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Best Mentor Questions to ask Startup Founders

I was recently invited to mentor a group of startups at the selection weekend of StartupBootcamp Internet of Things|Connected Devices, a new accelerator based in London.

At first, I wondered whether I’d have enough questions to ask in the 20 minute long 1-2-1 mentoring sessions with the founders. I decided to jot down some of the best questions I’ve heard over the years  at the various hackathons and startup events I’ve attended so I was prepared.

It was quite a handy little crib sheet so I’ve included it below as a resource. Feel free to print out and use it for your own events.

Let me know if it is useful and give me a shout out if you think it is worth more people hearing about!

Best Mentor Questions to ask Startup Founders

  1. Have you worked together before?
  2. Is this your first startup?
  3. What IP protection do you have?
  4. Do you have any pre-orders?
  5. Who will be your key clients?
  6. Have you ever worked with these clients before?
  7. What is the marketing plan?
  8. Who are your competitors?
  9. What are your USPs against these competitors?
  10. How are your clients solving this problem now?
  11. What is your exit strategy?
  12. What are your cyber security plans?
  13. What are the revenue streams?

You can download a copy of this list as a handy PDF here for your own use.

Startupbootcamp IoT|Connected Devices 2016: startups now selected!

It was a pleasure to be a Mentor at the recent selection event for the new Startupbootcamp IoT|Connected Devices Accelerator that is going to be based in the Rainmaking Loft from September 2016.

They’ve picked 10 awesome startups for the inaugural cohort:

We had such a great time at the event – see some of the best bits below!

19 Hard Things You Need To Do To Be Successful: written in the 1st person affirmative tense

Many of you will be familiar with the great list post: 19 Hard Things You Need To Do To Be Successful.

It did the rounds on the internet last year and I have to say I really like it as it identifies many common negative patterns. I posted it up on my wall and it has been very useful to read this as a daily reminder to push through these limiting patterns or beliefs.

However, the father of autosuggestion, Emilé Coué, and the proponents of NLP tell us that a more effective way to prime the subconscious would be to use the first person tense in an affirmative manner.

As such, I have rewritten this post in the first person affirmative tense. You can download the file as a PDF here or you can read it below:

19 Hard Things I Do To Be Successful

I do the hard things.

  1. I make the call I’m afraid to make.
  2. I get up earlier than I want to get up.
  3. I give more than I get in return right away.
  4. I care more about others than they care about me.
  5. I fight when I am already injured, bloody, and sore.
  6. I feel unsure and insecure when playing it safe seems smarter.
  7. I lead when no one else is following me yet.
  8. I invest in myself even though no one else is.
  9. I look like a fool while I’m looking for answers I don’t have.
  10. I grind out the details when it’s easier to shrug them off.
  11. I deliver results when making excuses is an option.
  12. I search for my own explanations even when I’m told to accept the “facts.”
  13. I make mistakes and look like an idiot.
  14. I try and fail and try again.
  15. I run faster even though I’m out of breath.
  16. I am kind to people who have been cruel to me.
  17. I meet deadlines that are unreasonable and deliver results that are unparalleled.
  18. I am accountable for my actions even when things go wrong.
  19. I keep moving towards where I want to be no matter what’s in front of me.

I do the hard things. The things that no one else is doing. The things that scare me. The things that make me wonder how much longer I can hold on.

Those are the things that define me. Those are the things that make the difference between living a life of mediocrity or outrageous success.

The hard things are the easiest things to avoid. To excuse away. To pretend like they don’t apply to me.

The simple truth about how ordinary people accomplish outrageous feats of success is that we do the hard things that smarter, wealthier, more qualified people don’t have the courage — or desperation — to do.

I do the hard things. I might be surprised at how amazing I really am.

To download the file as a PDF, click here.

Book review: New Business Road Test by John W. Mullins

My challenge: too many business ideas

One of my passions is creating new services, products, and organisations that add real value to people’s lives. But with so many ideas, how do I choose between the good ones and the bad ones? How do I prioritise which idea I should work on and invest time in?

In my previous roles at powerPerfector and Eco Ltd, I saw the importance of the Go/No-Go Matrix for making good business development decisions. Understanding which opportunities for new business should be pursued by the company is both a science and an art, and a good opportunity screening analysis is vital to ensure that a company’s scarce resources of time and money are well invested in the pursuit of projects that will ultimately be profitable.

