Blake Miller on Wireless Power as an Amenity

06 May 2020

Blake Miller is the founder and CEO of Homebase, working with apartment owners to help automate the management of their buildings using the internet of things. We discuss how wireless power can create the next generation of amenities that owners and residents crave. This episode was recorded in April 2020.

Yuval Boger (Chief Marketing Officer, Wi-Charge, @TheChargeGuy): Hello Blake, and thanks for joining me today.

Blake Miller (CEO, Homebase.ai): Hey, thanks for having me. I’m excited to have a chat.

Yuval: Great. So who are you and what do you do?

Blake: My name is Blake Miller. I’m the founder of Homebase, and we work with apartment owners to help automate the management of their buildings using the internet of things. So what does that mean? It means giving resident amenities, unlocking their door, changing their thermostat, even getting connected to building Wi-Fi, all from a smartphone app. And we provide a dashboard for the managers to be able to automate a lot of those tasks.

Yuval: When I looked at your website, it looked like you offer three tiers of services to the managers of the buildings. Could you explain what they are?

Blake: Yeah. We kind of take our smart building approach and kind of break it into three different tiers, as you said and the first one being access control and smart locks. So this enables one fob or one app access to all the different doors of the building controlled by mobile apps, for the property managers who can manage the access of residents automatically when their lease or their stay starts. But also, it gives that control and access to the residents as well.

Blake: That next step for us is really about connected infrastructure. To have a smart building, you need to be able to connect all the things. So those locks don’t actually require any connectivity in the building, because we communicate to the locks via Bluetooth, but all of their smart things require connectivity of some kind. And so we use and deploy a community-wide Wi-Fi infrastructure that provides that connectivity for then all the other devices that might go in the building, which is really that kind of step three of things like thermostats, light switches.

We’ve partnered with LG to do smart appliances and a whole host of other types of sensors and video surveillance and all these different things that might be connected in the building. And then one added benefit that Wi-Fi infrastructure brings for the property owners is the ability to offer a new amenity to the residents. This multi-use infrastructure can offer Wi-Fi connectivity to the residents, which is kind of like living in a hotel. And so the property owners are able to capture a different share of their resident’s wallet by offering this amenity that everybody really, really enjoys. They don’t have to wait for the cable guy to show up after moving, which is a stressful time, and it all kind of just stays right within the building.

Yuval: Let’s go through the benefits of why property owners care about this, and why would residents care about this? Let’s start with the property owners. What are they saving by installing a smart lock?

Blake: Absolutely. So by installing a smart lock, there’s obviously some enhanced security in terms of who has access into a unit. You don’t have master keys floating around. You can digitally revoke access or give access to both the residents and guests, but also to staff and other vendors. You also don’t have to re-key locks at the end of stays, so more and more properties are also doing, Airbnb type of stays. So that creates a lot of extra management to change those locks or even change pin-codes if there might be. And then also kind of what I alluded to with the master key, it gets rid of the key locker system that properties have to employ where they’re checking keys out and all of that. And that’s something that then during maintenance service and things like that, cost the maintenance staff time to have to go check out those keys to be able to gain access to units.

So those are some big things that happen out of the gate for what they’re doing. There are some other things where you’re trying to lease-up, and you need to be able to manage a lot of different vacant units. So being able to have potential prospects gain access to units, are other added benefits. But then there are the other kinds of the future-forward opportunities where these smart locks, kind of pun intended, unlock a whole host of services that buildings can offer to residents. Things like house cleaners and dog walkers and grocery delivery and all these different things that this simplified but more secure access can grant.

Yuval: So do you think that someone looking to lease an apartment is looking at a smart lock and these amenities as a factor to decide which building I should apply for?

Blake: I think some people definitely are, they’re looking for amenities that help them save time, help them feel a little bit more secure. They’re able to see who comes and goes if somebody gains access to their apartment or something, maintenance staff, or other, while they’re away, they get notified. But I also think that really quickly, these are becoming kind of the status quo in some areas. Where I expect to have a smart thermostat, I expect to have some of these controls, but I want to know that my privacy is being taken care of, I want to know who has access and all those different things.

