Home automation is a hot area for investors lately. Witness the $2 billion acquisition of Vivint by private equity firm Blackstone Group, the $136 million raised by Alarm.com last year, and the full-on entry of giants including Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and their global co-equals into broadband-connected, smart home business offerings.
But home automation has also been around for years, whether in high-end systems like Crestron or in simple, “point” solutions like wireless thermostats, and it hasn’t yet broken the market open. Control4, the self-funded company that’s linked up about 120,000 homes with its software-hardware automation systems, announced Monday that it’s taking a crack at that challenge, with plans to raise about $60 million in an initial public offering.
Control4’s S-1 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also makes it clear that the Salt Lake City-based company is not in the business of home energy management. In fact, in early 2012, Control4 ditched its utility-specific smart thermostat and wireless hub configuration, and its S-1 notes that it took a $1.8 million loss on inventory purchase commitments that year.
In any case, utility business has accounted for less than 1 percent of Control4’s revenue, which is primarily driven by sales via channel partners to homeowners who want a “connected home” experience, without the high cost of traditional systems. “We provide our consumers with the ability to integrate music, video, lighting, temperature, security, communications and other functionalities into a unified home automation,” is how the company’s prospectus puts it.
That means that this is not, technically, a green technology story -- unless, of course, customers who buy into remotely monitoring their homes from their smart phones end up saving energy as part of the process. In other words, getting into the home with what people actually want -- security, entertainment, comfort, etc. -- could be one avenue to drive residential energy efficiency on a mass scale, if the market ever takes off. That makes Control4’s IPO bid worth watching.
Here’s how Control4 puts it in its S-1:
Historically, the home automation market was primarily comprised of luxury systems that were so expensive that only wealthy consumers could afford the programming and installation costs. As consumer awareness of home automation grows and expectations for interoperable and more affordable solutions increase, the mainstream segment of the home automation market is expected to expand rapidly. According to ABI Research, the mainstream segment of the home automation market was estimated to be a $571 million market in 2012 and a $2.6 billion market by 2017, representing a CAGR of 35%, as consumers look for centralized solutions to provide personalized control and automation of their homes.
Control4 has racked up consistent, though narrowing, losses on increasing revenues since its 2003 founding. The company lost $3.7 million on revenues of $109.5 million last year, up from a 2011 loss of $3.9 million on revenues of $93.4 million.
Here’s how the S-1 breaks down the competition:
• Luxury Installations. Generally found in the highest-end segment of the market, these systems and installations are typically complex, lengthy, inflexible and expensive;
• Managed Services. Generally provided by a cable, telephone or security provider, these services come as a non-personalized, one-size-fits-all service with narrow capabilities and recurring monthly charges; and
• Point Products. Generally supplied by companies focused on a discrete function within the home, these products typically lack interoperability with other devices.
Control4 has combined its own software and device networking expertise with a sales model driven by channel partners, which could help it avoid both the high costs associated with luxury installations and the interoperability problems presented by point products. It relies on third-party manufacturers, and noted in its S-1 that two contract manufacturers, Sanmina and LiteOn, made 82 percent of its inventory in 2012.
At the same time, both ends of the market provide challenges to Control4, as its S-1 notes. Here’s how the company describes the challenge from point products:
Consumers may be attracted to the relatively low costs of these point products and the ability to expand their home control solution over time with minimal upfront costs, despite some of the disadvantages of this approach. While we have built our solution to be flexible and support third-party point products, these products may reduce the revenue we receive for each installation. It is therefore important that we have technical expertise and provide attractive top quality products in many areas, such as lighting and video, and establish broad market awareness of these solutions.
As for the challenges from the high end of the business, Control4 notes that companies like Crestron, which has been in business for over 40 years, and Savant Systems, which provides home automation based on the Apple iOS operating platform, could present competition if they get their prices down.
Any talk of smart, connected homes has to deal with the key question of how the technology is planning to remain relevant in the future, of course. That includes obvious tasks, like making sure that one’s devices can run on home Wi-Fi as well as via wireless protocols such as ZigBee and Z-Wave, as well as planning for future interoperability with a host of devices and software offerings built around common standards.
Control4’s answer to this challenge is its “Simple Device Discovery Protocol, or SDDP” technology, which it wants to convince manufacturers of in-home devices to embed at the factory. But as the S-1 notes, “Although we are making SDDP available on a royalty-free basis to product manufacturers, its adoption is not yet substantial, and may not achieve greater or broad market acceptance.”