[Interview] Keeping your eye on the end goal is important, Monetizing too early is bad too – Dhaval Doshi, Founder & CEO – Smarthome NX

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IoT is gaining popularity with each passing day and one of the primary reason to it is that it is instrumental in creating a connected eco-system. With the lethal combination of cloud, IoT, mobility & other technologies, a consumer can now control temperature in his living room while sitting in the comfort of his office or (s)he can issue voice commands to ‘perform actions’ to a smart connected speaker [Google Home Mini/Amazon Echo Dot/etc.] without even touching the primary device [mobile/tablet].

Image Source – IoT

As per a report by Gartner on IoT, there would be close to 21 billion connected devices by the year 2020 and the usage would not be limited to only smartphones, tablets, speakers, etc. but it would have a profound impact on sectors likes healthcare, finance and others as well. Though popularity is on the rise, there is still a problem with ‘Product Discovery in IoT’ e.g. How does a consumer select the best set of connected devices for home/office so that they can truly experience ‘smart connectivity’. This is the problem being solved by Smarthome NX, the only aggregator in the home IoT space in Asia that is making it easy for consumers to adopt a Smart home by spreading awareness and hand-holding the customer.

Smarthome NX is an aggregator for Smart home solutions with a unique consulting process that inspires consumers with practical ideas and helps them in the process of implementation. They currently deal in home automation, smart door locks, smart lighting, AV, security systems, security cameras by brands such as Yale, Bose, Legrand, GM, Control4, Crestron, Cue, Fibaro, Philips Hue, Eureka Forbes to name a few.

Today we have an interaction with serial entrepreneur Dhaval Doshi, Founder & CEO of Smarthome NX. The discussion revolves around IoT market landscape, Smarthome NX, how it is helping consumers to adopt to Smart Homes, etc. So let’s get started with the Q&A…

How did you come up with the idea of SmartHome NX ?

Smarthome NX was conceived when I was sick of the way home automation and Smart home solutions were being sold in India. As a homeowner, I found it challenging to make sense of what are the solutions available and moreover get the right advice to set up the apt devices suitable to my lifestyle. Therefore, I felt the need to fill this gap between the consumer and the solution providers by way of a portal that could educate and help consumers simplify the process of adopting this complex and rather unfamiliar technology.

It is important to note that unlike other smart devices like your smartphone, a Smart home solution is not a standalone product but a bundle of products that together form a solution. To most consumers, this is an arbitrary solution and is not important unless it solves a specific problem in their life. No one says that I want a Smart home solution that has 4 GB RAM and an OLED display. In fact, most of them say that I want a solution that can help me monitor my pet or alert me if I left my stove on. Therefore, a Smart home solution needs to be personalized and generally relates to a specific lifestyle nuance. That’s what we do at Smarthome NX – educate, engage and ensure adoption is easy.

Can you walk us through the team behind SmartHome NX ?

I am the founder of Smarthome NX. My background is in digital marketing and advertising. I have worked on large and small brands alike having been associated with brands like Axis Bank, Bajaj Auto, Amazon Prime Video to name a few. This is my third venture after having built and sold a digital agency and having run a modest co-working space in the suburbs of Mumbai.

My wife Namrata is an architect and a green building consultant. She acts as a Subject Matter Expert [SME] and helps us translate customer requirements into technical solutions. In addition, as an architect she helps us build our partner network as well. Rest of the team comprises of a digital marketing lead, a marketing and partnerships manager, relationship managers and content writers

Though there is lot of buzz about IoT or connected devices, it is still at a very nascent stage [at least in India], what is the Total Addressable Market [TAM] of the IoT online market that SmartHome NX is trying to address ?

First of all, as an entrepreneur, TAM and such terms are just buzzwords. To me, fundamentals of a business matter far more. I believe most entrepreneurs get caught up with all this jargon when they do investor presentations. I, for one am bootstrapped and second I am building something to solve a real problem – which to me is big.

In order to break the myths of how ‘big’ the IoT market is, we conducted a survey with about 500 odd households across India to understand what they think about ‘smart homes’ or ‘home automation’. We realized that there are more severe problems to solve here before the market goes mainstream

  • Lack of awareness
  • Finding the right consultant
  • interoperability issues within the home automation ecosystem

There is a research paper by Red Seer Consulting which says that the market size is pegged at Rs. 8,800 crore. However, I take these numbers with a pinch of salt. Because this does not take into consideration the larger services play which are being built on top of Smart home solutions – be it managed security solutions or even entertainment.