But I do think that, especially at the higher end of some properties, more amenities are what people are looking for and instead of just a bigger gym or a bigger pool or some of these things, I think people really value their time. How they spend it when they spend it, and I think that some of these services, you want to be able to move into a building that kind of helps you live a more efficient life perhaps, and we call it living as a service sometimes. But I just want to be able to move in and take care of all the things that I don’t want to take care of as an adult. Adulting if you will and be able to focus on my hobbies or my work or whatever it might be.

Yuval: So it used to be that these amenities were granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, and now they’re smart locks and maybe Wi-Fi as a service. What do you think the amenities that property owners might be able to offer in a couple of years to entice renters?

Blake: Well, I think the times right now, we’re recording this under lockdown. The time they think we’ll definitely bring forward health and wellness, and I think you start to look at air purification type systems. I think you start to look at how can you be even more efficient in the home, but then I think you start to look at how do I connect with services and the community around me and do that efficiently and probably for a while, either contactless or remotely or whatever it might be. And I think technology can really help us to enable that and support some of these new things or new ways of cautious living that we’re all going to have to do for a little while.

Yuval: Let’s go back to the locks for a second. These are battery-operated, I assume?

Blake: Yes. So we’ve partnered which Schlage, their parent company’s Allegion and we work with the Schlage Control series lock and it’s a battery-operated, primarily Bluetooth lock. They have some versions that have some Wi-Fi capabilities for more community door areas, but primarily the locks for the units that we work with are all battery-powered locks that we connect to via Bluetooth.

Yuval: And battery-powered locks are those that you could install either in new builds or in retrofits, right? Could you go into an existing building and help the property owner upgrade to your system?

Blake: Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, new buildings, obviously this is almost completely table stakes in new buildings, but in retrofits, there’s a lot of opportunities where that first step that we talk about in home-based access. The smart lock really is kind of that gateway to having a smarter and more efficient building, and so we’re really doing a lot of retrofits and landing on that door. And as you start to see some of the cost savings as an owner, then you’re able to start recognizing and seeing the benefits of other smart devices and kind of start adding to your smart building.

Yuval: How long do the batteries last, do you think?

Blake: Typically, we see them rated for a year and a half to two years. A couple thousand engages, but one of the things that we recommend and has become standard practice is they usually just get replaced at the turn. It’s kind of unfortunate; we enable all of these extra features and great efficiencies, but we kind of add one problem, where you have to actually replace batteries to make sure all this stuff works—and so figuring out ways to improve that, figuring out ways to come up with our battery replacement kits that we share with our owners. Where we can just send them packs of new batteries, they send us the old ones; we’ll recharge them for them. But other than that, it’s a problem that has to be solved, and if you forget to replace it or whatever, you have issues down the road.

Yuval: And the issues would be, I’m coming home Sunday night at 11:00 PM and the door doesn’t open, and then I got to get someone to open the door for me?

Blake: Yeah. Or you have to find 9V batteries somewhere to be able to jump that lock to be able to swipe your card or do it to be able to get in. So we haven’t seen very too many of those at all, but they definitely have happened.

Yuval: So don’t leave home without a 9V battery in your pocket. That’d be a new one.

Blake: Definitely. But we detect the battery usage and can start to predict when batteries are running low and create maintenance tickets on our platform automatically, which can detect all of those things. So a lot of our system gets into that kind of automated management, preventive maintenance sort of things.

Yuval: So what would wireless power mean to you if you were able to power the smart locks? I mean, is it just eliminating the cost of buying a couple of batteries every year, or is it more than that?

Blake: Well, I think it’s a couple of layers for sure. So you’re going to eliminate the battery costs. You’re going to eliminate the time that it takes to replace those batteries, and you’re going to remove any risk when those batteries are getting replaced. There’s any damage to the lock, or maybe something gets unplugged or something on the lock or something while it was exposed if it’s not done properly or somebody that’s been trained.

And then the other risk is just having really unhappy residents or getting somebody a locked out. It’s never a good time when there’s a lockout, right? It’s always late at night, it’s always on the weekends, and that’s why sometimes it costs people a lot of money to get somebody to come out and get it unlocked. We definitely don’t want anybody to be locked out on the systems accord, so we definitely take a lot of support there.

