Switchmate: Making a business d.school style

March 4, 2015
Stanford Ph.D. candidate & Switchmate Founder


What if you could automate your in-home lighting in a matter of seconds? (Photo provided by the Switchmate team)

What if you could automate your in-home lighting in a matter of seconds? (Photo provided by the Switchmate team)

If you want to automate your home today, chances are you have to change something major about it. It may mean switching out a thermostat or replacing a light switch. There’s no getting around fumbling with wires, a screwdriver, and hoping not to get electrocuted. So, how are people supposed to try out home automation when it’s so hard just to get started? We created Switchmate to solve this problem, launching it as part of d.school’s fifth Launchpad class. Our device snaps right over a light switch and lets you control it from your phone in seconds without rewiring.

Our first major hurdle was to discover who our users would be and what their needs were. In order to do this, we built a basic prototype and stood outside of hardware stores, including Home Depot, Costco, and Lowe’s, testing the prototype with average people and writing down their thoughts before we were eventually kicked out.

Here’s what surprised us: one type of customer represented people like us: younger apartment dwellers. They wanted the convenience Switchmate provided, giving them the ability to do something as simple as turn the lights off from bed. The other surprise user group was comprised of older homeowners who wanted Switchmate for peace of mind. That second insight really took us aback. It turns out that a sizeable number of people like to have their lights on timers so it looks like they are home when they are away. They also like to have the lights off during the day to save energy and have them on before they return home to provide a sense of comfort.

Once we knew our target customers, that’s when our learning in Launchpad kicked in. We learned how to make Switchmate a business, d.school style.

The first lesson when building a business is that everything is a prototype and you have to keep on iterating to reach profitability. That doesn’t just mean iterating the product. It also means iterating your sales techniques, your team culture, your leadership style, and even your business strategy. Every single thing you do is a prototype, whether you realize it or not, and ultimately the goal is to iterate and solve the problems that you think are most likely to kill your business.

The second lesson when building a business is that if people need your product, they have to be willing to pay for it. If you ask someone if they like a particular feature, they will almost always say “yes”, because who doesn’t want more features? The real test is to ask if they would give you more money for it, and if the answer is “no”, they don’t really need that feature.

The greatest lesson that Launchpad taught us was to embrace failure as we struggled through product development. It’s very hard to build a new product from scratch, and you have to get users involved early on – ideally, from the beginning — even if it’s painful. One Launchpad challenge was to get a few users to use our product in one day even before we had a completely functional app. I went from door-to-door in my apartment complex asking people to try out an early version of Switchmate only to watch them struggle to install the app or have it crash on them half way through the process. It was quite embarrassing, and it didn’t feel good at first, but when I returned to class, I realized that we had made a big step towards making a great product. How else would we have known that the app wasn’t stable if we didn’t try and let other people download and test it?

Launchpad is a d.school proving ground for entrepreneurs and is not for the faint of heart. It taught me and my team so many valuable lessons that made us into the entrepreneurs that we are today.

You can check out the latest progress on our Indiegogo campaign to make automation easy at http://www.myswitchmate.com/shop.

Daniel Peng, a co-founder of Switchmate, contributed to this piece.

Share This Article

1 Comment

  1. cody

    I was recently at a Home Expo in town and came across a number of home automation systems that seek to bridge the home owner and convenience through technology . It was interesting to see the different approaches vendors were taking but a consistent theme became apparent and that was the learning curve to install and use the system. Interestingly, the demographics of the audience were a collection of home owners who were seeking to upgrade their house through furnishing or additions.

    I got a good laugh from the lessons gained from your apartment experience and hope you will be spurred to keep refining the learning curve for the switchmate.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *