Alex Hawkinson continues his 15-year leadership path with cloud-based technology companies as Founder and CEO of SmartThings, a platform to connect and control objects in the physical world remotely. Two things he said about the next phase of how we interact with the internet, the Internet of Things. First, it’s up to us if we want to start living like the Jetsons or deciding what we will accept; and it is hard to know how things like companies are valued. Imagine the things you’d like to be able to monitor or activate by pressing buttons on a digital device. Alex told the Startup Grind DC attendees that he is working through his company, SmartThings, to promote a software platform to facilitate creating a connection with things.
Imagination and motivation is the only limit on folks using SmartThings. This is a given and a concern. For potential customers who want to use SmartThings to enable an application, but can’t or won’t build it themselves, SmartThings has a layer of professional services, like security companies, that will set the users up. Some creative tech types are great at figuring out how to incorporate novelty into grand-scale marketing, exhibition and events. Consider Peter Corbett’s iStrategy’s social fridge at SXSW (the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX), which opened remotely to offer beer, or his Twitter-controlled paint gun, which his company put together and showed off via social media or Dominoes Pizza order button. Imagine a Staples pretend EASY button that really works. The tools are here and imagination, need, want and motivation are the limit.
In a quick tweet out contest, Alex offered the Startup Grind crowd a shot at winning the $300 software platform in a box small enough for a fedora. The winning idea: use the kit to transform limited space from office to formal evening through sound, light and other things. Alex said he jokes with his wife about having a romantic room setting connected with a motion sensor by the children’s bedroom doors. If the child opens the door, Barry White or Marvin Gaye stop singing and a classical symphony begins while candlelight is washed out bright light.
Imagination and social acceptance are key to SmartThings.
It started by accident
Alex started the company in response to a problem his family experienced. It helped that he was paying attention because he was looking for a new project. “I turned 40 last year and wanted to solve a big problem,” Alex explains. Then, he and his family had a big problem. He and his wife arrived with baby in tow for their annual ski trip at their Colorado ski house and found that water in its pipes had frozen, the pipes burst and thawed. “We found it ruined,” he said with a strong hint of his native Minnesota accident that emphasized the “oo” in ruin. “When the ice thawed, water ran through every floor, wall, ceiling, piece of furniture. It was all wrecked.”
Alex recalls on New Years Eve before 2012: “I thought, so many of our things are already connected. How did we not know our home had a water emergency when the handyman lived around the corner and we could have asked him to go check the house and shut off the water?”
Alex has a claim to fame for the second-highest Kickstarter funding campaign, $1.2 million for SMBLive, the cloud-based marketing software company he started in 2005, and sold to ReachLocal for $8.4 million. He observes that his experience showed him to: “Raise as little capital as you can, as long as you can. Bootstrap as long as you can because you never know how much something is going to be valued. Have a working product people want and it will get you there.” He added: “Customer service is as important as anything in the company. Alex said he is on the support strings for customers each weekend. “We give customers the red carpet treatment, writing personal thank you notes for every customer who signs up, things like that.”
It wasn’t long before the questions at Startup Grind asked what Alex thought of Google having just bought Nest for $3 billion. He deadpanned respectfully:
“That’s what my Board of Directors just wanted to talk about last week.” Then, he dug in: “What people have underestimated is the scope of the impact of the connected world. This Third Wave of the web is going to be the biggest tech trend in the next 10 years. It’s going to touch every facet of life. The impacts are so beyond the simple applications, it’s mind boggling.”
Alex is enthusiastic about his fourth startup: “I think this feels like it,” he said.
Do no research; raise no funds
Alex admits he just started going after the idea without even casually checking to see if there was anything that had already solved the problem. He said: “The biggest strength you can have as an entrepreneur is naïveté.” Products might look the same at first but tend to evolve and could become something different, complementary.
His fourth startup is both fun and a lot of work getting a company up and running behind the scenes. Alex observes: “The best jobs come from seeing the way the world works and trying to break it up and do it differently.”
He’s happy to talk to people looking to crowd source if you can catch up with him. Try reaching out on Twitter @smartthings. He retweets. Tweet this story and ask for some advice.
“Connected Things” vs. “Things That Connect Us”
Kendrick Jackson stopped by Startup Grind at nClude, the firm that helped him with the user experience of his new retail/project, State of Affairs. The things he’s into are best handled in person. His vision is to display professional gentlemen’s and ladies’ tailored apparel and accessories displayed in a pleasant cafe experience. Come for the coffee, sandwiches or cocktails and leave with the latest style ideas, fashion advice and perhaps measurements for a new suit or dress. Good conversation, fashion and even local art. Busboys and Poets meets Alton Lane, the bespoke men’s tailored apparel seller. Alton Lane’s service includes custom measurement appointments while “enjoying a beverage” and online ordering. Kendrick’s café experience flips the priorities to make the destination to be the café first, retail, second. “nClude helps us with online branding, logo and color scheme; making sure we look good once we put ourselves out there.”
He and his friend and former colleague at In the Capital, writer Carl Pierre, percolated the idea for State of Affairs. Carl had staked out the place of honor in front of nClude’s office elevators to sit out a table to discuss WeWork, a co-working space expanding to DC from New York City. “Carl’s into coffee, and he’d go to coffee bars, the downstairs kind, where all the guys are wearing suits. And, he put it together.”
Without carrying inventory, State of Affairs offers people a view of current tailored apparel to customers who come for the wood-paneled, café experience. Kendrick notes it’s a good use of the physical store, which when dedicated to clothing tends to be empty in the afternoons. I noticed that companies coming into the city were “doing a lot of not seeing” the perspective of DC customers. Kendrick says: “Certain Georgetown stores put the $300 trousers by the front door and cheaper priced items in the back. “I’d walk by and automatically feel poor and walk out,” says Kendrick, who says he has only two good suits, but mixes and matches them with different shirts and ties for different looks.
“I’d like to bring back drinking in the day,” he adds. “It would be nice to have a new venue to go to.”
Maybe, the Internet of Things will help clients retrieve their stylish overcoats while patrons use the Uber or Hail-O apps to cab it to the next meeting.