COVID-19 is changing our society and behavior in more ways than we can imagine. At the same time that the pandemic is placing new restrictions on our everyday lives, industries are evolving to better meet the needs of the socially-distanced consumer, accelerating trends toward connectivity. The real estate industry is no exception; in order to continue operating under evolving conditions, they are ushering in a new era of contactless, digital experiences.
In real estate, voice-activated technology and ambient computing are experiencing remarkable growth and interest in adoption, according to industry analysis from eMarketer and ABI Research. Renters are expressing an unprecedented demand for self-guided tours and touchless entry, while property owners and managers are incorporating remote safety sensors and delivery monitoring as essential aspects of their processes.
SmartRent is a Scottsdale, Arizona-based company that is helping the real estate industry adopt these automation solutions in a simple, all-in-one manner. The company is part of the Alexa Fund portfolio, and is focused on supporting multifamily rental businesses as they scale up the installation and management of smart devices.
According to SmartRent’s founder and CEO Lucas Haldeman, he and his team came from real estate and enterprise business technology backgrounds and began building their product after they noticed that the adoption of smart home solutions in multifamily rentals was lagging behind the rest of the industry.
“There’s a lot of really cool smart home devices, but they’d all been conceived to be in one's house and no one had thought about managing 44,000 of these, or 100,000 of these, or 200,000 of these,” Haldeman said. “That was the founding principle of SmartRent—to bring the knowledge of the operation side of rentals and bring enterprise technology business around IoT.”
According to Haldeman, the dramatic lifestyle shifts during the COVID-19 era haven’t changed SmartRent’s operations so much as they have accelerated their expansion.
The company says it has integrated smart home solutions with over 25,000 homes across 15 states between 2014 and 2016, then relaunched in January 2017, with a heightened focus on multifamily units. As of December 2020, SmartRent says its portfolio includes over 145,000 units online, representing almost a million devices in use. The startup says it is expanding into other countries and regions — the UK, Canada, Western Europe, South America, and Asia. SmartRent installed more units in 2020 than they did in all previous years combined.
With 230 employees in 41 states, the company builds, installs, and maintains two distinct sets of products: one helps automate and control time-consuming and expensive tasks for property owners and managers, while the other provides renters with a more intuitive, modern living space through the use of ambient computing and Alexa integrations. In the COVID era, the company also offers a solution for potential tenants to tour their dream rental avoiding unnecessary physical contact.
“We really have two customers, and even though the end result is the same, the experiences are different," Haldeman says. "So, we have two separate product teams. Our B2C team is focused on creating a really elegant user experience for the renter, which has to be even more intuitive than normal, and that’s why we embrace voice.
“For the property management side, it’s about creating unique interfaces that work across different devices. They may be on an iPad if they’re a leasing agent, they may be on a computer if they’re a property manager, and they may be on their mobile phone if they’re a maintenance person, so we have to have a really flexible architecture for that.”
While designing and maintaining its own hardware solutions—like a four-wire thermostat and a smart home hub—SmartRent also provides an open software interface for hundreds of connected smart home devices and software applications, with integrations and interoperability at its core, says Haldeman. Every property is different, and every solution adapts to the customer’s needs.
“For us, it’s always about the ultimate choice for the owner,” Haldeman said. “I like to say, we’ll integrate with anyone who’s willing to integrate with us.”
“We see the world getting more open, not less, and that’s one of our core principles, core philosophies, and part of why we’re so excited to work with Amazon.”
Haldeman was looking into ways to integrate Ring with SmartRent when one of his mentors suggested that he meet with the Alexa Fund. In 2019, the company received an investment from the fund in an extension of Series B funding. A year later, in the midst of the pandemic, the Alexa Fund participated in the company’s $60 million Series C funding.
According to Haldeman, this relationship with the Alexa Fund has brought the company a wealth of knowledge in multiple arenas, including voice UX and technological solutions for smart homes and properties.
Residents living in SmartRent-powered communities have access to a mobile app that lets them control their smart thermostats, keyless entry door locks, and environment sensors, as well as monitor their utility usage. The company’s integrated Alexa skill makes the smart apartment experience accessible and intuitive to use according to the founders.
