi areas music streams fine. And for drop-outs caused by momentary dips in bandwidth, ROCKI has a built-in buffer so your music will keep on playing.

rockiCan you talk a bit about your Kickstarter campaign? What made you want to go that route, what kind of issues did you run into and how you resolved them, and what kind of advice would you give to other people seeking to start a Kickstarter campaign?

ROCKI has nothing similar to compare with. So it wasn’t easy for traditional financing to understand the market and financial potential. Via Kickstarter, backers are more concerned with what the product means to them, rather than trying to evaluate the financial potential when deciding whether to support ROCKI. With Kickstarter we would be able to raise funds for production and also pitch the question to the world: Would we find supporters for ROCKI to revolutionize home music?

Things rarely run exactly according to plan when launching a startup, especially on Kickstarter. While we initially planned to ship the very first products in December, we’ve had to double up on the software side and even had some hardware improvements to implement before mass production could start.

The key to all this for any Kickstarter project organizer is communication. Don’t drop the ball on keeping your community of early adopters (backers) involved. They are the ones who made it possible for you to materialize your plans, they are the driving force behind your initial marketing efforts and your earliest enthusiasts. Be good with them and they will have your back.

How did you determine the feature set for Rocki? Beyond the WiFi compatibility what would you say is the second or third killer feature of the system?

ROCKI’s major benefit would be the ability to turn any speakers, regardless of the make or model, into a wireless music system that is super easy to use.

What sets ROCKI further apart from any other solution that may come close, is that all music streaming services are to be integrated in the one centralized app (the ROCKI app), so you can search for music and create playlists across all of these services instead of having to switch between them. However, we are also working with these partners to enable you to stream to ROCKI from within their native apps.

What is your marketing and promotion plan for the device?

Personal recommendation and word of mouth is very strong for ROCKI. We are already seeing the first users who have received their ROCKI saying they are going to buy additional ROCKIs. Our marketing and promotion plan will center on amplifying that voice through social media, product reviews (professional and personal), and musician alliances. We’re launching a business unit, “ROCKI for Music,” specifically focused on working with musicians to bring them and their music closer to their fans via the ROCKI ecosystem. We’ll support musicians with their own editions of ROCKI, like “D.O.N.S. Loves ROCKI” and “Skip&Die Loves ROCKI” complete with their own styling and image. And once people have seen and played with their friends’ ROCKIs, we believe a good percentage would want ROCKI for themselves. We’ve made it very easy and affordable to get your own.

Where can people purchase?

Our ROCKI web shop is online at www.myrocki.com/buy and ships worldwide. We expect online resellers globally to have ROCKI available from April onwards and more retail shops later in the year.

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