Dec. 26, 2022

How Reinventing the Doorbell Became a $1 Billion Startup

Inventor Jamie Siminoff on building Ring


Live from Web Summit 2020 in Lisbon, Nora speaks with Jamie Siminoff, founder, CEO, and chief inventor for Ring, the home security company behind the video doorbell. Jame talks about how he started Ring in his garage, along with the challenges of reinventing a product and how his perspective as an industry outsider turned out to be an asset. For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out https://purple.com

 

Host: Nora Ali

Producer: Raymond Luu  

Video Editors: Sebastian Vega

Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus & Rosemary Minkler

Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder

Fact Checker: Kate Brandt 

Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop

 

Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm

Transcript

Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now let's get down to business.

Today we're bringing you another conversation recorded live on stage from Web Summit 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal. Web Summit is the world's largest technology event, featuring speakers and leaders from some of the world's biggest companies and innovators in tech. One of those leading innovators is the home security company Ring. What began in inventor Jamie Siminoff's garage as a wi-fi doorbell has since developed into one of the largest home security systems in the world, which was acquired by Amazon in 2018.

Jamie called Ring the biggest risk he ever took. He gave us some insight into the learning process of developing Ring, and shared some of the mistakes he made along the way, including the fact that they initially launched the company as Doorbot, which admittedly doesn't have a great ring to it. Jamie also explained why, even over 10 years later, he's still driven by the idea of reinvention, and how his perspective as an industry outsider turned out to be one of his greatest assets. All of that is next, after the break.

Hello, everyone. Very excited for this session. I'm Nora Ali. This is Jamie Siminoff, the founder of Ring. And this session is all about reinvention.

So, back when you founded Ring, how did reinvention lead to the product itself, and what were you changing that had existed at the time with doorbells?

Jamie Siminoff: So I got lucky on the reinvention with Ring, because I was working in my garage; I was trying to invent other things, and I couldn't hear the doorbell. I had just gotten an iPhone and thought to myself, why wouldn't my doorbell go to the iPhone? And so I actually Googled to find a wi-fi doorbell. None existed. And so I just kind of started hacking it up. It just seemed like an obvious thing to build, but in the reinvention side I didn't realize even what I was doing—it was kind of like just exploring.

Nora Ali: And as you were testing out the market initially, getting customer feedback, was this an issue that customers realized they had, or were you kind of introducing an issue as you introduced the solution?

Jamie Siminoff: So my wife was the one who said—I gave her the app and she said, "It makes me feel safer at home." The "aha" moment was not building the product; it was how it was being used and that she felt, by having this camera there, our house was right on the street, and when people would come up to the door, she could now answer it and feel safer. That was really the invention and that was our mission of making neighborhoods safer.

Nora Ali: I think that's a good learning for any product in any category. Maybe the messaging, the storytelling, the marketing is around how it makes you feel, versus the actual function of it. So was that something that you started talking about more to sell the product—how it makes you feel?

Jamie Siminoff: It's very hard to tell someone how to feel about a product. You have to either hope or design the product so that people either feel or are attracted to or are pre-aware, I mean, there's lots of different ways of looking at it, depending on the product, but that they have some affiliation with what that's gonna do. I kind of call it over-invention. If you over-invent, the product is so unique or new or alien that you can't understand what it is, which then means I have to sit with you and tell you, "This is what it does; this is how it makes your life better," and that's very expensive to do. And maybe some very large companies can do it because they have the money and the time to do that. But as a startup, there's absolutely no way you have the ability to train a market from zero to 100. You need to have something in there.

So the doorbell itself, when you saw a doorbell, and we made it look kind of a doorbell, that was pre-awareness. You now, "Oh, it's a doorbell and it has a camera. I know where a doorbell goes. I know what a doorbell does." And so my wife, it was like people said, "Oh, I kind of understand how if this doorbell went to my phone, how that would make things better." Not just like, "Here's a camera; you figure out how to use it."

