Smart locks come in all shapes and sizes and mostly end up with a large unsightly mechanism on the inside of your home. Not with Level Lock. In this interview, we chat with Ken Goto, founder, and CTO of Level Home, about their first invention – the invisible smart lock.
We are back on YourTechReport. Thank you guys so much for being here. It is @YourTechReport on all our social media. Where you’ll find lots of cool stuff. Anytime we talk about something here on the radio show, we tend to like to showcase it on our various social media platforms. And this next product we’re going to be talking about is one that is close to home because I’m a big smart home fan. If you guys listen to the show and hopefully you guys do. Our next guest, his name is Ken Goto. He’s the CTO of a company, Ken the company’s Level Home, right?
The company is Level Home, correct.
Level Home, and this product. And I’ll tell you guys a story here. Every once in a while, I search online as I’m doing research for new products. And I try to see what’s coming out in the market. Because I’ve gone and leaned towards the HomeKit platform because my family is mostly iOS. I fell upon Level Lock. Now there are a lot of smart locks out there, and people who are trying various things when it comes to a lock. But Ken when it comes to the form factor of the way we think of smart locks, I think there’s always a key pad on the outside. And then there’s some kind of big bulky thing that sits on the inside. You got to change the batteries every couple months. And really you guys have taken things to a whole different level. And I want you to do your best because I know it’s hard to describe physically, but describe physically the Level Lock to people. And then we’ll get into the backstory and how this came to be.
Yeah. Yeah. So let’s definitely talk about that. As you said, smart locks tend to be big, bulky, obvious things sitting on your door, holding batteries, circuit boards, all that stuff. Level Lock is basically invisible to your eye. Once it’s installed, it looks like the lock you already had on your door. In fact, it is the lock you already had on the door. So the way we do that is you take your housings from your existing deadbolt. You take them off your door and inside that cavity, that’s in your door, you’ve got a bolt that’s there now. And it’s taking up all that space. And what we do is we live inside that borehole entirely inside. So our motors, our gears, our boards, sensors, it’s all in there. It’s all in a two and an eighth inch diameter, less than an inch wide gap.
And then you take your housings that you just took off and you put them back on. And we go away. So the end result is suddenly, it’s smart. It’s funny when we were prototyping the product, I put it on my front door at my house and I’m sure you’re familiar with this experience. I bring every piece of technology home, and most of the time it’s a disappointment. And I usually have to hear it from my wife. “Can I just turn on a light? Can I work the stereo. I want to watch [crosstalk 00:02:50].”
Oh my God this is the last three months of my life.
Yeah, seriously. So I put it on our door. It was there for maybe three months before I actually said, “Hey, that thing I worked on it’s in there. Do you want me to give you the iPhone app and it’ll let you use it.” It was just really interesting because we can meet people where they’re at with technology. And in your home, you’ve got people who are. They’re in different places in their life. Some people want to use a key they’re old school. They don’t want to mess with that. Other people, as you know, you’re tethered to your phone, it’s like part of your body. So we wanted to create this technology that was invisible, that just literally disappeared, so that it blends seamlessly with your daily routines.
Guys, I will post some videos and links in our social media. So you can really get a good view of how this works. And I think if you’ve ever installed any lock whatsoever. Your brain’s going to click and go, “Oh my God, that is just genius.” Because it really is. So now I really have to ask the question, where did this idea come from? Because there’s always something that happens in the story of whether it’s one of the founders, someone had something happened to them and it was born out of that, right?
Yeah, no, this is true. John Martin, my co founder and I, we’ve been passionate about the home space for the longest time we can remember. Your home is super sacred. It’s where you greet your friends, and it’s where your family is, and it’s where you want to be safe. Especially now, these days where we’re sheltering. So I think he and I both had a whole series of experiences where it’s like, “This is really irritating. Why isn’t there some technology in my home that makes my home welcoming. That makes my home easy to use, easy to access.” And I know he had a particular story about there was one of our, sort of… When we were trying to sit down and figure out what area of the home we were going to tackle first. One of the stories he had was, he was on his way up to Tahoe to go to a place that they have up there with the family.
