IoT startup interview: Emberlight CEO Atif Noori

When I met Atif in the summer of 2013, he was still at his old job and looking to start his own hardware startup. He briefly joined us at Venture Scanner to look at the IoT space, came up with a bunch of ideas, and discussed them with us. A year later, he launched a smart lightbulb socket called emberlight on kickstarter and blew past his goal of $50K in five days (raised $78K with 34 days left at the time of writing this post).

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Let’s hear what his experience was like and his view on the IoT and connected home!

Q: How did you decide to focus on the connected home market and the emberlight smart bulb idea?

I was initially interested in 3D printing and connected home. I knew 3D printer itself will commoditize and thought the materials will be where the value will be. I liked companies like MadeSolid that makes advanced resins, but decided to focus to the connected home.

I then came up with about 50 randoms ideas, 10 of which I shared with you to ask for your thoughts. I kept scanning the space and found many smart lightbulb companies like LIFX, but didn’t quite like them. I wanted to use a normal light bulb. That’s when the idea of emberlight came to life—a smart socket that  turns any bulb into a smart bulb.

Next was market validation. I first tested the concept with my friends and nearby people and they liked it. However friends are nice so you can’t take their feedback at face value. So I created a website, collected a bunch of email addresses, and tested the emberlight concept with total strangers. When I got positive feedback from them, I decided to go with the idea.

Q: IoT requires a team with broader skill set than software development. What was your team building process like? 

As you say, an IoT startup needs people with a diverse skill set, like a band to play symphony. I found many of my current team through my personal networks and introductions. I knew Gordon, my hardware guy, from high school. Levi who handles sofware is my wife’s friend’s husband. Kevin who handles firmware is Levi’s brother. Kevin, my mobile guy was introduced to me by Nathan SooHoo of Venture Scanner!

While I was very fortunate to create a great team, there were some frustrating moments because it just takes time. You can’t find them in a matter of weeks, it takes months. It’s also very important that you work with them for a few months before officially bringing them on to test chemistry.

Q: What was the prototyping stage like? Was it as easy as people say with lean tools like Ardruino, 3D printers, etc?

Concept creation and feasibility study were easy but going to manufacturable prototype was quite a challenge.  We first used Ardruino but quickly switched to ElectricImp, which I knew from my earlier scans. It was great but since it was made for bigger products like washing machines and fridges, turned out to be too expensive. At the end of it, we decided to make everything ourselves. We are now continuing to shrink the PCB (Printed Circuit Board), and meeting with many manufacturers and sending out RFQs (Request For Quote).

Q. Many hardware projects on crowd funding sites fail to deliver on time. What’s your outlook as you go to manufacturing stage?

Yes, hardware manufacturing is tough and I’m anticipating unexpected problems to arise. That’s just the fact of hardware business. I’m very fortunate that everyone on the team has industry experience, and will rely on that to plan and execute the manufacturing stage. We’re also minimizing component risk by using certified components, like RF modules for example.

Q. Many people are saying that in IoT, hardware should be simple and software/data is where the value is. What’s your take on it?

Yes, I fully agree. Hardware is just a vessel and real value comes from the software, cloud, and data. With that you can do interesting things like contextual awareness. An example is proximity detection using beacons to turn off or dim the lights when the user is away. I also found that firmware is quite critical. Lots of IPs around there.

Q: How did you plan for the kickstarter campaign?

One thing I can say is that crowd funding is a full time job, before and during the campaign. It is critical to plan ahead for it as you will have no time to do anything else when backer engagement becomes your primary job after the campaign starts. It is also very important to create potential backer community beforehand as getting a rocket start is crucial in crowd funding. We had about 7000 people on the mailing list when the campaign started.

Q: What kinds of interesting comments are you receiving from your backers?

Many people are asking for interoperability with other devices, like utilizing IFTTT to make multiple connected home devices work together. It is no surprise with the increasing number of devices in the home, people want one place to control them and have them work in harmony. So we’re looking to make it compatible with IFTTT, open our API, and perhaps consider other interoperability platforms like HomeKit in the future.

Q: Lasty, what’s your take on the future of IoT?

Well, my primary interest is in the connected home so I’ll keep it within that context. I think eventually wearables will blend in to the connected home. Smartphones are great but launching the app every time you want to control home devices is quite cumbersome. I think wearables like wristbands with motion sensors can play an interesting role to provide gesture control.

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Atif, thanks for your time and good luck!

Check out the full scan of the IoT sector with more than 500 companies here.

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