Over a period of time, we have pivoted and learnt several things about the market we are in. Interestingly, we are not in the Smart homes market. The service we are providing [free consulting to our clients] is mostly to new homeowners. And they don’t want just ‘Smart home solutions’, they want more. They are evolved and involved purchasers who want more from their home – which goes beyond aesthetics. Therefore, we are now going to venturing into residential solar energy solutions as well and other low-hanging services for which they don’t have enough information – soundproof windows, modular furniture, modular kitchens, etc.

SmartHome NX team

Can you list down some of the partners of SmartHome NX and the cities that it is currently operational in ?

We can not name our partners but the larger proportion of our partners are present in Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Installing even a surveillance system in home requires lot of wiring, please walk us through the entire flow of events right from the time a potential customer submits a request to the time his/her home is converted into a ‘Smart Home’ ?

There are several steps involved. However, not every surveillance system requires wiring. There are many wireless solutions available as well. A typical smart home security solution [requiring wiring] requires answering the following questions and planning accordingly:

  • What do you want to monitor?
  • Do you need to record it? If so, for how long do you need the data? Typically a higher capacity Hard Drive gives you access to footage for a longer period [1 month, 2 months and so on]
  • How many cameras would you eventually need for the same
  • Concealed wiring is preferred so it’s important to determine whether the homeowner is open to breaking of the walls or ceilings and then getting them redone [new homeowners should ideally call us before their wiring work starts]
  • DVR and the features of the DVR and its usability is important. Generally a DVR – a digital video recorder hosts the hard drive. So it’s important to be able to use it easily and be acquainted with the interface otherwise it becomes challenging to access the security footage.

Typically, after a customer submits the request this is what happens

  • Smarthome NX consultant speaks to you and understands your lifestyle and requirements
  • This is translated into a broad requirements sheet and shared with our entire network of Smart security solutions
  • He or she will contact you and do a recce of your house
  • Send you a quote and start the work.

Since connected devices also require Maintenance, please delve deep into the post installation and AMC process [and for how long is SmartHome NX involved with a customer after his/her SmartHome is ready] ?

We are an aggregator of service providers and are not involved in the project. However, a customer can speak with us at anytime even if they have not gotten a Smart home solution installed through our network. We are happy to connect him to relevant brands and dealers so that they get the service that they need. However, if you have gotten a solution through one of our system integrators, you generally get an AMC contract for a fee based on the products you have bought.

Apart from in house IoT experts, does your startup also have architects on-board who can check the feasibility of a home [before giving a go-ahead] ?

Yes, we do have consulting architects who work along with Namrata and the consulting team to help the customer and system integrator as well in many cases.

Does SmartHomeNx serve the B2C space only or you also have customers in the B2B space ?

We do have customers in the B2B space. However, our focus is and always will be on the end customer. We feel there is far more value to be added there in terms of educating and helping them find the right solution provider.

Can you please some insights into the customer demographics [space, locality, city, etc.] and a rough estimate of the number of customers served till date ?

Practical homemakers, Interior Designers, Builders, Expats, Green living enthusiasts, Millennial’s are generally the type of personas who read our content and speak with us. We have generated inquiries worth about 15 crore and helped connect our partners to 500 homeowners. [Since January 2018].

Please walk us through the funding of SmartHome NX and are you open to institutional funding ?

Bootstrapped. Currently, we are looking to raise funds from angel investors.

The growth in the IoT market is plagued by interoperability issues, what according to you, can the IoT companies do to further expand the IoT ecosystem ?

This is a very scattered and fragmented market. I think that the popularity of Amazon Echo and other such devices by the big tech companies [Google, Amazon, Apple and others] are a boon to the industry. They are ensuring there are more universal interfaces that are available to control a Smart home.

The peripherals industry of Smart homes is set to explode thanks to these interfaces. Interoperability challenges are the industry’s problem. That does not mean that the customer won’t win. Most successful products available in the market work on multiple ecosystems.