In an existing business, the boundary conditions for new projects are usually well known and provide a natural element of constraint. However, when thinking of a totally new product, service, or organisation, these parameters can be almost non-existent and the abundance of possibility can lead to a paralysing effect on the decision making process.

The desire to solve this puzzle led me to a fantastic book called The New Business Road Test* by John W. Mullins of the London Business School.

How to assess a new business opportunity

In his book, Mullins lays out what he sees as the critical steps an entrepreneur should take when creating a new business opportunity. There are:

  1. Idea generation: create a new business idea that adds genuine value and solves a real customer need
  2. New Business Road Test: use the Seven Domains framework (his term for an Opportunity Screening Analysis) to assess and shape the idea
  3. Customer-driven Feasibility Study: lay out the conclusions from the road test’s data and analysis to create a strong concept document that can be used as a platform for a final decision
  4. Business Plan: write a bankable project concept that sets out the route to building a successful business that is attractive to venture capitalists.

The Seven Domains Framework

His methodology for a New Business Road Test is centred around his seven domains framework:

New Business Road Test: Seven Domains of attractive opportunities

  1. Market domain
    1. Target segment benefits and attractiveness (Micro-level)
    2. Market attractiveness (Macro-level)
  2. Industry domain
    1. Sustainable advantage (Micro-level)
    2. Industry attractiveness (Macro-level)
  3. Team domain
    1. Mission, aspirations, propensity for risk
    2. Ability to execute on the Critical Success Factors (CSFs)
    3. Connectedness up, down, and across the value chain.

What is different about this methodology compared to others?

Mullins suggests that primary and secondary data should be collected to explore the business opportunity in each of the seven domains as part of a road test that is the written up into a customer-driven feasibility study before embarking on a business plan.

We can contrast his approach with the two that are standard in today’s market:

1. Road Test v Business Plan-centric

Traditionally entrepreneurs have been asked to propose new business ideas by launching straight into the business plan stage. Business plan competitions at universities take this approach and were a dominant feature on the startup map for decades.

The problem with jumping straight into a business plan is that it is very easy to write an entire document based on optimism and the fantasy “best case” scenarios that exist in the entrepreneur’s mind. Mullins’ approach brings top-down and bottom-up data into the equation to actually validate the idea at the very beginning. This prevents resources being needlessly wasted on the creation of a complicated and in-depth business plan for a business that is inherently doomed to fail from the very beginning.

2. Road Test v Lean Startup

In the last 5 years or so, the ground-breaking Lean Startup methodology of Eric Ries* has created a fundamental shift in the way entrepreneurs launch new businesses. The Lean Startup movement opposes almost all forms of formal planning at the first stage and concentrates on building a bare-bones prototype called a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to show to customers.

If they declare interest in sufficient numbers (ideally even making a pre-order before seeing the product in its final form), the entrepreneur knows that the opportunity has been “validated” and now has enough merit to be judged worthy of development into its final form. If not, the entrepreneur can either edit the opportunity (“pivot”) and try again, or they can drop the idea.

Mullins’ road test methodology differs in that it advocates a deep level of pre-execution planning akin to the business plan-centric model of the past. However, much like the Lean Startup, Mullins’ approach calls for significant customer interaction and validation from the outset, which allows the idea to be shaped by reality before the entrepreneur invests real resources in developing a formal business plan.

One advantage of Mullins’ road test approach is that it allows the entrepreneur to use high level data to investigate whether the planned product actually has a lucrative market to service and whether it is in an attractive industry to compete in or a lousy one.

Lean Startup tends to advocate jumping head-first into the iterative Build-Learn-Measure loop. However, if the destination industry is fiercely competitive or the target market either doesn’t view the problem as a priority (or is simply not big enough), the Lean Startup methodology can result in an entrepreneur iterating their business into a competitive brick wall or off a financial cliff.

The New Business Road Test approach allows the entrepreneur to get a real feel for the lay of the land using data before (or in parallel to) deciding whether to invest in the creation of an MVP. It also gives a systematic framework for the entrepreneur to really understand their customers better at the same time as assessing their need for the potential product.

What I learned

My approach to testing my businesses from now on will be a mixture of the Lean Startup and the New Business Road Test approaches. Where possible I will build a basic MVP which I will show to customers during the interview process or shortly afterwards. I will also seek macro-level data to support decisions about whether the markets that I am targeting are inherently worthwhile or more of a lost cause.

Read the book

You can download the book’s first chapter from Stanford University which provides a high level summary of the Seven Domains framework and how to use it.

However, if you are an entrepreneur struggling to make sense of multiple business ideas (or are an investor looking for a coherent and systematic framework) I thoroughly recommend reading the whole thing* as it includes a great mix of case studies and notes on how to apply the methodology.

Bonnie Scotland: Stay UK

During the history of the UK, our country has helped shape the modern world. We have sailed the seas; pushed the boundaries of science, industry, and the arts; and we have fought and died together for the freedom of our own beloved citizens and those across Europe.

The political and economic landscape of the UK today lacks balance and many agree that this needs to be addressed. But let’s not treat imperfection as a reason to throw it all away. Vote to Stay UK so we can work side-by-side to create a better country and a better world, shoulder to shoulder.

Better Together

Amazon and eBay rentals – business model of the future?

Isn’t it amazing that neither Amazon and eBay let users lend and borrow items between themselves? There are plenty of websites chasing the rental market currently, so why aren’t the e-commerce giants chasing it as a business model?

Connectivity = efficiency = sustainability

Connectivity within a system allows for greater efficiency, as it allows different elements of a system to pool resources and reduce the duplication of effort. From a sustainability standpoint, the rise of the internet is incredibly exciting as it facilitates the sharing of resources, meaning fewer items need to be fabricated for human use, which in turn reduces the total amount of effort and investment wasted on items that have a low usage factor.

Prior to the internet, the pool of objects and items that human beings could “leverage” (i.e. use) to achieve their goals without an outright purchase was mostly limited to those held by their within their own network of friends, neighbours and family. This was a pool constrained by the mind’s numerical capacity for relationships, the lack of a complete and quick way to search a person’s hypothetical inventory of items available for use, and also by the ability to convince others of trustworthiness.

Internet marketplaces facilitate sharing

The internet can disrupt this status quo through the use of marketplaces that can be used to connect borrowers and lenders of items. Items could be listed as available for borrowing/renting, and potential users could search for them. Possible features include:

  • rating the condition of an item by both parties before and after the transaction
  • insurance products could be offered to cover the item
  • payment (if needed) could be handled via the marketplace site/app
  • location of the borrowers/lenders could be matched quickly through mobile GPS
  • the option to buy the item could be provided if desired

There are startups working on this very concept as we speak, such as StreetBank in the UK. Watch their company trailer below:

Business case for Amazon and eBay rentals

Given the interest in the rental model by many startups around the world, driven by the fundamental capability shift that has been enabled by the internet, I find it intriguing that Amazon and eBay do not offer their customers the opportunity to search for rentals (with the exception of holiday home rentals on eBay and Amazon’s e-book and online film/movie rentals).

In my mind, allowing customers to lend/borrow in addition to buy/sell would be a source of additional traffic to the site, adding additional opportunity to grow revenue. The rental model itself would also be extremely appealing to the two companies as, in the case of popular items or items rented for long periods of time, it could yield regular cashflow. For example, it would be perfect for those who want to rent big items like TVs or sofas.

This business model would also hedge their position against a potentially disruptive market force and allow them to stay ahead of the curve (and potentially kill any upstarts dead in the water).

But why don’t they want to offer it as a service to clients? There may be a few reasons:

  • They do not want to lose the focus on their primary business model
  • They don’t want to create a new market that could potentially disrupt their current operations
  • They don’t believe their is a real demand for the service
  • They do not believe that the potential revenue streams do not justify the costs of lost sales and investment in their site infrastructure

I believe that the last two are the more plausible ones, as Amazon in particular are not known for shying away from innovation!

One thing worth noting here is the ingenious “Subscribe & Save” feature of Amazon that allows users to create a regular repeat transaction for an item they buy regularly (such as food or toiletries) and save up to 15% of the cost in the process. This is win-win for both parties: customers save money and Amazon gets a regular cashflow. The service is a step in the direction of the rental model and creates much more of a recurring relationship between the parties (making the user of the site a “client” rather than a “customer”).

Disrupting the very concept of “ownership”

Having wider access to use the items around us (i.e. having greater “personal leverage” of your community’s assets) will suddenly change the very concept of ownership. If an item is readily available to be lent or borrowed by thousands of people via an online marketplace, who will really “own” the item? Technology will blur the lines between group and individual ownership and the old definition of ownership being “the moral right to categorically control something” may begin to feel like an anachronism.

The economist and activist Jeremy Rifkin recently wrote an article for the New York Times heralding “the rise of Anti-capitalism”. He argues that the “zero marginal cost economy” being driven by technological mega-trends such as the Internet of Things will increase collaboration. This will reduce the opportunities for capitalists to make profits and increase the relevance of social enterprises and non-profit organisations.

Given how this could represent a threat to megacorporations, this is a concept worth serious consideration.

Business case for rental not sales

In my mind, this highlights the potential business case for companies renting items to us rather than selling. This is the lifetime cost model versus the upfront cost model of a transaction.

Upfront cost model characteristics

  • immediate access to cash = lower risk of cash loss via customer churn or default
  • Lack of cash flow predictability
  • Upfront cost is a barrier to customer acquisition
  • Vendor has no incentive to take responsibility for maintenance or disposal of product = higher margin

Lifetime cost model characteristics

  • Lower initial cost = lower barrier to purchase = more sales
  • High predictability of cash flow
  • Greater emphasis on client relationship = greater emphasis customer service = greater chance of add-on sales/repeat business
  • Responsibility for life cycle of product (maintenance and disposal) = incentive for sustainability = better quality products made and less wastage

Can you imagine a world where, instead of buying a pair of Jeans outright, you would instead rent them? The borrower would sign up for a certain amount of time (say 5 years) and the lender would be responsible for ensuring they last the allotted length of time (perhaps offering a post-back service to have them fixed or tailored).

This business model would reduce the amount of unused, unnecessary items in circulation, would save customers money, and would allow more responsible and competent companies to thrive. I for one would be keen to see this model take off!

Winners of Nesta’s Dynamic Demand Challenge announced

The winners of Nesta’s Dynamic Demand Challenge have been announced at the Finalists Awards Presentation last week.

The winners were Demand Shaper of Exergy Devices with Hestia, a “smart home controller specifically designed for electrically–heated homes, and could save these households over £200 per year. Using Demand Shaper technology, Hestia implements a time–shifting algorithm to subtly alter domestic heating schedules, modulating electricity demand according to the needs of electricity suppliers, or National Grid“.

Hestia Nesta dynamic demand Challenge winners

Hestia (aka Exergy Devices) received their award: Winners of the Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge

To be perfectly honest, at the Hackathon I didn’t fully grasp understand their offering, as you can see from my previous post on the topic.  However, I should have guessed they would do well as the team have invested significant efforts in their academic research into this field, and already have a history of successful and profitable IP generation for the smart home market.

The focus on an initial target market (or “sandbox”) of electrically heated homes will lead to some impressive benefits:

Hestia could reduce energy consumption by 25% thanks to subtle alterations in domestic heating schedules which match the homeowner’s needs with the supplier’s capacity. The technology offers a peak demand shifting capacity of 1.7 GW if deployed across the UK and has the potential to reduce individual homeowners’ CO2 emissions by around 3 tonnes per annum and save around £200 a year.”

Hestia have won £50,000 in funding on top of the significant benefits and funding they have received from the Challenge already. Congratulations to Dr Peter Boait and his team!

I was also delighted to see that my favourite finalist, Upside, won a place on the Climate-KIC Accelerator which will see them receive €25,000 in funding and “continued support to develop their business”. In addition to this, Upside has recently confirmed their successful bid for funding from the Technology Strategy Board’s Localised Energy Systems Competition, in consortium with Siemens, Sharp Labs, Tempus Energy and the University of Manchester. Graham and his team now have a great combination of validation, investment, and partner support to take the idea forward. Well done guys!

This brochure from Nesta contains information on all the finalists: their progress to date, their future plans and any investment opportunities for those that want to support their work. On a side note, it’s nice to see my PowerCube Tariff idea get a little shoutout in there:

“An ultra low–priced electricity tariff, with a capacity ceiling that is hard wired into consumers’ electricity supply. A smart meter would be installed in house, including a switch, which will feed from the capacity limit that is fed from the smart meter. The Powercube will notify the user via green, amber or red lights and also via text message when they are utilising a surge of electricity. If a large amount of electricity is used at one time, the house’s full electricity supply will cut out for 60 seconds as a warning/incentive for the user to be more wary of their activity.”

I should add that paragraph was not written by me… 🙂

It was exciting to see how far the ideas have come in the 12 months of the Challenge and I’m optimistic for the potential environmental benefits that will come out of this successful initiative. I recommend this as a model project for all those seeking to stimulate smart grid entrepreneurship.

Secret Facebook experiment on users – do emotions spread through networks?

According to this article on Slate, Facebook secretly conducted a psychological experiment on around 689,000 users to see if emotions can be transmitted through social networks. This is an awesome experiment, but some deem it unethical as users did not explicitly give permission for this to happen.

What was the experiment?

The phenomenon of emotional states passing from person to person, known as “emotional contagion“, is a by-product of human empathy in relationships and is discussed extensively in academic literature. However, it had been believed that in-person interactions and non-verbal cues were essential for the transfer of an emotional state from person to person.

This experiment sought to test whether in fact emotions could be transmitted from person to person through their networks, solely via the medium of a written update viewed on a user’s Facebook News Feed page. On Facebook, the constant stream of status updates provides too many for users to see them all, so Mark Zuckerberg’s engineers designed an algorithm that allows the News Feed to filter, select and display status updates that it believes are the most relevant and interesting for the user.

The investigators in this experiment worked with Facebook’s Core Data Science team to modify the algorithm. A group of people saw more emotionally positive updates than usual, some saw more negatively emotional updates, and some saw fewer updates of an emotional content. The status updates of the user themselves were then observed over the next few days to analyse their emotional content in order to investigate whether or not their was a correlation.

Intriguingly, the researchers did indeed see that people were more positive or negative after seeing more positive or negative updates from their friends, and less emotional in general if the emotional content of their News Feed was reduced. The effects were small but measurable and statistically significant.

What’s the problem?

Experiments on human test subjects can sometimes result in physical or mental harm. For an experiment to be carried out in an ethical manner where the subjects know there is a possibility that some harm could arise, the scientists or experimenting agents need to gain “informed consent” from the subjects.

In this case, the permission was not explicitly given by the users for this to occur. Rather, it was taken as implicit from a short clause buried deep in Facebook’s Data Use Policy.

Of course, in an experiment where the investigators are testing whether people develop negative emotions if exposed to the negative emotions of others, this has serious consequences. Apart from the immediate pain that the users are unwittingly suffering from being exposed to more negativity than they would have otherwise experienced, there is the possibility that additional knock-on consequences may have occurred.

For example, the users might have been in a mentally fragile state at the time of using Facebook. The increased negativity may have caused a level of psychological pain that then caused them to behave in a damaging way to themselves or others, such as violence, self-harm, or even suicide.

Is it fair of Facebook to have subjected users to this possibility without their explicit consent?

My personal opinion on the experiment and its ethics

For me, there is no doubt that is an excitingly innovative use of a social network to test a real-world question on how human interactions change their emotional state.

Although the consequences were potentially negative, I personally think that this a fair use of the system and makes a very interesting point that people place corporations like Facebook in an extraordinary position of power.

When you sign up to a service like Facebook and log in to absorb information from your personal News Feed, in essence you are handing over the keys to your mood.

In this case, Facebook did not explicitly gain permission for the experiment, but they were well within their right to do so as their users had already signed over to this possibility.

For those who protest that users will have seen more emotionally negative updates that they usually would have done, the key phrase I suggest needs to be examine is “usually would have done”. This usual state of affairs implied by “usually” is determined by an algorithm that the user has already designated as a key agent in the provision of knowledge. They have given it permission to process and serve knowledge under a variety of conditions, so this experiment is just one of them.

What can we learn from this experiment?

  1. Be happy and positive on Facebook (and in life generally), as it is scientifically established that your emotions are mirrored by the people around you. So if you like people and want them to be happy, be happy yourself!
  2. The content of your personal Facebook News Feed is determined by an algorithm. Given the amount of time that Facebook users spend viewing this information, and the documented impact it has on their emotions, one should think carefully and critically about how much time to spend on Facebook and how much to pay attention to what one sees there.
  3. Pay attention to the small print when you register for websites and think deeply about what the possible implications could be. What uses could the website’s creator possibly have in mind for your data and how could it affect you in real life?
  4. Be selective about the algorithms that you allow into your life and the power that you are given them over your well-being.
  5. On a scientific level, in-person interaction and non-verbal cues are not preconditions for emotional transfer between people: verbal communication is enough for emotional contagion to occur. The effects are small, but statistically significant.

Where can I read the academic paper?

The short paper, published as a collaboration between Facebook,  the University of California San Francisco and Cornell University, can be read for free online here.

PowerCube: a capacity tariff to fight UK fuel poverty

During last year’s Dynamic Demand Challenge Hackathon, the organisers asked me to form an impromptu team with another Roving Hacker. Together we designed a “capacity tariff” aimed at those living in fuel poverty (an estimated 3.5m UK households).

Our idea, PowerCube, is to limit the power that can be drawn by a household in exchange for a deep discount (50% or more) for the price per unit of electricity (kWh) paid by the consumer. This would be achieved by installing a device such as a relay switch on the main incoming power supply that is triggered by the smart meter when the power reaches a certain predefined level. Our pitch presentation at the end of the 36 hour Hackathon can be found here:

Benefits of the idea

The benefits of this tariff are many. Customers would benefit from reducing their outgoings on expensive energy, utilities would eliminate the need to buy electric at peak times when it is expensive by shifting large amounts of demand to off-peak times, and the environment would benefit as it would reduce the need for GHG-intensive peaking plants powered by fossil fuels like gas and oil.

Fuel poor customers often have poor credit history and therefore frequently receive their electricity via a pre-paid meter, notorious for their scandalously high prices. Because ‘Fuel poor’ householders are often in a situation where they are faced with the “heat or eat” scenario, our belief is that the 50% discount of the PowerCube tariff is something that would get real traction.

Weaknesses of the idea

Capacity tariffs are not a new concept and have been trialled on the continent before, to mixed levels of success. We believe that targeting them at the energy poor section of the market, for whom energy prices are a real and priority problem, will give the concept a new lease of life as this application will add real value to this particular market segment.

The PowerCube tariff idea relies on a physical device to give a visual/auditory signal to indicate when the household is close to its limit. Ensuring that this signal is simple to understand and able to inform action is vital.

It is also important to realise that the whole concept of a capacity tariff means that people will need to learn the relative power demands of their devices, which could prove difficult for consumers who are not very tech-savvy. However, a counter argument to this is the fact that non-commercial sailors intuitively learn how to ration their power use on a boat to stay within the fixed capacity limits of their vessel’s battery supply.

Finally, the level of the capacity ceiling will probably need to be fixed and chosen very carefully, as it will be too confusing/undesirable for customers to live in a situation where their allocated capacity ceiling is changing unpredictably. It also might need to be set on an individual basis, which could prove expensive if not an automated solution is not developed well.

Opportunities for the idea

The tariff would provide consumers with savings of around 50% from their electricity bills, which is a significant amount of money (around 5% of their annual income when using the old definition of fuel poverty).

It would also allow the UK to shave a significant amount of peak load if designed correctly. For example, if 5% of the UK’s energy poor households (3.5m*0.05=175,000) were to sign up and reduce their peak demand by 2kW it would be a 350MW saving, equivalent to an average UK natural gas power plant gas.

Threats to the idea

One big threat to this would be a change in the demand of a household, or a consumer switching tariffs after receiving the PowerCube device.

Another threat would be weaknesses in the UK smart meter roll-out, such as low up-take or hardware that is incompatible with the infrastructure of this tariff offering.

Internet of Things: Smart Home Security Systems and Burglar Alarms

Google recently paid $3.2 bn to acquire Nest, the makers of connected smart thermostats and smoke alarms. It is a strategic coup for the company, partly because it brings Nest’s CEO Tony Fadell on board, an engineer with a proven eye for design honed during his time as Apple where he lead the design of the iPod. However, it is also a major move as it positions Google strongly to capitalise on a new frontier: enabling web-enabled devices in the home, more commonly known as the “Internet of Things”.

This is a pretty grand ideal in theory, but what concrete, near term opportunities are there for the company to innovate? Specifically, what are the “low hanging fruit” of the Internet of Things?

Home Security System/Burglar Alarm

A prime example of a pre-digital device that is essentially redundant in its current form is the home security system or burglar alarm. Great though they must have been during an age of tight-knit local communities, the audio signal emitted when an alarm is triggered nowadays is delivered to a largely unconcerned audience. Close neighbours in big cities or even towns are largely unknown to each other, so burglar alarms tend to just add to the cacophony of the urban ether rather than acting as a call to action to apprehend burglars or call the police.

