Level Home emerges from stealth with $71M from Walmart and Lennar and a new take on the smart lock

As companies like Google, Amazon and Apple hone their strategies to build the brain that helps you use the smart home of the future, where a new wave of internet-enabled appliances, climate and security systems and other connected objects can be connected and controlled through their hubs, a new smart home startup called Level Home is emerging from stealth today with a big packet of funding, a sales deal, and a hope of bringing something new to the table, by focusing on ways of rethinking old things you own already, starting with the lock on your front door.

The Level Lock, its first patented product, is a system — tested for durability, powered by a basic CR2 battery (average life: one year), equipped with ANSI GRADE 1/A security and encryption — that is fitted into the existing dead bolt on your door to make it “smart”.

Level Home says you can install the Lock yourself using a basic number-two screwdriver — “the most common tool in the American home”, says CEO and co-founder John Martin — or you can engage Level Home’s installation partner, HelloTech, to set it up.

The key thing (heh) with the Level Lock is that you door will not look any different after you install it. But linking it up with HomeKit, you can then use an Apple iPhone or Watch to unlock it (or, you can also still use the physical keys that come with the lock to open the door). Through the app, you can then also provide one-off or repeat access to others and monitor who comes and goes.

“We like to think of this as the first invisible smart lock,” Martin said in an interview. “Why would we take the things away that matter, that are a part of who you are such as the look of your home, just in the name of tech? We have to do a better job of bringing technology into your house, in a way that preserves it as your home.”

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 09.36.52

Priced at $249 when it goes on direct sale (first in the US), the Lock is available now for preorder on Level Home’s site. But when the Lock does become generally available, you will be able to get it in more places beyond Level Home’s site, and at a lower price.

That’s because, along with the launch of the Level Lock and the company itself, Level Home is also announcing that it has raised $71 million in funding in the years that it has been in stealth.

Investors include a firm called Hut 8 Ventures (not connected to Hut 8 cryptocurrency mining, I’m told), Lennar Homes — the home builder that has worked with the likes of Apple and Amazon to incorporate connected features into new properties, and is a prolific investor in startups focused on the next generation of homes — and Walmart.

The retail giant has been working double time to “level up” to Amazon on the e-commerce front, building a range of services online and increasing the ways in which it can connect with shoppers beyond visits to its large retail locations, and while Level Home is not disclosing any details yet on how it will work with its strategic investors, you could imagine its involvement having more than one touchpoint.

It could be a very strong sales channel for the Level Lock through its many well-visited retail locations.

But it could also be sold potentially as part of a bigger service offering, in competition with something like Amazon Key, where Walmart offers smart locks to its customers as part of a bigger home delivery business.

Walmart started down this road back in 2017, when it first partnered with smart lock maker August to test in-home delivery. Today — Level Home’s launch was timed to coincide with this, it seems — Walmart is taking that out of the test phase with the launch of InHome Delivery.

Going live first in Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Vero Beach, Walmart has chosen Level Lock as its key partner for door locks, installing locks for customers at a price of $49 so that Walmart delivery people can bring items you’ve purchased or pick up those you’re returning even when you are not at home. (The service itself costs $19.99 per month for membership and if you opt for garage delivery you’re sold a different lock, from GoControl.)

“We’re pleased to make an investment in Level Home as they unveil their latest technology, the Level Lock,” said Ashley Hubka, Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy, Development and Partnerships, Walmart, in a statement. “Smart technology products and home automation provide us with more opportunities to serve customers in new ways today and into the future.”

Partnerships with the likes of Walmart and Lennar sound like a big deal, considering that the company hasn’t tested its product or brand in the market, and the area of smart home hardware is also very crowded already.

Part of the reason for the leap may be because of the background of the founders. John Martin (CEO) and Ken Goto (CTO) have worked together for decades across a range of major tech and other consumer companies including Microsoft, Starbucks and Apple. Underneath them, they have assembled a wider team of about 50 of like-minded people to bring that vision into the physical world.

“Much of the current company are people from Google, Microsoft, and Facebook and others,” said Goto. “We have a shared level of talent and capability.”

To be very clear, Martin and Goto are very far from the image of young startup-hopefuls. Martin told me he didn’t even really like the term “startup.” Instead, the two are taking a measured and very confident approach to the bigger task of thinking about how to approach a new generation of hardware.

For them, it isn’t so much as “disrupting” what is already being used, as it is trying to augment it to bring in a wider population of adopters beyond those who embrace the cutting edge of tech.

“We could have made anything for the connected home, so and we thought for weeks about what to invent,” Martin told me about the pair’s decision to focus first on the front door lock three years ago.

“We had a couple of fundamentals: we wanted products for everyday life, and we didn’t want home automation out of the mainline of what normally happens. We didn’t want lightbulbs to change color for the sake of it, and we didn’t want to appeal just to the tech professional. So we thought entry was the right point to start.”

Or, you could say entry was a good point of entry.

Of course, Level Home isn’t the first to cotton onto this progression of logic. Smart doors and smart locks are everywhere now and have been one of the biggest areas of “smart home” hardware — although ironically, they are not being used all that much.

“When we looked at first generation smart locks, we were offended by how aggressively the experience was departing from how people use locks today.” By this, Martin is referring to things like physical keys, or aesthetically pleasing doors and locks without large electronic objects attached to them.

Indeed, the smart home market has not been a home run so far, but it shows some promise. Overall, smart home devices are services are projected to generate revenues of nearly $74 million this year, nearly doubling to $141 billion by 2023. A stream of hardware sales will underpin that growth, with some 140 million smart locks and other home security devices — the second-biggest category after video entertainment — expected to be shipped this year, growing to 352 million by 2023 globally.

But within that, penetration has not been massive. In Europe, only around 11% of homes have smart home devices in them (not counting phones). In the US, the figure is only slightly higher, at 15%. That speaks to a still-nascent market, but also the fact that many people’s imaginations, and crucially wallets, have get to be captured by what is on offer today.

That spells opportunity for the smart home entrepreneurs, and investors willing to take the leap to back them.

Martin and Goto said that they have a pipeline of several other products that they will be working on, although for now, they are keeping quiet on what those might be.

I’ve searched and can only so far find patents for the Lock system, but the two tell me that the basic idea will be to continue presenting alternative versions of the smart home: to quietly make our lives at home easier and more connected, but without any massively perceptible shifts on the outside, or none that wouldn’t feel natural to the average user.

What might that mean? That could be more “smartening” of dumb things in the way that Level Home has done with the dead bolt, or potentially a kind of skeuomorphic approach, but for physical objects (maybe even in a tip of the hat to their early Apple pedigree). Move slow, don’t break things.

In a market with a lot of options for how to bring more modern objects into the mix that genuinely look like the future, this could be a good differentiator.

“Level Home’s unique approach and technology is a game changer for homebuilders,” said Eric Feder, Managing General Partner, Lennar Ventures, in a statement. “As one of the nation’s leading home builders, Lennar is founded on a long tradition of quality craftsmanship and attention to detail. The Level Lock will transform the smart lock category by allowing home builders to offer innovation without having to compromise on their home experience.”