And they got stuck in the snow and all of this. And hours and hours, you probably have had that experience where you get trapped on the way to Tahoe. And two hours turns into six, seven. And they get up there. I don’t know, middle of the night and he’s got no keys to get in the house. And that’s an awkward experience to have to go back to the wife and screaming children and basically say, “I’m not sure what we need to do. Maybe we’ll asleep in the car.” And it’s frustrating. You think about maybe breaking your own window of your own house and things like that. So I know that that was one key thing that resonated with him. And I had a similar story and we both said, “You know what? Access.” Access is a big deal because there are tons of products in your home that people are trying to make smart. And there’s just lots of solutions looking for problems.
But then there are certain areas of the home that are demonstrably practical that you’re running into daily. That really are a problem. And that was just one example. So we said, we got to do access. We’ve got to get you in your house.
Well, it’s funny because probably about five years ago, I remember one of the first smart lock companies. And I’m sure you won’t mind me mentioning competition it was August I think. And I remember having a conversation and one of the topics that came up in conversation was that the lock on that door, regardless of light bulbs and any other smart home devices you might think of, for some reason is the most sacred device in the smart home because it is it guards the entry to your home. Same thing when it comes to garage doors, because it’s that entry to your home. So regardless of how you position it, you need to make sure that that device is foolproof. And there can’t be any questions about it because no one’s going to tamper with that. No one’s going to change that unless they know that they’re secure, can’t be hacked, et cetera, et cetera. So I’m curious how in the messaging and how in the design of this product, you guys tackle that because it is a big deal.
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s part of the interest in it for us, it’s a high bar. You’re either going to delight customers because it’s something they’re touching constantly through the day, their family’s touching it or you’re going to really disappoint. And we like that challenge. So for us, it was more than just saying, can we make something small and stuff it inside your door and have it be fragile. Have it really not live up to expectations. So for us, it was trying to come up with a design where we could achieve the same level of robustness of security as this big, giant, bulky things you see today. And we could even exceed them. If you take those things apart, they’ve got plastic gears inside. They’re not built heavy duty.
If you take our stuff apart, you’ve got stainless steel gears. You’ve got just very, very specific material selection and composition. There’s a tremendous amount of thought that goes into it to ensure that we can achieve the same or better level of physical security, of durability, of performance as something that is just dramatically bigger. When we show it to people and we go and inside and tear it down a little bit. It’s almost mind boggling. They just can’t believe that we could have achieved that in that form factor.
Well, I guess, it’s like, it’s when you look at smartphones and just even computers, miniaturization, obviously over time, it’s important because you’re trying to get more bang for your buck. And you’re trying to obviously fit more in a smaller space. So tell me about how long this process, excuse me, how long this process took. Because this can’t be just, “Oh, we thought about this and when we came to market in a couple of months from now.” So it’s obviously quite some years in the making. So I’m curious, how long ago did you start? When did this idea first start, and how on earth do you fit everything? Battery alone takes up an enormous amount of space in such a small design.
It does. It does.
How do you fit what you need to in there and make it last?
Yeah, absolutely. So as far as the R&D, I would say we took a solid two years. Company’s been around for four years, just had an anniversary a couple of days ago.
Thank you. Thank you. I would say we were in foundational R&D for about two years. Really trying to figure out going from large form factor, prototypes, concepts, all the way down through a series of cycles until we could get it into a form factor. And then from there you’re constantly testing, you’re constantly validating, you’re constantly reworking to be able to meet all of these conflicting expectations. Because the size fights with strength, and durability, performance, and cost and manufacturability. So there are a lot of horizontally opposed goals. So I would say it took a solid two years of R&D before we got to the formula that let us know we got it, we got the product.
And then, from there, there’s another couple of years, a little less. Where we have to basically get it ready for manufacturing and bring it out to scale, launch the product, build the rest of the company. And that’s what the remaining time has been spent on. In addition to other products on the roadmap that we’re also working on that are coming out later. As far as how we pack things down like that, a lot of the team, especially the core team back at that point, we all came from Apple. We’re used to trying to find elegant compact solutions.
