Deb Noller, Switch Automation - Interview
By Oliver Milman
Deb Noller started Switch Automation with John Darlington in 2005.
Having previously built a successful IT business Noller turned her attention to the growing home automation market by launching Switch.
She tells StartupSmart about her vision for the business, her struggle to find the right investment and a work/life balance.
What gave you the idea for the business?
We started the idea of automation in high end homes in 2002. We found there were no solutions for apartments in multi-residential buildings.
More than 30% of new buildings in Australia are green and they have fundamental requirements that no-one was meeting.
There was no solution for all stakeholders, including property managers and everyone who lives in the building. We thought there was an opportunity around automation for green buildings.
What kind of customer base do you have?
Traditionally it has been the luxury end, installing multi-room entertainment systems. That’s what most people think of when it comes to home automation.
We still do a bit of that, but we get in at the building level so that everyone involved in the building becomes a customer.
When it comes to alternative energy, such as solar and water harvesting, there was no system to bring all of it together.
We target buildings to sell that infrastructure to them and then everyone living in the building becomes a potential customer for other things.
How did you go about creating the business?
It took around two years to develop the infrastructure. We changed the whole business model in 2006 to become a cloud-based platform rather than a hardware-based system.
We did that in order to scale the business – we were previously treating 200 apartments like 200 different buildings and there was no way we could put the hardware in every single one.
We re-developed in the cloud so that we can install the system easily. It’s not as capital intensive either.
We have six people and have outsourced some aspects. We’ve developed our own IP and we’ve had more than 400 installs in more than 100 buildings.
How have you funded the business?
It was all self-funded. We’ve grown it organically but we need additional funding to meet our ambitions.
What have been the biggest challenges?
The hardest part has been the technology. Finding the right software developer was tough.
The other thing is finding funding in Australia. If we started the business in the US we would’ve had more luck.
The US is more inclined to have a go and back something while Australia is a bit more conservative with its investment.
I’m mindful that we need capital, but now that we need it we wonder why investors wouldn’t put money in now that we’ve demonstrated a market and sales growth.
We now make more than $1 million a year but a lot of investors said: “Come back when you make $5 million.”
I think we can achieve $50 million within five years. We already have the technology – we just need to grow sales and marketing to do that.
What lessons can other start-ups take from your experience?
You need to find money from day one. You need to grow your business organically and fund it yourself – if you can’t, have another business on the side.
I can honestly say there is no work/life balance. My family has suffered.
But you don’t want the business to fail so you have to work hard. You should be prepared to do 70 to 80 hour weeks.
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