Scott Vlaminck: Establishing Trust from the Beginning

In this episode of the Masters of Data podcast, I sat down with someone who (in an incredibly short time) has had a tremendous impact on the way our world interacts with technology today. Our guest, Scott Vlaminck, co-founded SmartThings with 6 other people in the spring of 2012. Their goal was simple: to make your world — your house — smarter. In the fall of 2012 they raised $1.2 million dollars in one of the biggest campaigns on Kickstarter. Only two years later in 2014 they were acquired by Samsung for $200 million dollars. That’s pretty amazing. Scott sat down with me at the recent Sumo Logic User Conference (you can hear the cappuccino machine behind us)to discuss more about the overall vision and goals of the SmartThings brand, their acquisition by the electronics giant Samsung, his journey and the challenges of running devices in the most private of spaces (your home). We also discuss how to maintain trust with your customers, as well as why they have been so successful in what many may see as a niche product space.

Kicking off the conversation Scott talks about his background and his segue into the technology space. He shares that he has always been interested in technology, and before starting SmartThings was really just a cloud server developer. He was interested in all sorts of technology and really focused on building things that he wanted to see exist in the world. His focus was as an aerospace engineering major in college where taught himself to program. At that time (in the late ’90s) the internet was booming, but as we reminisce, there weren’t a lot of jobs in aerospace available. After some time, he then found himself as 1 of 7 co-founders of SmartThings, which had a somewhat unconventional genesis. As Scott shares, one of the co-founders suffered a frozen and subsequently burst pipe in a cabin he owned in the woods which could have been avoided if technology had been developed to notify him the temperature was too low. While an unfortunate and messy life circumstance, it was the call to action for the co-founders to take the advancements in technology that had been emerging and find ways to use the technology to improve people lives through more advanced security and comfort concepts in the home.

But apart from a unique beginning, Scott and I also discuss how the growth of the company has also been somewhat unconventional. As he shares, “We started in April of 2012. Launched Kickstarter in August…of that year. We seemed to touch a nerve on what people wanted to do and were interested in. And we had a very successful Kickstarter campaign.” Successful is a modest description because SmartThings raised $1.2 million over the course of their campaign and became the then second most successful Kickstarter in the technology space. And the reason for their overwhelming success? “We tried to be really engaged in the forums; if people asked questions we were right there to answer them. And [we were] really trying to foster that back and forth to make sure we were understanding the needs of our customers and what they wanted to do. And that [has been] the culture of the company…since then.” Maintaining a pulse on what their clients really valued and wanted was the central ideology from the beginning as well as maintaining access to the developers who would be able to be on the platforms interacting with people in the community forums. But not only were these building blocks to a successful consumer-minded business, but also the foundation for gaining the interest of Samsung.

While developing the technology that makes a smarter home is the goal, it’s more complex than that in some ways. There’s a lot that goes into the development of technology to make a smarter home. As Scott shares with me, “Customers ultimately don’t care about what it takes for us to build [or] provide to them what it is they care about…customers don’t care that their motion detector is sending messages but they really do care that it’s working. So we have a lot of data that we try to make use of.” So while building the technology that people can rely on is part of the objective, the ultimate goal is building it in a way that utilizes a constant stream of collected data, in a way that people can trust; especially when the technology is in sacred, personal spaces like their home. While data collection is what drives the technology, we discuss that there must be an established trust with the customer as to how the information will be used, which is part of how they market themselves. Conveying the message of what they do and why it matters is always at the forefront of their minds. “A lot of people didn’t know that they wanted to automate their lights for example, because they’ve lived their entire lives flipping switches on. [But] once you get used to it, people start to see the value and how that can move into other areas of their lives.” The truth is that the technology SmartThings offers is changing the way we see our homes and what we see as conventional, but without a high respect for data collection and privacy, the future would not be so bright.

Outbound Links & Resources Mentioned

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  • SmartThings started by researching different ways of knowing information about your home and investigating different sensors for what you could do with your home.
  • The SmartThings Kickstarter was the second most successful technology project at the time after the Pebble watch.
  • The success of their Kickstarter was due to being engaged in the forums; if people asked question we were right there to answer them and foster that back and forth to make sure they were understanding the needs of their customers.
  • Their goals as technologists and founders was to not have separate apps for everything we do in our life but to find one unified way of controlling all technology in the home.
  • They felt they needed to build a platform with a good user experience something that they would also want to use.
  • SmartThings was acquired by Samsung in 2014 for $200 million dollars.
  • Even after the acquisition, there was a mutual understanding that consumers won’t buy only Samsung devices and so the value of SmartThings goes down if they don’t find ways to work with any device that a customer wants.
  • Customers ultimately don’t care about what it takes for them to build what it is they care about.
  • Customers don’t care that their motion detector is sending messages but they do care that it’s working.
  • The devices gather a lot of data that they try to make use of in a secondary, or tertiary way.
  • Understanding how to parse that data in a way that’s useful for consumers is what they focus on.
  • Their aim is to make decisions about what’s important information and what’s not.
  • SmartThings aims to make sure that what’s useful for customers is driving what they’re looking for.
  • SmartThings takes data privacy very seriously because people are inviting them into their homes.
  • This puts them in a privileged position in that relationship and the goal is to let consumers know that they care about making sure they’re doing what’s right by them.
  • They believe that customers own their own data and they simply use it in a way that is ultimately working toward their desires and goals which is generally automation use.
  • Their goal in the future is to focus on making sure that they’re delivering value for their customers in whatever way that means to them.