There are components we use where, for example, a piece of electronic component we’re using for three, and four and five different capabilities, where someone else might think of five discrete components for doing that. So there’s just a lot of areas where we try to condense things down. We try to be really creative and clever about how we package things together that lets us do that. You’ve mentioned the battery, the battery is an example. You’ve been looking at the website, but have you figured out where the battery is?
I have figured out what the battery is because I’m that ingenuine. And I don’t even know what the word is, but, no, the battery is in the actual bolt itself.
It is, it is, it is right. Because once you put all this together and it’s all invisible, you want to be taking housings off every year to go change batteries and things. It’s a common question. It’s like, “Well, okay, it’s invisible but now how do I change a battery?” So we put it in a bolt, which takes a tremendous amount of engineering to figure out how you make a battery go into something that needs to be strong and durable, something that moves mechanically, but also it needs to stay connected electrically. So there’s a lot to it to package it together. It’s definitely a system. It’s not thought about in pieces. And a lot of that just has to do with the way that we sort of the ethos of the company and how we engineer things. It’s just a rigorous process of prototyping, validation, prototyping, validation, until we really zero in on the right end solution.
We talk to a lot of people in different companies, and we normally talk to them when a products now available in the market or coming out in the market. And other people have had hands on time, but we really asked the question. In describing this four year process, I’m curious, I’m sure there were ups and downs. Were there any points in time where you said to yourself, or you guys looked at each other, you and John said, “This isn’t going to work.” Or you felt really kind of down yourselves before there was some kind of breakthrough.
Yeah. I would say obviously with any engineering you run into hiccups, you run into hitches. I have to say. And it sounds strange because it sounds like that can’t be real. I don’t think we ever hit a point where we thought we had a barrier that was not something we could overcome. And I’ll give you a reason why. And this again, gets to the ethos of how we design. When we think about doing a product, a lot of people look at what’s out there and they try to make a better mousetrap. They try to bolt on, they try to take that approach. You can see that in the smart locks today. The inside of the doors occupied. So we’re on the outside. Now I got to have this. It just gets bigger and bigger.
And you end up with more and more compromises because as an example, a regular bolt for a deadbolt is mechanically very difficult to turn. If you tried to turn it with your finger without the power just in your hand, the amount of force required to do that is really large. And so imagine a little tiny motor gearbox battery having to do that, having to push that old bolt, that old technology from the 1930s. So for us, the way we design is we always go back… We go to a place we call square zero. It’s not square one, it’s square zero it’s before that. We really want to understand what the customer’s trying to achieve. What is it they really want independent of technology, independent of the can we do it sort of thing. And we’d like to start there, and then we build up from there.
And what that ends up doing is it’s counterintuitive. It opens up more design paths for every particular step of the way. So it actually allows us to have more paths, where if we do hit a hitch with one direction, “Oh, there’s three other ways we can shift now.” We’re not boxed in in that way. So it’s given us a lot of flexibility. For example, once we chose to replace that core bolt that lets us be inside the borehole. So then that opened up all the possibilities. Now instead of trying to be outside, trying to figure out how to make our box on the outside, smaller, less noticeable. Well, we’re inside now. So now we already have taken care of that. When we redesigned the bolt, we get to make a bolt that’s incredibly smooth and efficient.
So it takes very, very little power to move that bolt back and forth. Because we get to design that fresh. We don’t have to take on the burden of the previous bolt. So you end up allowing yourself to get past things that might’ve been a problem. Like battery life would be an obvious problem for a smart lock. And it is a problem for most smart locks. But because we’ve made these other changes, suddenly battery life isn’t a big issue for us because all our pieces and the way things move are so efficient, so low friction, we don’t run into that problem. So we either avoid certain problems that everyone steps into, or when we do get near that problem space, we have two or three paths we can take.
Yeah. A couple of months ago before Apple, and Google, and Amazon announced this smart home alliance where they’re going to start open sourcing a bit of HomeKit. There was a choice you had to make, which was, what do we make this compatible with? And you guys obviously took the HomKit approach. I think the DNA in your blood probably helped define that. But was there any other factors that helped point you in that direction?
