E371: Alex Hawkinson – Founder & CEO of SmartThings



about this episode

The Internet of Things concept has been around a long time. But with a central communication hub, open-source platform for developing apps, and devices that communicate with that network, SmartThings is making it a reality. Founder Alex Hawkinson explains how, we could arrive home, have the garage open, lights come on, and get alerts about everything from plumbing problems to an opened gun case, right on our smart phones. Plus, how he raised over $1 million on Kickstarter.

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1:21 Thanks to Mandrill.com, transactional email from the fine folks at MailChimp.

3:35 We’ve heard about the Internet of Things for awhile. How would you describe this concept?

4:35 There’s this hardware renaissance going on right now, and I think anything that can be connected will be.

4:52 And you mentioned a couple of them there. Nest, doing thermostats. You have DropCam doing cameras, you can see what’s going on in your house. This is all being driven by the smart phone? Or circuits? What’s driving this?

6:33 So you have this idea that there has to be a central hub and a platform for the devices to talk to each other. Nobody had really done much work on that.

8:03 What’s Zigbee? What’s Z Wave?

8:54 What would be an example of one of those devices that connects over that mesh network, over Zigbee?

9:16 What would be the top 5 devices that work with SmartThings that people would be interested in?

9:30 So I could plug a coffee machine into the plug, have the plug in the power, and then just toggle that plug on and off to make coffee…

9:37 Hawkinson: Exactly, and there there’s in-wall switches, there’s dimmers, locks, there’s thermostats, there’s shade controls, there are sensors of all kinds. That sense motion, light and whether something’s open or shut, or if it moved.

9:48 So people in fancy houses, when you see those dimmers, etc, those are connected over Zigbee, over the mesh network?

10:18 Hawkinson: In some cases, yes… Where they’ve been different is they’ve used a local controller, it’s been bolted down, it’s got a terrible interface, it’s a keypad… One of the differences for us is, it connects it all up to the cloud.

10:37 By getting to the cloud, I can look up my lights when I am not in my home.

11:49 So what else comes in the pack here?

12:35 Hawkinson: You have things, a series of devices that know how to talk to our cloud…. That’s a person in room sensor that can tell if a person or pet is in there… There’s more than 1,000 connected device types that work with the platform.

14:58 If you have a gun safe, knowing the gun safe was opened is a critically important thing.

15:34 Can the developers make money by selling those apps? Or are they just doing it for the good of the community right now?

15:50 Can they become combination hardware and software developers?

16:50 What are some of the most unexpected things released on the platform?

17:00 Hawkinson: There’s a bedroom optimizer app. You can connect web service to these things, so there’s a couple of porn sites that have built a desktop plugin that will change your screen if a door opens.

18:02 Why has it taken so long for this to become a reality?

19:00 Hawkinson: Smart phones, cloud platforms, application developers being used to making light weight software.

19:15 You decided not to make it proprietary and not to absolutely abuse the customer base. You’re saying don’t lock anyone into this system. Let 1,000 flowers bloom.

19:50 So how do you guys ultimately make money?

20:45 Will people be able to write the reviews and say, this chicken coop system sucks, but this chicken coop system’s great?

21:04 Hawkinson: We’re selling these devices right now pretty much at cost. If developers build great apps, if some are free, if some are paid for, we’ll take a slice of the revenue from that. It’s going to be a little bit less (than 30 percent).

22:25 You’re combining the app store, with hardware, with apps, and with a service.

23:30 I want to take a moment to thank Scott Ed Walker of Walker Corporate Law Group.

25:15 Back with Alex Hawkinson of SmartThings.

25:30 You decided to do a Kickstarter project and it hit over a million dollars. Why did you do the Kickstarter project and what do you think it takes to do something as successful as you did?

26:42 Hawkinson: We thought maybe we’d get 1,000 people and 100 developers would sign up… I would recommend simple messages for Kickstarter campaigns. Our initial goal was $250,000. We blew by that in a couple of days.

27:32 Who picked it up first? Did you have a big press strategy?

28:49 Hawkinson: An instrumental moment was one of our seed investors, David Tisch, formerly of TechStars New York. He and a few others points folks like CNN to us, so we had smart people catch on to the idea, share it with others, and we had a few of those big bursts of press. And that really helped a lot. I think we would have hit a third of our goal with that. But then it was all about community engagement.

29:25 Explain that, unpack that. What does community engagement mean when doing a Kickstarter?

30:15 Hawkinson: Basically it was a full time job for 4 people for a month, just managing the communications. Because we had hundreds of comments per day, lots of them very deep.

30:29 And when you’re spending 40 hours a day of community engagement, those people I’m guessing, become very deeply involved in the project, and then they become amplifiers.

31:09 Hawkinson: On the down side of that, I think a lot of these Kickstarter projects are two guys and an idea. They don’t have the working prototype yet for real. And they put it out there. And that level of community engagement just crushes them.

32:02 You raised $3 million in seed funding.


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