On Thursday, professional home automation firm Control4 dropped somewhat of a bomb on the smart home world by announcing it had hired Charlie Kindel as SVP of products and services. Prior to this role, Kindel was at Amazon, where he helped build the Alexa smart home business. Prior to that, he was working at Microsoft on its connected home efforts in Windows Home Networking as well as working on the Windows Media Center.
I spoke with Charlie about his move to Control4, the role of professional installers in the world of home automation, and what trends he’s most excited about. An edited transcription of that conversation is below.
Stacey: Charlie, let’s talk about how this happened. Why are you going to Control4?
Charlie: When I left Amazon I was planning on just taking a break and resetting and doing something different, eventually. It happened a little faster than my original plans were, but I did get a nice break. I actually spent a bunch of the time this summer re-doing my house. I think I’ve talked to you before about my house, the amount of technology that’s in it.
When I first built the house, I was doing home automation stuff at Microsoft. So I was already very passionate around the space, so I sort of overdid it in building out the house with tech and 150 or so lighting loads and cameras and contact sensors and the whole gambit. I had multi-room audio and multi-room video. And we’ve lived in that house now for 16 years.
And I’ve had to spend a significant amount of my time, as a homeowner, managing that house, and programming it and configuring it. It still never was as good as it would have been if a professional had done it. And it always left me with a kind of uneasy feeling about the work I was doing, mostly focused on the DIY space, because I felt like I was delivering product to customers where they reach a limit in how much sophistication they could get, and how many devices they could have in their environment before it suddenly became work for them to manage their homes. And so, that comes around to the summer where I decided I had enough.
I wanted to have a professional come into my house. And so I went to a bunch of ’em in the Seattle area, picked one, and decided to rip everything out that I’d done before and do it all new. Coincidentally, with that, I had been talking with Martin [Plaehn, CEO at Control4] and the team at Control4, and kind of serendipitously it all came together.
Stacey: To clarify, you talked to people who were not Control4 for your home, so some of the other companies out there, and you went with Control4 and then you started talking with Martin and such?
Charlie: I picked several installers and dealers in the Seattle area. And I was a little biased to Control4 beforehand. I’d already spent a lot of time looking at the products. But it was pretty clear to me that Control4 had the most comprehensive and refined set of products across the board, of all the leading companies that play in the premium smart home market.
That’s why I chose why Control4. This is an opportunity to approach the space that I’ve had a lot of passion around for a long time from a different perspective. Whereas most of my efforts — going back to what I did at Microsoft and what I’ve done at Amazon — have been focused on individual customers buying an individual device or a small number of devices and making those work for a very specific scenario. And we generally think of that as a DIY world. But what I see as a potential over at Control4 is delivering on whole home solutions, where there’s potentially hundreds of devices involved and solutions that cross all the scenario areas.
And the idea is to be able to drive it from that perspective, where it all works, and then figure out how to make that available to more and more customers in a broader way. And so that’s the part about the business that really excites me the most and that I’m eager to dive into.
Stacey: I can’t help but listen to this and feel it is a repudiation of the entire strategy that Amazon is going after with what they’ve done with Alexa.
Charlie: I don’t think it’s a repudiation at all. I think they co-exist. I think it’s gonna be true forever that there are going to be point products and families of products that work very well together where the end customer does all the selection and configuration and management. And at the same time, there’s gonna be parts of the market where people want more complete solutions.
It’s no different than different brands of cars or lines of automobiles within a particular manufacturer. Think about the number of customers who paint their own rooms in their houses vs. hire contractors to do it. It will always exist that both are there. And I think that the cool thing is we’re now in a situation that for the first time in the history of home automation — or smart home, or whatever you wanna call it — it’s actually taking off for real.
Stacey: Let’s move into some of the common questions I get. I get a lot of people who, Charlie, like yourself, found themselves really wanting to get professional-level help. What is your advice for people who want to upgrade from a DIY system to any type of professionally installed system? Do you rip and replace? What does that process look like?
Charlie: In my case, because I’ve already bought in to all the scenario areas, I decided to go whole hog. But not every product in my house is a Control4 product, by any means. Because the Control4 platform supports 13,000 products. For example, the Alexa skill Control4 has is just phenomenal. It works across all the scenario areas.
But other customers we find are — they’re not quite sure where to start, which scenario is most important to them — and just having that initial conversation with one of the dealers, or going to one of the experience centers, can highlight where they should get started. An example for me is, I have a friend who recently asked me about multi-room audio and outdoor speakers, and I was able to suggest a local dealer in the Seattle area for him to talk to and boom, he was just immediately hooked. And they now have a phenomenal outdoor audio experience. And it just works.
Stacey: What should they expect from ongoing costs as part of the experience of having a Control4 or a professionally installed system?
Charlie: It’s a bit different. I think that it’s like putting in a heater and air conditioner or buying a portable one; there’s a difference. The primary driver of costs are the endpoints, the number of endpoints. A DIY thermostat vs. ours is not much different. The labor is how valuable your time is and how many tools you have vs. hiring somebody who can do it in less than an hour for sure.
And the connected home is a sophisticated and real profession. They’re trained. They’re passionate. They’re skilled. They deserve to make a middle-class or better lifestyle depending on whether they’re an owner, or a partner, or midway through their career, or just starting out. And that’s gonna cost money. So, OK, right. So I’m gonna pay for install, so the installer’s time; I pay for the devices, however I want; or I can use my existing ones and get that brought in, correct?
Stacey: And then over time, am I paying an ongoing monthly fee or am I paying for a CEDIA guy to come out every now and then and tweak things?
Charlie: At Control4, we are a capital purchase product company. Consumers buy our products through our channel. We have a subscription service that is optionally attached to an installation, to be able to access or have your home access you when you’re not at home. That’s a small — it’s $100 a year. You know, $8 a month.
We provide all sorts of tools to our dealer channel so they can monitor and update homes without doing truck rolls. And how they provide services to their consumers is really an independent business strategy based on a common set of tools. Some of our dealers provide service contracts; Some of them, an extended warranty period. Some of them are just on-demand service.
Stacey: Charlie, now that you’re there, based on things you’ve seen, and going forward, what are you guys looking for from a tech or user experience perspective? What are you guys excited about?
Charlie: Well, you know I’m gonna say that I think there’s still a lot more left in voice. That shouldn’t be news to anybody. We’re still at the very early stages of how voice as well as other customer experiences come together and are enabled. But the other one is, we’ve reached a period where the quality of the experience has been degraded because of technology constraints.
Take audio, for example, and music. The quality of music you get if you really care about music over online services isn’t nearly as good as the music we listened to in the 90s and the 2000s when we had CDs. And I think we’re gonna see a resurgence of the availability of really high-quality content. Like what we’re seeing with 4K televisions today.
Updated: This story was updated on Aug. 3 to remove a part of one answer that came from Control4 CEO Martin Plaehn not Charlie Kindel.