June 12, 2017

With Como Audio, Tom DeVesto Just Keeps on Innovating

Tom DeVesto has spent a career riding waves of disruption in the consumer electronics industry— and he’s not done surfing yet.

Tom DeVesto, Founder of Como Audio
Tom DeVesto, Founder of Como Audio

The 50-year industry veteran doesn’t just embrace change, he’s constantly seeking it out and gets excited about it. It’s a trait that doesn’t come off as a quest for commercial success as much as a habit he couldn’t kick if he wanted to.

It’s also helped DeVesto stay firmly ahead of the curve in a market space that’s been as transformed as any by the internet, and it explains why DeVesto’s latest venture, Como Audio, has found success in its first year.

“I’m always thinking about what’s happening next, because I can’t compete with Sony or these other guys,” DeVesto says. “You have to be innovative. It’s about finding parts of the marketplace where we can do something different and interesting and move the bar a little bit.”

Como Audio released its first two products, multi-room “smart speakers” Solo and Duetto, following a successful Kickstarter campaign last year. Now, in a new Kickstarter campaign that ends June 16, the company is raising money for its latest products, Amico and Musica.

The products have gained a loyal following for their breadth of features and unique design, but to really understand where Como Audio is going you have to understand where its founder has been.

DeVesto’s knowledge of speakers came out of necessity in the late-60s as he organized large protest events with friends. His love of music later drove him to open a store selling records, tapes and high fidelity (hi-fi) sound equipment.

“My life is centered around music,” DeVesto says. “I still go to live music events, so I was just doing what I loved to do.”

One store turned to three, and DeVesto eventually sold the company to one of his employees to work at Boston-based consumer audio company Advent. Between 1978 and 1985, DeVesto and audio engineering legend Henry Kloss worked through a spinoff company to sell novel projection TVs, even as everyone told them no one would ever want a big screen in their home.

After taking that company public, Kloss and DeVesto founded Cambridge Soundworks, selling radios and unique high-quality speaker systems, eventually for computers.

“The model was making and selling directly to the consumer, because even then the retail environment was deteriorating,” DeVesto says.

Selling directly to consumers wasn’t the only innovation at Cambridge Soundworks: To DeVesto’s knowledge, he’s the first person to sell hi-fi equipment on the internet.

Cambridge Soundworks was bought by Creative Technology in 1996, and DeVesto founded Tivoli Audio with Kloss in 2000 (are you seeing a pattern?). For the next 15 years, DeVesto ran Tivoli, eventually selling it to a private equity group in 2015.

DeVesto signed a one year non-compete agreement as part of the buyout, but anyone who knows DeVesto knew the non-compete would do little to slow him down. The non-compete expired January 31, 2016. On February 1, Como Audio was born.

Now back to running his own company, DeVesto is at his free-thinking, innovating best.

“There’s nothing like a clean sheet of paper,” DeVesto says. “You get to rethink all the things you’re doing. With Tivoli, we had to meet expectations of what people thought the product was, so it’s been really fun to be able to say, ‘I don’t owe anything to that technology.’”

From that blank slate emerged Solo and Duetto: Two sleek-looking smart speakers that can play music from a dizzying array of sources including radio, TV, bluetooth, auxiliary and WiFi. Como Audio Amico

With their wooden frames, you might picture the products in a regretfully plaid 1950s living room blasting Buddy Holly— but in reality, the speakers have the functionality to play Taylor Swift... no matter how many streaming services the singer boycotts.

And if you’re still not ready to shake it off, the Musica even includes a CD player for anyone with a disk collection that’s been gathering dust since the introduction of the iPod.

“It’s unusual in this day in age, but there’s still millions of CDs in people’s homes, and you can play that music through all the other Como Audio speakers in your house,” DeVesto says.

Users can navigate all of these sources through the buttons on the speakers, a remote or a mobile app.

“It’s fun to try different stuff,” DeVesto says. “Everyday I’m working on the products, thinking about how they sound, better ways to make them, easier ways to use them.”

Even the indisputable dominance of Amazon hasn’t stopped DeVesto from thinking outside the box. Como Audio products are of course available through the retail giant, but DeVesto has also been working with a retail startup called B8ta that gives companies 100 percent of each sale in exchange for a monthly rent in its stores.

The man who entered the market by selling speakers door-to-door to mom and pop hi-fi stores has also jumped wholeheartedly into the world of crowdfunding, selling thousands of units before they’re even made.

“There’s multiple paths to innovation,” DeVesto says. “One is technology and how you make a product, and another is how you sell it in a changing marketplace. It’s about finding clever ways to bring products to market as the environment changes.”

Como Audio’s sales have been strong so far (blowing the roof off of two Kickstarter campaigns hasn’t hurt), but the company’s biggest test will come during the holiday season.

And, of course, new products are on their way. Although DeVesto is staying tight-lipped for the moment, he assures me they’ll be “groundbreaking.”

From DeVesto, we’d expect nothing less.

Zach Winn is a contributor to VentureFizz. Follow Zach on Twitter: @ZachinBoston.

Images courtesy of Tom DeVestor and Como Audio.