To me, this problem will fix itself when customers start adopting something massively – like the Amazon Echo. Generally two or three such events and complementary products and services will make a solution mainstream. Then every other player will follow.

Does SmartHome NX also develop custom build apps for it’s customer since they need to manage different devices on the go and how much do you charge for the update of the App or for FOTA upgrades of your in house developed connected hub ?

Nope. We are a discovery platform for existing solutions already available in the market.

In case, a real-estate company plans to tie-up with SmartHome NX, how does the entire process work ?

We understand their requirements and connect them to system integrators who can work on large scale projects and have the wear withal to execute the same in terms of competency, team and product portfolio. In fact, we have already done this for many villa scheme builders in Southern India and some builders in Mumbai too.

There are number of HNIs who are tech-savvy but don’t know about the security implications for a connected home, how do you educate such category of customers about security, maintenance, upgrades, etc. ?

Content, Content, Content. We have a great newsletter #SmarthomesWeekly and we also right great content on our site about interesting use-cases of products. We do not focus on features but focus on lifestyle problems that these products solve. That’s how we differentiate.

Does SmartHome NX work on the marketplace model [both in terms of devices and contractors] or do you have your own warehouse ?

We are building a marketplace around this but we will steer away from having our own warehouse and our vendors would be drop-shipping individual orders we generate for them. But we are still to get to this so it may go either way.

In IT capital Bengaluru, Sobha Builders, came up with the Smart Building ‘Sobha Habitech’ and Amazon Echo also went mainstream with Builders recently, how according to you would such big tie-ups help in strengthening the eco-system ?

Awesome. This is just great. To me, these efforts are great ways to sell your dormant inventory when you are a builder. However, this does not build a case for Smart homes. These are just sales promotion techniques.

Can you some of the competitors of SmartHome NX ?

No one really. However, with our new positioning [going beyond Smart homes], we would be competing with folks like Houzz.com. We are far from it but we are getting there soon.

2017 was a tough year for startups [especially from funding point of view], how according to you should entrepreneurs deal with such adverse situations ?

Every year seems to be a tough year. I don’t know who comes up with these. Outside of all Tiger Global and Softbank funding news, there is another world of startups that still raise some money and make money too. But unfortunately, the media terms something bad just because they didn’t have too many headliners about billion dollar fundings.

Overall, in tough times, survival counts most. Always keeping your eye on the end goal is important. Monetizing too early is bad too.

Can you share some tips for building an effective team for startups [especially the initial core team].

Hire the people who have the right mindset and not necessarily who are most talented. To me mindset and attitude are two things that tell you whether the person has the grit that is needed to work for a startup. Dozens of pivots, uncertain revenue models and lack of scale – is the person you are hiring ready for it? If not, he is not in it for the game. It is tough but you need people to work for the vision you have.

When you are starting up no one can see what your vision is – therefore they bet their careers on you. It’s important to ensure that they realize that. If they don’t, they are probably just working for you because they think ‘it’s cool to work for a startup’. They won’t realize what they are getting into and will soon quit. So be blunt when you hire, tell them what you are up to and why you are doing it. Honesty goes a long way in weeding out the wrong candidates and finding the right ones.

How important is it for early stage startups to pivot their business model [in case things are not working out as per their plan] or when is the right time to pivot ?

Very. The single most important thing is this. You can not pivot when you are growing. When you are small, it’s easy, it’s less expensive. I think we are still young and we continue to do pivots. I like to call them experiments. I like to do multiple experiments depending on how much cash I have in my bank account. Some pivots even make you money [when we are trying different revenue models] but at the end of the day – learning is most important byproduct. This learning according to me is the most important thing for an entrepreneur

As per your entrepreneurial experience, when should an entrepreneur look out for external funding ?

This never stops I think – external or not. You need money to scale your venture.

Some books that you highly recommend for entrepreneurs

Lee Iacocca’s autobiography

Some closing thoughts for our readers!

I will leave the readers with my favorite quote by Lee Iacocca – ‘The trick is to make sure you don’t die waiting for prosperity to come‘.

We thank Dhaval Doshi for sharing his insights with our readers and walking us through his journey. If you have any questions for him, please share them via a comment to this article or email them to himanshu.sheth@gmail.com