Connected Home Security Systems: the burglar alarms of the future

Features of a smart burglar alarm

A smart burglar alarm would be able to send the signal to the relevant parties by SMS, email or signal to an app on the user’s smartphone, tablet, or other connected device. In addition, GPS trackers on the devices of nominated parties (relatives, friends, and maybe the emergency services) would show the central system of the app when they are near to the house and if they are within a certain response time, they will be also sent an alert by the app so that they can intervene if the householder is too far away to do it themselves.

Nature of pre-smart alarm signal is redundant

Another critical characteristic of pre-smart burglar alarms is that the information carried by the signal is too generic to call for action in a compelling or efficient way. They are binary, with an off state (“silent”) or an on state (LOUD NOISE!!!). This leads to a confusing call to action, as there is too much ambiguity for an actor to investgiate: is there really an intrusion or is it a false alarm? Is the burglar still inside the house? Has somebody already been informed and are they already in the process of dealing with it?

A smart home security system concept

The exponential decrease in the cost of sensors means that a smart burglar alarm could actually convey more specific and hence useful data to the nominated parties, enabling a more effective call to action.

For example, the specific trigger point could be communicated (roof, ground floor windows, front door) so that the alarm points can be investigated quickly and the possibility of a false alarm ruled out in less time. Infra-red cameras could measure if there are people inside the house, counting them and perhaps even identifying them using facial recognition.

The triggering app would allow the user to see who precisely has been signalled, who has acknowledged the signal, who is acting on it, their estimated response time, and their current location.

Competitors and Innovators

Piper’s Home Security System and Mobile app interface

There are some impressive innovations in this field such as Piper and Canary, which are standalone video and sensor units acting as a “mini sentinel” in the home. Piper, which is already available for purchase, also acts as a household device controller and could therefore turn on lights in the home if signalled to do so. They both have the awesome idea of adding video to the equation, meaning that if the motion sensor is triggered, the user could immediately switch to video to see who the intruder is. I imagine the video stream could also be recorded for legal purposes in the event of a burglary.

Home CCTV enabled by Piper

Priced at $239 and $199 respectively for a single basic unit, the issue is that the devices only cover one room each, which makes them an expensive solution for a whole home, although a promising start and a massive leap forward. Canary smashed its request for crowdfunding on IndieGogo so expect to see the first units available later this year.

The miGuard alarm system from Response Electronics uses an integrated mobile phone SIM card to communicate with your phone by GSM/SMS and has a total system cost of £269.95 (about $452). This is a much more attractive price point for a whole-home system, but the technology is not smart enough to capture the full range of possibilities offered by the rapidly decreasing costs of technology and increasing connectivity of web-enabled devices.

miGuard Home Security System – schematic diagram

Other potential players

Of course, this concept is not just a possibility for Nest and the innovators outlined above, as there are other innovative technology companies who are trying to get into the smart home space.

As a Brit and Imperial college alumnus, the most notable example I can think of would be Dyson. My rationale here is that Dyson are one of the great innovators of UK industry and a global pioneer in domestic technology, highlighted by its recent partnership with Imperial College on robotic vision with a view to implementation for autonomous vacuum cleaners.

This is an intriguing partnership, given the promise of Imperial’s recent contributions to the field of Simultaneous Localisation And Mapping (SLAM) in addition to the fact that the unlocked value of Dyson’s disruption of household technology markets runs into the billions.

AlertMe, the British home monitoring controls company could also have a say in the development of this industry on the software side through their Smart Monitoring platform, linking all devices in the home.


A connected home security system is a complex endeavour, given all the possible flows of information and control that are being unleashed by the digital revolution. There is a range of possible ideas already in the market, addressing the various price points that could be considered by consumers.

The advantage that Nest could have if they developed a smart home security device or burglar alarm is that they already have two products on the market that could feed into it, not to mention their experience of successfully designing the necessary user interfaces and hardware for mass consumer uptake. Combined with Google’s expertise with algorithms and handling large data sets, it is a mouthwatering prospect to think what they could do together in this area.

Given the fact that smart burglar alarms will be such an improvement on the pre-digital state-of-the-art, I wouldn’t be surprised if the eggheads at Nest have already been incubating something like this for some time. This guy has even mocked up a great example of how Nest’s existing thermostat interface could be converted into a burglar alarm.

Nest’s Thermostat as a Burglar Alarm

I would not be surprised if there are further acquisitions in this sector in the coming months. These are very exciting times for this emerging technology market.