From Moments of Triumph to Moments of Near Bankruptcy: John Sobota’s Story

John Sobota.

John Sobota.

For the entrepreneur, moments of triumph can suddenly turn into near bankruptcy. John Sobota learned that the hard way in 2002. When Sabota developed a game platform, Spike, and presented it to a Los Angeles convention centre for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a massive software development company, he was riding high on success. However, one week later, when RCA pulled its entire games development sector, Sabota almost when bankrupt.

“Every waking hour we had was serving those divisions. We went from being super busy to having nothing to do. But we regrouped, reinvested and we decided to quit and take what we learned and [do audio].” The chip they developed as a nice extra for a Playstation controller became their savior in a financial nightmare.

When Sabota graduated from the University of Alberta, he started working for TransAlta Canada. He got promotion after promotion, but he wasn’t happy. When a friend of his repeatedly asked him to design some electrical products on the side, Sabota finally relented and incorporated Eleven Engineering in 1992.

Eleven started out as a hobby business in Sabota’s basement with his family. He worked long hours at his day job, while taking classes towards his masters of business administration at night. “I don’t think it’s any different than being a farmer. The deadlines are natural deadlines. You have a natural deadline by which you have to sow your field and the harvest comes and you have to pull the harvest off before the frost. It doesn’t matter if you have no sleep; you might go three nights with no sleep because you have to do it.”

TransAlta started making big layoffs in 1994; Sabota alone had five layoffs in his own division. “I was literally firing people and the next day, it was my turn to go for an interview to find out if I was going to be fired. I found myself actually disappointed when they didn’t fire me so I quit.”

When Logican, another electrical engineering company, offered them a place in their building, Sabota had to find a way of turning a hobby business into a profitable business.

At the end of July 1994, Sabota moved into the Logican building. Eleven grew at such a staggering rate that Logican “punted them out” to find a real office. The company’s first office was in the Southside, but because the office building was so exposed, it was broken into time and time again, so Sobota decided to move into an office downtown.

Eleven started working on a fee-for-service basis. Some of its first projects were the first satellite fax solution for oil companies in the arctic—a box that allowed you to send faxes over satellite, and head trackers for physically disabled people—the first device that would mount on a computer and track head movements.

Sabota knew that Eleven was capable of much more. He started to invest in retail products; his first success was developing the first wireless game controller for Playstation with Eleven’s own chip technology.

When Sabota almost went bankrupt in 2002, he realized that he didn’t want to invest all of his capital in one big company again. He wanted to diversify. He decided to focus on audio solutions; luckily, he still had the chips that he developed from the game controller that were optimal for audio.

He started to ship audio solutions in earnest in 2004. One of the company’s first big projects was called SL2 for Bose, a giant sound equipment company. After that, Sobota’s company was in high demand.

Ever one to find a missing technology niche, one of Sobota’s claims to fame is that he designed a subwoofer for Sony that could be hidden behind a plant. “I’m pretty sure I’ve saved countless marriages. Wives hate subwoofers,” he laughs.

Recently, Sobota started to get requests from customers to design a wireless solution as an alternative to Blue Tooth and to Apple’s wireless solution, Airplay. His new solution is called SKAA which requires no setup, no pairing of audio and no hot spots. Unlike Bluetooth, which doesn’t support more than one pair of headphones, SKAA allows multiple headphones and has a much better quality of sound.

If you look SKAA up in the urban dictionary, it stands for both a genre of music, alluding to the system’s audio components, and to an exclamation mark, or surprise, an effect that Sobota hopes to create in the wireless audio market. “We’re diversifying customers and making it one big platform so we don’t make the same mistake as [we did with Spike].” In future, Sabota hopes to have a SKAA solution in every smartphone and touch tablet.

Sobota is an Edmontonian that continuously gives back to his alma mater; he hires students out of the University of Alberta’s electrical engineering program and introduced the Eleven prize in 2007, which is awarded to the best project in an electrical engineering capstone design course.

He has guest lectured in the University of Alberta’s product development department and an international business class. He encourages students to see beyond the bounds of what they think is their own capacity for greatness.

“A lot of people in Edmonton are boosters. They want to help enable some new economic areas where Edmonton can shine. Give something back. Because you want to say thank you and leave a legacy.” Sobota is one of those ‘boosters’; he is giving back to his community and creating amazing opportunities for tomorrow’s entrepreneurial leaders.