Nora Ali: There has to be things that look similar, feel similar, so you're not teaching every piece of the new product. What were some of the challenges to introducing and reinventing a product that people were so used to? For decades and decades, no one had really innovated on the doorbell.

Jamie Siminoff: It's funny, I mean, that one of the biggest challenges of reinventing a product is how stupid you look doing it. So I literally had people, when I said like, "Oh, here's what I'm doing. I'm building a doorbell." And they'd laugh at me. I mean, like belly laugh, real gut laughter, of "How big can the doorbell business be?" I'm like, "I don't know. I think this is kind of different." It's also how they looked at Uber initially. It's like, "Oh, that's so cute. You're going to be some percentage of what taxis do." I mean, today, no one will even ask you what the size of the doorbell market is compared to the video doorbell market, because we have reinvented an entire market. And my guess is yeah, probably doorbells are probably a sub-100 million dollar market and we are multiple billions at this point, for sure.

Nora Ali: To your point, for many startup founders, you do get laughed at when you propose your idea until you become successful, until you get acquired for a billion dollars. So as an inventor, how do you keep going? What advice do you have for founders who are faced with that skepticism?

Jamie Siminoff: I mean, I think it's hard to do it as a startup founder. It's hard to do it even if you're inside of a company. Reinvention is hard in a company. You're in a meeting with executives and smart people and you're sitting there, and again, like you say, "We're going to make a doorbell" and everyone would just laugh at you. There's not a great way to say, "Just be this." I mean, I guess confidence, but I'm not even a confident person. When people would laugh at me, I literally did say, "What the hell am I doing? Why am I building a doorbell?"

Invention, by definition, has to be something that people are uncomfortable with. If I give you my new idea right now and everyone just goes, "Yeah, that's really smart," it's probably not enough of an invention to be big. It's probably more linear. I mean, I'll tell you about my invention. Let's go 10 years back. I'm gonna create a website that you text and it's going to be 140 characters and I'm going to post those up. It turns out that this idea of just limiting the number of characters and putting it online became Twitter. And so these things are like, it can compartmentalize, very silly, and so I think you just have to maybe feed a little bit off of that feedback to say, if people are uncomfortable with it, then it could be good.

The problem is, a lot of times when people are uncomfortable with it, it's actually just a really stupid idea. Listen, we've definitely had some stuff that didn't go as well. Sometimes you have to also just kinda try it.

Nora Ali: How do you know which side of the line you're on?

Jamie Siminoff: You don't.

Nora Ali: Until it works.

Jamie Siminoff: I think you can see maybe the far edges, but there's a lot of crazy things that have made massive impacts that looking back, again, no one saw. Imagine, like, investors would've put all their money into X or Y or Z that became Airbnb. They literally could not raise money. I mean, they could not raise money. And again, that's the hard part of investing, of being a startup founder, an inventor, is like, it's hard to see which one. And I think the better inventors probably have more of a gut towards the one side. But if you're not making some of those mistakes, again, you're probably not inventing; you're just linear and you're iterating, and iterating is not fun.

Nora Ali: We're going to take a quick break. More with Jamie when we come back.

Walk us through some of those mistakes that you made early on. What was the test/fail/learning process? What were some of the iterations of Ring that didn't actually make it through?

Jamie Siminoff: When you say "didn't make it through," we actually launched as Doorbot. The name Doorbot, we learned, was terrible. It turns out that people don't want a doorbot on their front door. Their front door is a place of...they have a vision for their sort of the entry to the home, and Doorbot does not fit that. So the name, that was bad. The design of the product; it was designed by myself and I had two interns in the garage. So we built what garage people would build, which was like HAL 9000 and it had a big eye, and it kind of had some of the doorbell things. So it wasn't totally off, but it was pretty off and off-putting, I would say. It was techy, it was a tech-forward device.

