An interview with Ben Finn, co-founder of Sibelius [Part 2 of 2]

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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.

Ben059-2

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.

The Queen's Award for Enterprise, given to Sibelius in 2005 (click for full proclamation)
The Queen’s Award for Enterprise, given to Sibelius in 2005 (click for full proclamation)

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.

Ben and Jonathan Finn in 1999 with a representative from Quester
Ben and Jonathan Finn with Simon Acland from Quester, when they invested in 1999

Q: The sale was reported in 2006 at $23 million, with you and Jonathan netting about $16 million. Is that accurate?

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.

Sibelius staff in 2005 after receiving The Queen's Award for Enterprise
Sibelius staff in 2005 after receiving The Queen’s Award for Enterprise, about a year before the sale to Avid

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.

A board game invented by Ben Finn based on the London Underground
A board game invented by Ben Finn based on the London Underground

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.

Comments

  1. Neil Sands

    Magical. Thanks Phil and Ben.

  2. Steve

    This is great. Thank you Philip and thank you Ben.

  3. Ian

    Did you ask whether Steinberg has tried to hire him? :-)

  4. Bob Zawalich

    Great article. I love the line, “But then we seem to have lost it, which is a real shame!”.

    Neil Sands and I visited the London office of Sibelius a number of years ago, and got to meet Daniel and Ben and Jonathan, and they all took time out of their day to talk with us.

    That was magical too. Thanks for the magic, Ben!

    1. Neil Sands

      They did. It was great. I was dumbstruck by meeting Jonathan. Found nothing to say to him. Never meet your heroes!

      1. Peter McAleer

        Seconded Neil. My claim to fame is meeting Ben in London too and I found the same. Totally tongue tied (It doesn’t happen often I should say!).

  5. Peter McAleer

    Fascinating. I remember receiving, from Cambridge, a promotional copy of the Sibelius 7 (for Acorn) manual after calling the office and asking if there would ever be a version for Mac. There were no plans then so it was suggested to me that I might consider buying an Acorn computer. I didn’t, and the person I was talking to conceded it probably was best to stick with the Mac anyway. Much later I received the news the Mac version was in development, so it turned out to be the right decision. In a strange way however, I now wish I’d made the ‘wrong’ decision and bought that Acorn machine – to be a part of that history.

  6. Yvonne Field

    Peter McAleer – I was one of the early Notator users before upgrading to Sibelius so I still have my original Acorn Risc computer safely stored in the loft! History indeed.

  7. Dave McKay

    Great article Phillip and thank you for posting this interview with Ben. As you know, we’re coming up on the third anniversary of Avid’s blood-letting of the Sibelius development team, July 3, 2012 if memory serves. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Sibelius Blog. Always a pleasure to read!

  8. Luis

    This was such a nicely done interview. Thanks for bringing this history out. I first purchased Sibelius 4 and have enjoyed using it for arranging and some composing. When the sampled sounds came out, I was having major geek outs about it. I’m very excited about what Steinberg is working on. Wish more were known.

  9. Philip Rothman

    Thanks, everyone for the nice comments so far, and of course to Ben for participating.

  10. Peter Roos

    Absolutely fantastic, thank you so much Philip for posting this.

  11. Jorge Grundman

    A wonderful interview. But it let me with a sad perspective…to know Ben and Jonathan now are far away from any Sibelius development makes me feel orphan.

    Many thanks Ben and Jonathan for develop Sibelius. Sincerely

  12. Abraham Lee

    Very fascinating insights to how this all came about. I love learning from the successes and challenges of others. Thank you for sharing, Phil!

  13. sousperregui

    Vous ai lus et je crois bien suivis..Merci.
    Si je trouve un traducteur je conterai la fin
    de vie d’un compositeur qui tentative chez
    moi de sauvegarder des droits d’auteur sans
    Jamais y parvenir tant l’ecriture même du
    sb Score le paralysait de sa beaute…
    ENCORE merci..e.

  14. John Kilpatrick

    This is a most interesting interview, and shed much light on the Finn brothers’ substantial contribution to music. Unfortunately, they broke Rule Number One: if you care about something, do NOT sell it to an American company. Did no-one tell them?

    For me, they also broke another rule: do not charge your own compatriots more than you charge the denizens of the USA – then and maybe now the richest in the world (at one time the UK price was twice the USA price). When I asked about this, I was told “that’s how the world is” – an odd response, I thought, from people who were in the business of changing the world!

  15. J.E.

    Thank you, Finn bros, for the best notation app ever–I’ve recommended it to so many composers and used it since the birth of the Mac vsn. Now Avid has dumbed it down, making it so much more clumsy to use by a trained musician. It’s just so sad. Looking forward to Dorico.

  16. J.T.

    Thank you Philip. Wonderful interview. The audio recordings of Ben were a nice touch. For all my time cursing at Sibelius late at night I definitely owe a lot to the Finn brothers!

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