Yuval: So if a system like the Wi-Charge system charged the locks and the lock had additional capacity, what else would you want it to charge in an apartment for either the asset manager or the resident to get value?

Blake: Yeah. So I personally would love, and I think it would be amazing to be able to have apartments, especially, we’re quarantined in ours at a place called Two Light in Kansas City, a beautiful place, and it’s got a great big open spot. I would love to be able to just leave my phone on the kitchen island and have it be charged wirelessly. To me that’s a cool, not just a cool amenity, I would probably not want to ever move out of a place that didn’t have that anymore at that point. Because it would become so valuable to my lifestyle, which is right, wrong, or indifferent, always connected, and as a CEO and founder, you’re always connected with the team and customers and all of that.

Blake: So having a charged phone would always be valuable, so things like that would be really valuable. I think that other sorts of speakers and being able to play speakers in a lot of different areas and create unique sound experiences with homes that having wireless charging would be really cool as well. And then you get into some of the things within the bathroom area, and everything and I think back to some of that health and wellness stuff that we were talking about before. New buildings can start to have that focus on, wow, you’ve got such a beautiful, amazing bathroom, and it’s like a spa experience, and that becomes really the amenity. And it’s not just in your penthouses; it’s in all of them because you can do things that you don’t have to run a bunch of wires to and everything. You can wirelessly charge those things, and the faucet comes on automatically, and the shower comes on when you need it to and all of that, and it’s relatively affordable to create those experiences.

Yuval: And I can see your video when we’re recording this, and it looks like your place has these really large windows. So how about smart shades? Would you want them to automatically go up at, I don’t know when you get up in the morning?

Blake: Yeah. I mean, that’s like the next level, right? And there are some places that do that, but I know it’s incredibly expensive. It’s really cool, but it’s just expensive to do in apartment buildings. But being able to enable that, creates not only an amazing living experience where shades rise in the morning or when you get home or however you want to automate the experience. But in buildings like these that are getting more and more built with, all-glass buildings, exposed East, West to the sunrise and sunsets.

Blake: Being able to have residents opt into an experience where the shades are automatically lowering or rising, based on the sunrises and sunsets to help the overall energy efficiency of the building, can be incredibly valuable and health-conscious and climate-conscious and all these other things. So definitely huge opportunities, but if we’ve learned anything, it takes a lot of partnership, a lot of integration, a lot of ecosystem building, and some will from really innovative developers to be able to pull some of this stuff off.

Yuval: Especially for retrofits, right? When installing a powered shade in a retrofit situation, it’s always difficult to run power to the window, and so if that could be powered wirelessly, that could be a nice thing.

Blake: Well, I think you’ve got two different kinds of cases with retrofits, right? You’ve got kind of renovations after maybe a new company acquires a building, they’re going to put 10 to $20,000 a door into the property. As people’s leases expire, they’ll update each unit, and those are those areas where it’s definitely costly to try to run a bunch of wires and everything. So you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to get the biggest impact, return on investment for that. And then you got just regular old retrofits where there’s literally just, there are people in there, but the property owner has a little bit of CAPEX that they want to make that investment. And you got to be really wise, and that’s where we see, we just start with that lock so they can start seeing some return on investment there and then build from that.

Yuval: And the benefits are, as you said, go both ways, right? They go to the resident, they have a more modern feel, they have a smarter living, and then they also go to the property owner that can perhaps upcharge for these amenities or just command that higher value for renting there?

Blake: Absolutely. Our goal is definitely for this to be a win, win, win. We don’t want experience or privacy or any of these things to be sacrificed because of technology. We want these things to be at the forefront and ultimately improve our lives; it shouldn’t be creating more issues.

Yuval: Excellent. So Blake, where can people get in touch with you to learn more about the work that you’re doing?

Blake: homebase.ai, is where you can find us online. We’re also on all the social media as Homebase AI, and I’m pretty easy to find with Twitter @ImBmills.  I’d be happy to connect with anybody.

Yuval: That’s great. Thanks for being my guest today.

Blake: Hey, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

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