But we launched it. And I'd say, I think a lot of times, most people or many people would see the signs of this and say, we have to hold it, we have to do another iteration. But part of learning is putting yourself out there and getting a little beat up. And so we launched it; we learned from it. It was a challenge product. But all of the learnings from that let us quickly iterate and build Ring into what it is today. One of the things I'm most proud of is the Ring video doorbell, our classic Ring video doorbell, I think it might be the longest-running consumer electronics product of the same design. So the outside, the look of a Ring video doorbell, is basically the same for 10 years. And I think that's an amazing, iconic design. We're so used to this idea that you have to keep changing the look of the product because that's innovation, and I think in certain areas that's actually wrong. And I think we've created now an iconic design that we own that sort of design and that look, and it still to this day still sells very well.

Nora Ali: Is that a conversation or debate you ever had internally? Did you ever want to try to change it to see if you could improve on it?

Jamie Siminoff: I mean, there's so many of these things and you don't really know what's right or wrong, but certainly people would come on the team and say, "In our industry"...like, when someone starts with "In our industry," just put the earplugs in, because all they're telling you is you have to do what everyone else does. And to me, first of all, it's really boring. And secondly, at best you're going to be as good as someone else. That's your best case. And so it's always, "In our industry you have to redesign every 18 months. That's the cycle." And it's like, well, why?

Nora Ali: I've heard that phrase a lot: "In our industry," or this is how it's always been done. Does that translate into your approach to hiring, where maybe you will hire people outside the industry who can think outside the box and not have any preconceived notions of how things work?

Jamie Siminoff: I do. If you look at companies that have broken out in industries, two things. Usually they do have a lot of people that come from outside, and everybody in the industry will tell you how stupid that company is. But I would say a lot of times they're wrong. I remember Blackberry, when the iPad came out. I have a picture of it. I was at the Blackberry conference; I was in the voicemail business at the time...don't ask. And they had a banner, they said "Playtime is over," when they launched their tablet against the iPad. And it's like they were so cocky on this idea that "Real people use Blackberry; jokers use...consumers use iPhones. A CIO will never allow an iPhone or an Apple this into our company." I think you know how that turned out.

And so I think it's like you have to measure that. And I think about that now, where I believe we're the largest home security company in the world now, which is crazy. And so I probably have those blinders also. I mean, I have people send me ideas, and most of them, I just kind of toss them out. I'm sure I've tossed out probably what the next product is, because I can't see it now.

Nora Ali: We're going to take a quick break. More when we come back.

What would you say is the biggest risk you've ever taken with Ring?

Jamie Siminoff: Yeah, for a while, everything we did, because we were growing so fast, almost every decision we made would've taken the company out. We grew from $3 million, $30 million, $170 million, $480 million, and then we didn't report above that, which is way more. And a physical product company, to go from $30 to $170 million, you're ordering $100 million worth of product when all you've sold is $30. So you're ordering because you can't sell what you don't have, so you have to pre-order all of this product. So we were constantly risking that.

And then each product we'd launch, the floodlight camera...another thing I got laughed at for. We have this floodlight, the outdoor motion detection floodlight camera. Our factory wouldn't even build it for me. They're like, "Who's going to uninstall a floodlight and put this up?"

Nora Ali: Your factory refused?

Jamie Siminoff: They wouldn't. Yeah, no. At that time we were so small that we needed the factory to be a partner. I couldn't pay them enough or order enough to make it worthwhile, so they had to believe it was gonna work. And so the first order we did for floodlight cams, if they didn't sell, at that point probably would've put us out of business if we had to eat the inventory on it. So we just kept betting the farm for a long time. I probably took years off my life.

Nora Ali: As an inventor, do you have a different approach to, say, business metrics and success? Is there more room for failure? Do you give yourself more space because you are, at the core, an inventor?

