How many New Yorkers do you think were locked out of their homes because they left their keys inside or at their office?” asks Jason Johnson, CEO and co-founder of August, a company building a smart lock for your home’s front door.
I’m stumped. I know there’s a lot of people in New York City — lot of forgetful goofballs, so the the number is probably higher than I would expect, but I’m not even willing wager a guess.
He’s asking this question, because I’m somewhat sceptical about the slowly emerging technology trend called the “Internet of Things.” The Internet of Things (or IoT), takes “dumb” everyday objects and tries to make them smarter through Internet connectivity in one form or another.
I’m hosting a panel on the Internet of Things at Business Insider’s IGNITION, our big conference from November 11-13 where we’re talking about the future of digital businesses like August and other IoT companies. Johnson is on the panel.
For $US199, you can buy an August Smart Lock, which lets you unlock your door using a smartphone through Bluetooth. You can also give access to other people, like dog walkers, neighbours, friends, or cleaning people to your home for specified period of time.
It sounds neat, but personally, I don’t have a hard time with my keys. My keys are a pretty good system, that’s why I’ve used them as long as I have. Isn’t a smart lock a solution looking for a problem?
I don’t want to guess how many people are locking themselves out of their homes in New York. You could say I’m a wet blanket. I say, “Just tell me” because I know I’ll never get it right.
“2 million people. 2 million people were locked out of their homes last year,” says Johnson. “The funny thing is, there’s this interesting human behaviour — we will leave our keys, but not our phone.”
So, that’s the answer to my scepticism. It’s not solution looking for a problem. It’s a problem for 2 million people every year.
Here’s a lightly edited conversation with Johnson about his company and the Internet of Things.
Business Insider: Let’s start with “smart” locks. How did you decide on that?
Jason Johnson: Both Yves, and I, [Yves Behar is my cofounder], we had been looking at systems in the home. In particular areas that were due for evolution. Things like your lock in the front door of your house hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. With new technologies that have come out, Bluetooth low energy, and smartphones, we now have the ability for people to give access to their home and manage access to their home. It’s that combination of seeing the need and utilising the technology for that solution.
BI: Was there something in your background that brought you to this?
JJ: I’ve done several venture-backed startup companies. This is my fourth. I’ve actually been wanting to do something in in consumer electronic space. Early in my career I worked at Apple. I’ve always had a passion for consumer products. In recent years, companies like Sonos, and Jawbone, and other have demonstrated that if you do a solution really well, you don’t have to be a giant company like a Sony or a Phillips, or an Apple to make a consumer electronics product.
BI: Why start with a lock? Where do you think you can go after the lock?
JJ: The lock is one of the biggest pain points today. We all have a challenge getting keys to people, and leaving it under the mat. Or if you give the key to cleaning people and you fire them, how do you get it back? We see the front door as the literal and figurative entry point to the home for August.
BI: You are charging $US200. That’s pretty high. Do you want to lower price in the long run, do you want to be a premium company like Apple?
JJ: What we’ve discovered is people want it to look good, they want it to feel good, not just be another piece of plastic stuck to the wall. We use some of the highest quality materials. Anodized aluminium is not a simple process. There’s only a couple of places that can do this really well in the world. Add to that we have a simple interface on the device with micro perforations that LEDs shine through. Only a couple places that can do that microperferation. It’s an expensive product to make. At $US199, when people feel it and touch it, they will instantly recognise it’s not an inexpensive product to make.
BI: OK, but, do you want this to come down in price over the long run?
JJ: We’re definitely in business to make money, so we have to maintain certain margins. That being said, we believe there’s a big future for having a smart lock in every home. In order to achieve that, the price will have to come down over time.
BI: When were you at Apple?
JJ: I was there in the early to mid 90s.
BI: So, it was not the good times?
JJ: Um, no, it wasn’t the good times (laughs). It was under Michael Spindler, and things were very chaotic. I was in distribution, so there were no Apple retail stores at the time. I was responsible for getting Apple products into all the retailers at a time when Apple was having a hard time understanding what its consumer brand would be.
BI: I would imagine you would take some of that to this job.
JJ: Exactly. There are particular stores where consumers are trying to buy products for the home, or accessories for their computing or mobile devices. We will have a very planned retail roll out at the beginning of next year, starting with consumer electronic stores and making our way over to more everyday type stores.
BI: We’re doing a panel at IGNITION about the Internet of Things. What does the Internet of Things mean to you?
JJ: It’s a broad term that nobody owns the definition of… At the end of the day, what IoT means is objects that previously had no intelligence and no connectivity now have some level of intelligence, some type of a processor, and some type of connectivity. Whether that’s an onboard, real time radio, connected through cellular, or through WiFi, or some other medium such as a smartphone, that’s how we look at the Internet of Things. It’s very broad, but, the August smart lock we see as a previously unintelligent offline device and now we’re giving it a lot more intelligence and capability.
BI: With the Internet of Things, there’s a fear of hackers taking over. How do you deal with that?
JJ: For us, what we have is more secure than what you have today. There’s a service today, where you can take a picture of your key with your smartphone, upload, and they will make a copy of your key and send it to you in three days. That’s how not secure a house key is to copy. It’s just not complicated technology. Locks can be picked, keys can be copied. We use Bluetooth encryption technology. On top of that, we have additional layer of security with our app. It would take sophisticated equipment and many hours to crack into our system. Frankly, it would be easier to throw a brick through the window than try to hack the system.
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