SmartRent’s Community Manager portal (available as a web-based experience and a mobile app) supports owners and property managers with a variety of automated services, including remote leasing, moving in and out, vacant unit management, maintenance, and work order tracking—all with effective up-to-date analytics, says Haldeman.
According to SmartRent, one of the biggest draws to their solutions during the ongoing pandemic has been their self-guided tour experience. It has provided owners with a way to lease apartments remotely, safely, and efficiently, even with limited staffing, and it’s given prospective residents a simple and safe way to view apartments on their own time without pressure from a leasing agent.
SmartRent’s software enables owners to add code to their properties’ websites, letting prospective tenants schedule a tour of the property. Through the provided link, future residents can select an apartment, research prices and amenities, and schedule a self-guided tour. Owners then grant access to the property through smart, voice-based intercom systems and temporary keyless entry credentials.
“It’s a necessity, and owners are now seeing that they can operate properties with less staff, so more cost effectively,” Haldeman said. “Oh, and by the way, prospects prefer doing this anyway. They don’t want the guided tour, it’s an outdated concept. And so, it’s the ultimate win-win.”
SmartRent’s product Alloy Access is a cloud-based access control system designed to help manage and monitor who enters and leaves a SmartRent property — a useful tool to maintain security during the pandemic, when online deliveries are increasingly popular, says Haldeman. The system’s features include keyless entry, remote administration, and integration with back-end property management systems.
Looking forward, the startup is working on further integrations, including offering additional support for a wide variety of security devices, door and window sensors, motion detectors, and indoor cameras.
Voice assistants like Alexa have also helped SmartRent encourage the adoption of new and touchless technology, making their systems simple to learn to use. “For us, voice is the ultimate interface,” Haldeman said. “We’re even looking at enabling it on some of our hardware devices and embedding it so that you can have that voice control built-in.”
According to the founders, incorporating all of these software systems with hardware is, perhaps, the biggest challenge for SmartRent.
Consider the thermostat: an essential item in any apartment. SmartRent installs its system in newly built communities and also retrofits existing properties. Apartments that date back to the 1950s, or even just the 1990s, often have older components in their thermostats, like aluminum wiring. Some even lack a control board. All of these problems require a unique solution says Haldeman.
“Three years ago, we had two thermostats that we thought would give us 98% coverage of the apartment buildings in the U.S.,” Haldeman said. “We now have 13 thermostats, and we still find a new compatibility problem every day.”
Haldeman suggests finding a solution for each property begins with a detailed walkthrough by one of SmartRent’s employees: They look at each and every thermostat, take it off the wall and inspect all the relevant mechanical and electrical properties. In the example of keyless locks, the SmartRent employee has to check how the doors close, determine whether they’re level, and recommend the appropriate lock among hundreds they support.
“It's an art, and that’s why we have dedicated W-2 employees who do this for us,” Haldeman added. “We can’t outsource it to a general contractor, it has to be a core competency of ours. It also helps us to maintain a really high success rate.”
Once all the hardware pieces are installed and activated, SmartRent says it trains the property’s staff and residents to use the system and provides both remote and in-person support.
With so many different devices operating independently, SmartRent says it is currently developing unifying hardware for the future of the connected community. The company says it is excited about the Amazon Sidewalk technology — a new low-bandwidth, long-range wireless networking protocol.
“I think Sidewalk could be incredibly impactful for our business long-term, and it will solve our persistent challenge of sensors going offline and becoming worthless,” Haldeman said. He added that it will help bring about smart communities, where residents and staff will be able to enjoy continuous, uninterrupted service.
“The future is really already here,” Haldeman said. “We’ve brought a lot of new products to market this year because of COVID, and we will continue developing them and new ones.”
SmartRent’s vision for smart communities, as clearly seen in their current list of products in development, includes energy-efficient and green operations, better sensors for advanced asset protection, and touchless access control for tenants — not just for apartments, but for common areas and other building amenities. In their view, all of these technologies work in harmony to make life simpler for both tenants and managers.