Jamie Siminoff: "Inventor" to me is someone who wants to solve your problem, but I want to solve it at scale, because I just solve one person's problem, that's not that satisfying. I drive around and I see Rings kind of everywhere; that's really satisfying. And so you need to have that. So you want to keep an eye on that. And so to me...with invention is, I would at least look when you're inventing something; make sure there's at least some sort of a big...like with Ring I was like, okay, the doorbell business is small, but every house has a doorbell—that seems big. So for me it is, I like to invent around a mission. So we want to make neighborhoods safer, so at Ring it's always like, let's make neighborhoods safer. Every product we put out, I want it to be something that has pre-awareness, but is reinvented from what it was. So it really is a better, differentiated version than what's out there in the market. And if something's already in the market, I'd rather at this point partner with it. So that's kind of like our thing, and then making sure it is for a big enough market that it sort of matters.

Nora Ali: Well, the market was big enough and you've found enough success for Amazon to acquire Ring for a billion dollars in 2018. It's also become a cultural phenomenon. I see TikToks all the time of a delivery gone wrong or a kid talking to their parents, saying something cute through their Ring device. What are your thoughts on Ring footage being used as entertainment? Is it good for the brand?

Jamie Siminoff: I mean, I think it's great. 'Cause what it shows is, our tagline was "Always home," and always home meant that you're connected to your home. And again, a lucky thing is it turned out the front door is really, really important. Your home is really important, and your home's not just important as an asset, it's expensive for you, but it's not about that. It's about the pictures inside and your kids are going in and out, and your dogs and your friends and your spouse and all of these things. And the front door is this place where all this is happening, and people are coming over for the first time. So we were able to capture, as we basically have like this Hollywood camera at this very important place. And so you get all of these important moments, and it turns out some are funny and some are tearjerkers. It kind of runs the gamut, which, that is kind of entertainment. Entertainment is about funny and it's about serious and it's sort of mixing it together. So I do kind of love seeing what that's done. It's amazing. I mean, TikTok, people send me them all the time where I'll see something I haven't even seen and it'll have 10 million, on TikTok it's called, I think it's likes...

Nora Ali: There's views, there's like, there's saves.

Jamie Siminoff: Views or whatever. Saves, whatever. There're like 10 million TikToks or whatever.

Nora Ali: 10 million posts.

Jamie Siminoff: Posts.

Nora Ali: And there's something like 3 billion views on #Ringdoorbell.

Jamie Siminoff: Yes. I mean, if you think about that in terms of TV, I mean it'd probably be one of the biggest TV shows in terms of impressions. It's unbelievable.

Nora Ali: Speaking of which, there is one, Ring Nation...

Jamie Siminoff: Yes, there is.

Nora Ali: By MGM Studios, hosted by Wanda Sykes. It's kind of like America's Funniest Home Videos. It's clips using Ring footage. How did that come to be and why, and what are your thoughts?

Jamie Siminoff: 

So I was on Shark Tank and through that process, Mark Burnett, who was the head of MGM, thought that this video we were doing could be fun. America's Funniest Home Videos was a great sort of show that then was off the air, and they thought it was a unique way of doing that. I've always thought it was fun. And so we kind of worked on the idea for about five years...

Nora Ali: Oh, wow.

Jamie Siminoff: Yeah, it took a long time. And finally this year it went on syndication in the US. Hopefully it'll be global; it takes a couple years for that stuff to sort of work its way around. But I mean, it's kind of fun. Again, I think we show some stuff on there that's really serious and pulls at the heartstrings, and there's some stuff that's like a snake going across the doorbell, the front door, a bear coming and opening a car door. So it's just like fun stuff that happens.

Nora Ali: Awesome. Well, Jamie, this has been so great. Thank you so much for the time and thanks to you all.

Jamie Siminoff: Thanks, everyone.

Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments, thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, feel free to shoot me a DM and I will do my very best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing businesscasual@morningbrew.com, or call us. That number is 862-295-1135. If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like this show, please leave us a rating and a review—it really helps.

Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Raymond Luu. Additional production, sound design, and mixing by Daniel Markus, Rosemary Minkler, and Nick Torres. Kate Brandt is our fact checker, and AB Silver is our senior booking producer. Sebastian Vega and Evan Frolov edit our videos. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.