Small Business Column: Inventor and CEO Christian Lane

In this week’s column, Kehlan talks with inventor and CEO Christian Lane. Christian invented the iKettle and his company, Smarter, is now one of the leading Internet of Things (IoT) companies for domestic appliances.

Firstly, give us an insight into what Smarter does?

Smarter is a company that I started around three years ago. 

We saw the future of the connected home and I think around the time IoT (where smart devices and everyday objects interconnect) was just becoming popular.

Everybody was focusing on the living room or the gadgets that ended up being a five-minute wonder. 

We decided to start with the kitchen, one of the most used spaces in any house. But without any funding or cash to start the business, it needed to be something basic.

We started with a connected kettle. It was a product that everybody could relate to. 

We launched that three years ago and it very quickly became our bestselling product.

It allowed us to build this platform where everybody in a house was connected with the appliances they use via an app.

The ethos behind the platform is to make a smarter kitchen.

When did the entrepreneurial bug get to you at an early age?

It was probably feeling a little bit different when I was at school. I struggled with the routine of getting into school early, coming home, doing your homework then going bed and doing the whole thing again the next day. 

I also saw that being replicated by my father who had a 9am to 5pm job as an architect and he did that for 40 years. I could see him suffering from that.

So I guess it was that need to do something for myself, to be in control of my own destiny. So from an early age, I was making and inventing.

I created a company, Folio, which I pitched on the UK version of Dragons’ Den. That was on the back of just leaving college too. 

I managed to get on and pitch, get some funding and create the company.

In hindsight, it made me quite naïve in thinking that this was how business worked. I had that company for about four or five years, but of course, the landscape of the market changed. 

Folio was a carry case for large-sized papers like art drawings or architect designs, that allowed you to fold up the paper without creasing it and then be able to carry it anywhere. 

Then with the rise of tablets and cloud storage, we realised that it was changing. It was a good success at the time, but we realised that it was never going to be anything huge.

So was a quick transition then to creating the iKettle or was there a period of idea searching?

I’d like to think that it was a quick change on to creating the iKettle, but that simply wasn’t the case. I had toyed with several other ideas before coming to the iKettle.

I kind of cringe when I look back on one particular day. I went to a group of investors and I had about 30 ideas on one pitch deck.

Now I can look back at that and see that that was completely ridiculous, but I just wanted something to take off, so in the end I ended just going overboard on it. 

So I definitely had the drive, I just didn’t have the focus. It took me two years to finally find and concentrate on one thing and then begin to develop and that’s where Smarter began.

So what was it that made you settle on developing a smart kettle?

We saw that people were desperate to bring IoT into their houses. The problem was that major companies were only toying with the idea. 

So that when they would make a big announcement about some kind of connect appliance for the home, you realised it was only a concept and still a long way away from being a reality.

We needed to have a simple device that everybody would use all the time. A kettle is perfect. It’s small and doesn’t cost a lot to develop a connective device within it. We were a company with very little money in the beginning so it was cost-effective for us to put a wifi module within it.

The prototype cost about £100 to create. We took it to a retailer, pitched the idea and then tapped into our network to get production started in China.

We didn’t expect it to be so popular so soon.

Here in the UK, we sell about 12m kettles per year, 20% of that is high-end premium kettles. 

We knew that we had a good shot of making it work. But even still, we didn’t expect it to be a bestselling product so soon. That helped to build Smarter into the company it is now and last year we generated £10m in sales.

So how to maintain the company while on such rapid growth?

It’s not easy, I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed as I have been at points over the last two years.

It’s a balancing act. You’re literally tiring to keep everything in the air.

Something can happen and it seems like a disaster at the time, everything comes crashing back down.

When you’re working in the beginning with one or two people it’s a bonus. So, you have complete control, but you’re working 24 hours a day to make it happen.

If you get the public and the customers behind you from the beginning, you can begin to see demand and that translates into giving you a better picture of what direction the company needs to be going. It hasn’t been easy but we’ve managed to do it.

You’ve shown that IoT can infiltrate the home successfully, so what’s the future of it then?

We could infiltrate the home because we believe that it is the space that people naturally gravitate to. It was underdeveloped at the time so it gave us a competing edge.

I think the future for the connected home is now a much more common trend. So we see IoT devices in the home now like connected thermostats and electricity usage meters, where people can check for themselves what they are using.

The use of IoT has also brought with it the argument of whether it’s encouraging laziness or efficiency. We’ve now developed the FridgeCam which we launched at this year’s CES.

It will allow you look inside your fridge when you are outside of the home and see what you need or what you have in the fridge. 

It will also tell you what food is nearly expired and what you may need to pick up on the way home. So, we encourage efficiency.

The time of one-off gadgets is probably fading, and the useful products will start to kick in and see most households have something connected within their kitchens.

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