Todd Beauchamp was a star engineer at Apple -- he helped create the company's ubiquitous white earbuds. Now, with a new startup, he says he's building his own Apple.
FORTUNE — At age 39, Todd Beauchamp (pronounced BEACH-um) already has had several distinguished careers. A self-taught acoustic engineer, he helped invent defense-oriented technology for the U. S. Navy and spent a month living on the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, redesigning the aircraft carrier’s flight deck. In his five years as sound engineer at Apple AAPL , he worked numerous products, including those ubiquitous white earbuds. He left Apple a year ago to pursue his own startup, In2Technologies, which plans later this year to come out with a home-theater system that shares some key traits with products that his former employer makes. Beauchamp is part of a rare breed of ex-Apple employees creating startups. For years, Apple executives tended to remain faithfully at the company for years and then to retire rich and exhausted. That’s changing slowly. In an interview shortly before Apple’s expected announcement of a new iPad on March 7, Beauchamp explained why customers couldn’t have known to ask for the features his new sounds system will give them, why he left Apple, and why he isn’t concerned that Apple will one day compete with him.
What exactly is your company’s product?
It’s called Unity, and it is a game-changing home-theater platform. It brings the refreshingly simple back to the home theater. The goal is to bring elegant design to this with seamless connectivity. It is a TV stand with full 5.1 surround sound built into our t-shaped design that allows it to do a number of things, which is what differentiates us from the competition. Our goal is to be easier to set up than a home theater, provide better sound than a soundbar, and be less expensive than high-end separates. We’re literally creating a new category of goods.
Who will buy it?
The target customer is the 25-to-55-year-old demographic of media enthusiasts. A great study just came out from the Consumer Electronics Association that said people’s expectations have shifted with the onset of new HDTV’s. People want a complete home-theater experience. They want great audio with their great video, the complete AV experience. An astounding 87% of people surveyed expect the experience at home to exceed that of movie theater.
Sounding a lot like Steve Jobs, you’ve said the consumer doesn’t know what to ask for because they don’t know what’s possible.
That’s right. If you would have asked a million people before the iPhone came out, ‘What would you want?’ they would have said, ‘I want a button that does this,’ because they didn’t know that touch-screen technology existed. If a company like Apple didn’t read beyond their desires, the iPhone would have been another Treo with a button on it. With speakers, the average consumer says wiring is the most important thing. They’re also concerned with size. They want their speakers to disappear. Most companies have shrunk their speakers so much that they’ve disappeared. But the performance has disappeared too. Our goal is to be able to read into what they want. They want the overall solution to be smaller, not smaller speakers.
TV buyers, facing a daunting task to begin with, immediately confront three decisions: Where to put it, how to get audio, and how to get media. Unity–which integrates the Internet TV experience in addition to providing surround-sound speakers and a built TV stand—gives them all of it. Right now only 16% of people are buying a solution at the same time they buy a TV. That gives you a sense of how daunting it is. Our goal is to provide that single buying decision: an elegant TV stand, world-class audio, and a unified media experience with Netflix, Hulu and other Internet-based offerings. We look for trends for what people are saying. It’s our job to take that trend, and it is our team’s strength, to go beyond what customers think is possible.
How much will Unity cost?
$999. Samsung’s home theater in a box, which hasn’t been doing very well, sells for $799. But it isn’t a TV stand too. On average, TV stands are $439.
When and how will you begin selling it?
Unity will be brought out in big brick and mortar retailers, like the Best Buys of the world, as well as online retailers like Amazon and J&R. [Distribution agreements are not yet in place.] It’s a perfect online product because it will go viral with user reviews.
As Apple did in its early days, you are using an outside design firm. Which one and why not have that capability in house?
RKS Design in Thousand Oaks, Calif. For me to pull in a staff that gets me access to 30 people is not a real good use of our money. I can’t keep 30 people busy full-time. Theirs is a very strong, tight-knit team. Ravi Sawhney, the owner, co-wrote a book called Predictable Magic. His perspective is that it doesn’t matter what the product is. The design process is what matters. That’s what drew us to RKS.
How have you financed the company?
I’m fully self-funded. But we are reaching out now to give others the opportunity to invest.
What did you do at Apple?
I ran the audio lab for the accessories group. Anything Apple branded that made sound that connected to iPod, iPhone or iPad, I was responsible for. I also did the final acoustics on the first iPhone. I also did the Apple earbuds, the highest-shipping product at Apple. I shipped 200 million earbuds.
Everyone expects Apple to make a TV. Do you?
I could see them doing that, yes. If you look at what they’re really good at it’s media management, and that’s what’s missing out there.
Aren’t you worried Apple will incorporate the technology you are pursuing into its products?
No. If they were to do it, it would be focused on media, not the complete experience. It’s what my gut tells me. If you look at their core values, audio hasn’t been a really strong part for Apple. Those were the necessities to have the product function, versus creating another category. But you never know.
Why did you leave Apple?
I left to follow this dream. I woke up one morning and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m building someone else’s dream.’ I have no regrets and had a great experience. But I said, ‘Why don’t I build my own Apple? Why am I not building this for myself, just like Steve did?’
Chapter 9 of Adam Lashinsky’s book, Inside Apple, explores the relatively few ex-Apple employees who have flown the coop in search of their entrepreneurial dreams.