Ben Finn and his brother Jonathan invented Sibelius and founded the company of the same name. Ben recently spoke with me via video chat from his home in London. Part 2 of 2 of our conversation appears below. Part 1 was published on June 23, 2015.
Selling Sibelius to Avid
Q: What led up to the decision to sell the company? Had you felt that you had taken the company as far as you could?
We had continued to expand the company and improve the software; by then we were at version 4. Yes, it became clear that we had taken the company about as far as we were going to take it without adding more products. We were in every country that we could manage; we had almost as many users, including schools, that we could reasonably expect to get; we had added a few smaller products for education. It was clear that something else was going to be needed to take it onto the next level, and that was beyond what we could do.
We started thinking about things like sequencing that hadn’t already been done. It was the case at the time that there were no sequencers that were aimed at the education market. Could that be done with Sibelius or did it need to be a separate product? Things like that. But we had no experience in that field, and there were a number of top professional products out there already, so we couldn’t just sit down one day and say that we were going to write a sequencer.
So that’s where we were, where we had product ideas that were way beyond our capabilities with the company as it was. That was part of the motivation behind selling the company; we couldn’t take it to the next level on our own. Also, we had been working on Sibelius for twenty years at that point, since high school. By that time, other people had taken over most of our jobs: Jonathan was no longer CTO; I hadn’t been CEO for several years, having brought in Jeremy Silver.
We started looking at companies we knew, like Avid and various other companies, and thought, what can we do with them?
Q: Had you been approached by other companies or was it more that you were seeking potential suitors?
A bit of both, but ultimately it had to come down to our decision. Either we were going to go ahead with a sale process or not. We could readily see who would be interested in buying us.
Roughly, yes. We had a venture capitalist [London-based Quester, now park of SPARK Ventures] who received some of the money, and some went to the employees as well.
Q: And the nature of the sale was that Avid would own the entire company, intellectual property and all?
Yes, they bought the whole thing; we had no stake in it after that. That’s how it almost always works.
Q: How did you feel after selling Sibelius to Avid?
We were very happy. We had sold it to — what was then — a successful buyer that had lots of other things they did that were related to our business. There were lots of potential new markets and associated products that Sibelius could be linked in with. There were new avenues for our development team to be doing lots of other things, and for other people to be brought in to help out with Sibelius. There was lots of potential there, and that was good.
Q: Did you think that Avid was the ideal fit for Sibelius?
They were certainly the best-looking fit, yes, in terms of companies who covered music software and hardware of a variety of kinds. We suited them very well, too, because at the time, they were very big in the professional market, as they still are today, and they were big in the consumer market. But they weren’t big in education. So we fitted in very nicely. We filled in a substantial portion of the educational market for them, and also created the opportunity for other things, like educational sequencers, and other new product ideas we were thinking about.
Q: Was the general feeling at the time good, that this move was a positive investment in the company?
Yes, absolutely. This had all been done with the close involvement of the rest of our management team, and they continued to run the company. They had big, exciting plans for what would happen with Avid afterwards.
After the sale
Q: Were you involved at all with Sibelius or Avid afterwards? What was your role, and what did you do afterwards?
I did some consulting on Sibelius, as and when required by the terms of our agreement. But it was no longer ours, and it was not my place to interfere; it was a totally different situation. I tried to keep out of it as best I could.
After we left, Jonathan and I have been working on a variety of software and business projects. We’re very keen on card games and board games. On a different front, partly because of business and partly because of software, I’m very interested in the stock market, and I’ve written quite a lot of software to crunch market figures and data. So I’ve been keeping my hand in with those types of things.
I’ve also been approached to do some consulting for software startups. For example, there is this new product called the Seaboard, which has received quite a lot of publicity here in the UK. It’s a MIDI keyboard in which the keys are a curved, continuous surface. In a way it’s like an ondes martenot, because you can play it normally but you can also slide around it. It uses sophisticated haptic feedback, so it’s like aftertouch on a MIDI keyboard but much more so. The inventor of this device approached me while it was in development and I gave him some advice on commercializing the product.
Q: Had you wanted to pursue these types of endeavors while working on Sibelius?
To be honest, I didn’t have any clear plan about what I would do post-Sibelius, and I don’t think Jonathan did either. It was really a case of us just trying out a bunch of different things and seeing what worked.