Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Utz Baldwin, Co-founder of Ube

Utz Baldwin, Co-founder of Ube

Utz Baldwin knew that one day regular people would be able to control their home electronics with their smart phones—regular people meaning not James Bond or the very wealthy. Having spent decades designing and installing connected home systems for rich people, he waited until the technology and consumer usage hit the tipping point…then he founded Ube.
Ube, which is part of Techstars inaugural class, makes an app that controls smart dimmers in your home using an open source API. With the installation of the Ube dimmers—that cost about $79 each—you can turn your lights on from your smart phone before you get home or while on vacation (as long as you’re someplace with an Internet connection.) Or you can remember you left the bedroom light on while you’re watching a movie in the living room and turn it off without going upstairs. Ube dimmers have sub metering technology to let homeowners know how much energy their lights are using. It relies on several gestures: a slide to raise or lower the light in a room; a pinch to turn everything off at once.

A 007 Home, Without His Expense Account

And unlike other connected home technologies, Ube gets along great with other devices. You can use your home router; you don’t have to buy a special one. And down the road, Ube will be able to control hundreds of other IP systems from its one app.
The app will also rely heavily on analytics to “learn” its owners’ living habits.
“Because we’re using server side software and algorithms we can begin to capture and learn how you interact with the technology around you…” Baldwin said. “People typically like their lights set a particular way. As you interact with the lights and other electrical products around you, our system can learn your behaviors rather than responding to a predetermined block of code. Also if you’re going on vacation, our system could remember what you did in weeks before and simulate that. Instead of a light coming on at 6 and going off at 10, we could make it look like somebody went from the bedroom to the kitchen.”
Brad Kayton, a serial entrepreneur in home electronics, advisor and investor took on the role of advisor with Ube mostly because of the team, but also because the idea was unique in the industry.
“The more functionality that you have the better,” Kayton said. “Some folks out there are trying to create more of a closed system. That never wins in technology…. Ube’s plan is that other systems will be allowed to integrate with our system. We can bundle with other systems. The founders are very good at creating partnerships…going out and convincing other companies they should integrate with us. That’s the winning strategy.”

Playing a Hunch

Baldwin had his own top 100 systems integrating company, AD systems, and worked as CEO of CEDIA, an International Trade Association for the residential electronic systems contracting industry. So he had long industry knowledge. He also, he said, “always had difficulty working with others. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Leo, I’m strong willed, opinionated.”
For awhile CEDIA felt like running his own show, but then the politics set in. He’d conceived the idea of Ube a decade before, but when he left CEDIA in 2011, he took time off to ponder his next move.
Founding Ube, he said, was “a culmination of life experiences, connections you make, tracking industries you’re familiar with. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see a good idea. The writing’s on the wall. The information’s in front of you. It’s just a matter of acting on it.”
He knew the connected home industry was moving toward a networked world but the infrastructure wasn’t there. He’d watched other companies try and fail similar projects and waited until the number of smart phone users reached a critical mass.
In the first quarter of 2012, he called his co-founder Glen Burchers who had worked with him at AD systems. The first words out of Burchers’ mouth were:
“I hope you’re calling me with a startup idea because I’m sick of my job.”
“You have to have the fortitude to act on your hunch. You also want to prove your assumptions quickly. We launched our product and came above water as quickly as possible. You want to introduce a technology like ours without spending millions and millions to do it…. We were bringing together sub metering, capacitative touch, Wi-Fi, a lot of cool tech rolled into one device.”
They built a slide deck and gave themselves a 60-day investigative period visiting mentors, CEOs of other companies they knew, investors, “just to get their opinion…should we do this or should we go get jobs?”
The answer was, Go for it. So they bootstrapped, and raised $200,000 in friends and family seed money, and built prototypes.
“They didn’t look pretty but they worked. We got them back from the manufacturers in China and were sitting at Glen’s dining room table with all these light bulbs and wires. We had the app going and they were talking to each other. That was exciting.”
In October, Ube launched at DEMO. Unfortunately they nearly failed to show the product because their wireless access registered as an “alien” wireless network to the building’s IT system which blocked their app’s connection. They were up until 2 a.m. the night before getting it squared away. But it all worked out in the end and they won the People’s Choice Award which gave them a million in free advertising from IDG in magazines like Computerworld and CIO.
“It was a bit surreal standing on stage at the end of the event holding a million dollar check. I thought that was a very pivotal point for us.”

The Startup Rollercoaster

In April 2013, Ube launched a Kickstarter campaign. In the first two days, the money poured in. Then for the next five, the campaign essentially stopped. Hit the doldrums. Then, three days before the campaign, Kickstarter pulled the campaign because of an objection they had to the reward Ube was offering, though they’d initially approved the reward. Ube had to email all their backers and ask them to send their support to a new campaign.
“Twenty four hours later we were back live. We’d gotten 250 emails from our backers.” The backers had pulled out of the first campaign and Ube wound up bringing in nearly $308,000, more than their initial goal.
One of those backers, Steven Jennings, is eagerly awaiting the release of his Ube dimmers for a home he’s redoing in the Barton Springs area. He met with Utz and got a look at the prototypes.
“One of the things that’s annoying is when you’re comfortable on a couch, getting ready to watch a movie and my wife and I kind of play ‘It’s your turn’ to turn off the lights,” said Jennings. “Ube is iPhone or Android compatible and you need one device that will do it all. The idea of multiple gestures is great.”
“Ube is also very intuitive, very consumer friendly,” Jennings said. “It’s not tough for the non-programmer-thinking mind…down the line they’ll be controlling other stuff as well. The light switch is their shtick to get you in. It’s a good shtick to start with.”
Ube has a profile on the popular crowd funding site, where accredited investors can learn more about the company. They anticipate raising a Series A venture capital investment round late this year. They need to hire additional staff and accelerate their engineering. So far they have about $430,000 in pre-orders.
Being accepted into Techstars was another huge validation point, Baldwin said. And only a week into it, he’d learned a ton. But then it’s been 18 months of intense learning about the VC community, the differences between Silicon Valley VCs and Texas VCs, valuation, convertible notes, the manufacturing process….
“It’s a little like being bi-polar,” Baldwin said, riding the ups and downs and not getting a paycheck. He’s learned 16 different ways to cook lentils.
“But I wouldn’t trade it. I’d go another 18 months without pay just for the ride.”