How a Startup Gave Kwikset a Lead in Smartlocks

By Stephen Ellison |  March 2, 2015

How does an established market leader stake out a prime position in an emerging product category?

Executives at Kwikset, a maker of locks and door hardware, had long felt that the humble brass key might be on its way to obsolescence. But touchpads with secret codes hadn’t really taken off. It took a partnership with a startup to help Kwikset develop a product that allows smartphones and door locks to work together seamlessly — one that beat several similar ideas to market.

Kwikset’s Kevo smartlock is powered by a smartphone application and Bluetooth wireless functionality that gives users keyless entry into their homes by merely touching the lock. As long as they are carrying their Apple iOS or Android-powered phone, entry is that simple. The app runs in the background, so fumbling with the phone is not required. For those without smartphones, Kevo operates with a fob, a device similar to the one used for vehicle locks.

“It’s the idea that you’re walking up to your home, and you’re carrying groceries or a kid in your arms,” says Greg Williamson, chief marketing officer for the division of Spectrum Brand Holdings that handles the Kwikset brand. “Just having that convenience of being able to touch-to-open to get into your home” was the objective, Williamson says. (Spectrum’s 2014 revenues were $4.4 billion; its other brands include Remington, Ray-o-vac, and Pfister.)

Williamson, above, and Phil Dumas, founder of the startup UniKey, explained how the Kwikset Kevo came together — and some of the keys to a successful partnership and product launch.

How the Partnership Happened

Kwikset has had versions of the keyless entry smartlock in the market for about a dozen years – think touchpads and codes in the beginning. Through on-going market research, the company identified a rising interest in keyless entry to the home. Combine that with smartphones that were becoming the center of consumers’ digital lives, and the idea of Kevo was born. Williamson says that the company explored the possibilities with focus groups and quantitative research.

Designing a new smartlock product, however, would require sophisticated technology, something a hardware manufacturer founded in the 1940s did not feel equipped to develop on its own. Enter UniKey, a Florida startup with a sharp focus on electronic keyless entry. Williamson says the partnership the two companies forged was vital to getting the Kevo smartlock to market first.

“We’re a hardware provider, right? So our chosen path was, Let’s partner with someone who’s developing the Bluetooth technology and some of the security encryption needed for the app and core service to make this work,” Williamson says. “Software is not our core competency. Having that partnership with UniKey was bringing the best of both companies together.”

UniKey founder and President Phil Dumas, right, had been working on fingerprint entry technology since the mid-2000s. But that biometric identifier simply didn’t work 100 percent of the time. “It was a logical conclusion that we should move your credentials from your fingerprint into your phone, and I founded UniKey on that concept,” Dumas says.

When UniKey’s technology was ready, around fall 2012, a previous working relationship with Kwikset pointed Dumas in their direction. He gave them a call, told them he had the next generation of smartlock and asked them what they thought. “They totally got it,” he says, “and we started working on it.”

Building on an Existing Product

Kwikset had the resources to integrate UniKey’s technology into an existing deadbolt product, the 925, which accelerated Kevo’s development and helped minimize the risk for both companies.

“We used an existing lock that was already proven in the space,” Dumas says. “It’s like that old saying: Why reinvent the wheel? When you look at some of these other companies trying to get into the smartlock space, they also have to build a lock or an electro-mechanical driving mechanism. It presents a tremendous amount of risk and distraction for these companies, because they’re putting time and effort into the kind of electro-mechanical design the big guys have been doing for years. Usually, with the more risk you add up like that, the harder it is to get it right.”

Bringing in New Talent, Solving New Problems

Kwikset produces more than 60 million door locks a year, according to Williamson. But to develop Kevo, “we brought in electronic engineers that…we never had before,” he explains. “We separated and segmented the marketing and product development team outside of the normal team, supported by a big company but on their own so they could work fast and be more nimble than a big company usually is. And then we brought in some experts to think about electronic security, which is a little different than our traditional mechanical security.”

The product development process involved solving lots of problems that neither UniKey or Kwikset had dealt with before. One example: If you are inside the house with your smartphone, and someone outside the house is touching the lock, how would it know not to let that person in? The answer was including directional antennas in Kevo that can tell which side of the door the smartphone-holder is on. “I think that’s what defines great products,” Dumas says. “Having such a simple user experience, but behind the scenes, there are so many cool things going on to make that happen.”

The Kevo lock, which came to market in October 2013, goes far beyond the touch-to-open functionality. The app also allows users to send, via email, electronic keys to other users who may need to enter their home for one reason or another – say, a relative in town to visit, a neighbor checking on the home, or a worker performing repairs inside the house. Those e-keys also can be set to a schedule for persons who visit the home every day at a certain time such as a dog walker or housekeeper. And Kevo monitors those e-keys, notifying the user each time those credentials are used to unlock their door. Finally, the e-keys can be de-activated or deleted at any time. Kevo currently sells for about $220 online.

New Approaches to Design, Marketing, and Distribution

A software-based, smartphone-enabled lock meant Kwikset had to get in front of an entirely new, tech-savvy audience. That meant new strategies regarding marketing and distribution. Kevo’s instruction manual is designed with more graphic images, photographs, and icons. And the lock is packaged more like a consumer electronics product than a piece of mechanical hardware. The way it is represented on the company website is also markedly different than anything Kwikset has done before, Williamson says. (Here’s an example of a page for a traditional Kwikset deadbolt.)

And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the Kwikset brand now showing up where those techies are likely to shop. “We’re now on, and we’re in Best Buy stores,” he says. “For a traditional mechanical door hardware company to be able to have distribution in places like that is a really nice win for us.”

Continually Improving the User Experience

User feedback has been guiding the evolution of Kevo since its launch in 2013. One example: being able to grant access remotely to someone waiting outside the door, without e-mailing them a key. “Kevo today performs better than when it first launched just through that natural evolution,” Williamson says. An Android app for controlling Kevo was released this year, as was a link to Google’s Nest thermostat, so that opening or locking Kevo can inform Nest about whether you’re coming home or leaving — and adjust the temperature accordingly.

An Increasingly Competitive Space

Kevo was the first smartlock of its kind offering keyless access using Bluetooth technology, but Dumas and Williamson realize others aren’t far behind.

Williamson acknowledges that the smartlock space will become increasingly competitive as startups launch their own products. But he makes the case that Kwikset is on good footing, as the top door lock manufacturer that has made it out of the gate first in the keyless entry space. “What’s interesting about this is in the mechanical [lock] world, the barriers to entry are pretty high, and it’s a pretty mature industry,” he says. “We have those traditional mechanical competitors branching into electronics, but we also have this little subset of startups like Goji or August that bring a whole new competitive set that didn’t exist in our mechanical world. I think that’s healthy. It definitely forces us to think more like a small company, like a startup, and look at the speed at which we develop things and bring things to market. We know others are coming, and everyone is working on other things, and it just helps us sharpen our ax, if you will, to stay relevant.”

Says Dumas: “I think you’re already starting to see the market heat up a little bit, and that’s driven by demand. People have been using smartlocks for cars for several years now, and it has taken off and been the standard option in most cases. You’re going to see the same type of thing happen not just in residential, but in a ton of other markets, too.”

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