Yeah. I mean, to your point the ecosystems are converging. Maybe a year or two out with that grouping coming together, they’ll all unify on one platform, which would be great for consumers. But right now, right now we had to pick. We had to make our choices. As a small company we had to, basically, decide which one we were going to invest in first. And HomeKit is a great ecosystem. The integration is great. Apple, of course, you’re familiar with HomeKit. You’re familiar with Apple obviously. So the way their products integrate together, the way they tie in, the way it’s seamless, it’s definitely in line with our ethos of design, and simplicity, and user experience. So for that reason, it was a pretty obvious choice for us to start with. And yes, Apple DNA, Apple familiarity, that certainly was a factor as well.
Now, I make the assumption sometimes that people know completely what a smart lock does. But there obviously is an app that goes along with this that obviously ties things together. Other than obviously using HomeKit. Is there anything specific other than obviously unlocking and locking, and setting codes that sets your software side apart from everybody else?
Yeah. I think there’s a couple of things that are unique about what we do. Level Lock is a Bluetooth lock. So normally speaking, it’s a local lock. It’s not connected to the cloud, for example, all the time, unless you have a hub, et cetera. But your phone is connected. Our phones are connected to the internet pretty much everywhere all the time. So we do certain things where we actually leverage your phones uplink for communication, for sharing of invitations, et cetera. You can share an invite to someone else that person could come up to the door. And that invite’s actually going to process and work for that user locally, without that lock having to have had an internet connection up to the cloud. So we do a lot of things along those lines. We also have user based features around things like Party Pass.
Where I’m sure you’ve had the situation where you’ve got people coming over, and people are ringing your doorbell. No one can hear them you’re out on the deck or whatever. And they’re calling you like, “I’m outside. Let me in.” So we said let’s make this Party Pass feature. Let’s make an easy way for you to create a pass that you can easily share through your social networks or email, or what have you, and get that to someone else. And then that person shows up at the door, and the door just welcome them in. And so that’s a another example of a feature that’s unique to what we do.
That’s very cool. I like that a lot, especially, with the summer weather here. I’ve experienced that about five or six times probably in the past week. I have some more questions for you because you said something off the top, but before I dive into those. Tell me about availability of Level Lock where can people get it when, price point, et cetera, et cetera.
Yes. So Level Lock is available from level.co our website that you went to. It’s also available through certain pro channels and distributors. There’s a variety of places that home builders, et cetera, can purchase a Level for their builds that they’re doing, et cetera. But for end user customers, it’s through level.co right now. And the retail price is 229.
Awesome. Okay. So here’s what I wanted to get because you had mentioned something about when we first started this conversation, about what was the first product that you guys were going to be tackling. So clearly, clearly, you guys have a mission and there’s other things in the smart home that you’re going to be going after. Are there any other products that you can tell me in the pipeline, or give me a indication as to where Level might be going? No, is an okay answer by the way. It’s okay to say no.
I can’t tell you about other products in the pipeline. I can definitely tell you that. Yes. You touched on it correctly. The company name is Level Home. It’s not Level Lock. We are passionate about the home. There are so many areas of innovation in the home, and we really believe that these problems can be solved. And a company with our ethos can tackle those. So there are several other areas of the home we’re super interested in, but as a startup we’re going to stay focused. So I’m going to say no.
I like it. I like it a lot. Ken, awesome time talking to you. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on. I am very excited. I’m going to go to the site right now and buy one because your PR agency said they wouldn’t send one. So I’m going to go buy one.
I know. It’s okay. Listen, demand. I understand there’s demand. No, but I’m definitely, I’m looking forward to getting hands on because I love to follow up interviews. Especially the first time and really show our listeners on our YouTube channel. How easy it is to install. And I’m looking forward to it because I’ve been watching a lot of the videos. And you guys can go to youtube.com, just look up Level Lock. The reviews you’re getting are phenomenal. People are loving this lock they’re calling it’s, obviously, the invisible HomeKit smart lock, incredible impressions. I’m very excited to get hands on, congratulations on the success because this is going to be a great product. If this is any indication of what’s down the road for you guys. I’m really looking forward to it. So thanks again for coming on. And it was great talking to you.
Absolutely. Thanks Marc. And thanks for taking time to talk about Level. We’re super excited and looking forward to hearing more from you after you get your lock.
Oh, you will hear.