Fireside Chat with SmartThings Founder Alex Hawkinson

There’s this thing everyone in tech is talking about, this “Internet of Things, this idea where suddenly everything we touch and use and see and turn on is connected. This “Internet of Things” is supposed to be the next wave, and surfing high on that wave was our January speaker, Alex Hawkinson.

$300 to Live Like Bill Gates

SmartThings is billed as a “smarter home” solution. Imagine this: You are laying in bed and as you awaken, your Jawbone wristlet sends a signal to your home center. The blinds open gently. You’re greeted by a voice letting you know your coffee is brewing, the towel warmer is heated, but your kids are still sleeping soundly. At $55 million Bill Gates spared no cost for his smarter home. SmartThings is revolutionizing the market charging only $300 for a DIY version.

The SmartThings kit isn’t a “smart home” plug-in – it’s more like a kit that turns your home into a computer. “There is a hub device, like a Babblefish”, explained Alex. “There are all these ‘things’ in your home, that can somehow talk to our platform. There’s about a thousand things that can talk to our platform: Lights, locks, switches, sensors of every type. There’s our cloud and app platform, like a Facebook of things. Then we have a mobile app, which sits in the palm of your hand.”

SmartThings was never conceived as a one-off solution, but “as a platform for anyone to connect the everyday objects in their life, and an open platform that developers could contribute to.” Aka, a hacker’s dream.

Born to Be an Entrepreneur

A neuro AND computer science graduate from Carnegie Mellon, Alex was a smarter thing from the start. In fact, he’s in good company with our own Startup Grind director, Brian Park, also a Carnegie grad. Maybe there’s something to CMU grads and entrepreneurship?

The way Alex tells it, becoming an entrepreneur was a birthright; His family, his mother’s family was “filled with entrepreneurs” and he was “left to raise himself on the floor of startups”. SmartThings was hardly the beginning for Alex; In fact SmartThings is his fourth startup. Others include Mural Consulting, Physical Graph Corp, SMB Live.

“SMB live was the Hubspot that didn’t make it to Hubspot level”. The modest Midwesterner talks about his digital marketing company humbly, considering it “was serving about 400,000 small businesses” and “sold for about 15 million”.

And SmartThings? “It’s definitely the One. Through your life you look for the right combination, the right experience for you, and a chance to change the world. This one feels like it.”

Frustration is the Mother of Invention

While Alex shares his “One” with six other cofounders, he said the inspiration for SmartThings came from a personal disaster when his rustic mountain cabin was flooded from pipe bursts after a power outage. Water rotted the cabin for months before they found it. “I just couldn’t stand it”, he explained. “We live in this mobile world, where information is at your fingertips, and I was how did we not know?”

“This became a personal mission to install a sensor…so we started building this sensor box.” After a few months he began to notice how things were changing;  Fitbit, Nest, the word was becoming more connected, “but there was no platform that was connecting it all together.”

Asked about other failed “smart homes” projects, Alex answered he called it the blessing of “entrepreneurial naiveté. “I had no idea about Microsoft’s failed X10 – or whatever – I just thought it was crazy that no one else had made it easy to solve this thing that would have saved me and my family a hundred grand.”

“You can’t overanalyze it at the beginning. You have to go all in. And as you start to get traction, and then look around and realize the ways you can be different the idea hits you sometimes, and you just know.”

Crowdfunding a Startup Successfully

To his wildly successful Kickstarter fundraising strategy, Alex said, “My biggest fear was we were going to hang the shingle out there and no one was going to want it. We were talking to investors, but then no one had signed up. But we thought ‘It’s still really good’, so we put the threshold up higher – $250,000.”

“The secret was you leverage your own network in the first few days. Then you got to capture some media attention – and CNN picked us up.” After that it became a task of managing the “investors”. “We put up this one post and it got 2,000 responses in 24 hours. It took four full-time people to interact with the community just as we were getting going.”

“What’s something you got wrong early on?”, asked on audience member. Alex laughed, “In our hub, somehow somebody made the decision its status light should flash red until it went black. You won’t believe how many calls we got in the first weeks. ‘It’s broken!’ they said. Then they ripped the cord out and it was totally broken.”

No surprise on his answer the to Brian’s question “What would be the number one thing in building a successful consumer electronics products startup?” he answered “Ease of use.” Next question, “What do you look for in a great engineer?” “You look for the athlete over the skills. It’s the person over whether they know C++.”

Why DC for Your Company?

The SmartThings development center is still located in Minneapolis, which makes it harder for Alex to interview candidates. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the mythical Garrison Keillor men of Minnesota, so I was on the edge of my seat when Brian asked his most important question: “Why did you pick and to set up shop here in DC?”

“Well part of it was my wife…” Alex chuckles. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to build my career here if it wasn’t possible in a lot of ways. As SmartThings has done well, we’ve had people push us to move to the Valley. What really matters is building the right core team of people that are getting work done day to day. It’s not the other consumer electronics people that we’re networking with – it’s the talent pool here. The talent pool has been really good.”

Originally written for Startup Grind DC.

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