Serial entrepreneur Chris Allen grew a simple idea for an iPhone-compatible product into a multi-million-dollar company, recently relocated to a renovated 48,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility in Avon, CT.
NAN PRICE: You launched this company in 2009. Give us some background.
CHRIS ALLEN: Yes. It was 2008 and I’d recently gotten an iPhone. I was grilling in my backyard when I came up with an idea for a thermometer that would connect to your iPhone and use an app to tell you when your grilled food was ready.
I decided to create the product and not be one of those people who has a great idea but does nothing, only to see it on a store shelf later. So I put a provisional patent on the idea.
NAN: How did you know what to do?
CHRIS: I Googled “how to get a patent,” drew it with a colored pencil, wrote it up, and sent it in. I had never invented a product before and had no formal engineering or coding background.
I cold emailed Apple at the end of 2009. We were struggling to get the iPhone to connect to our device because it was using a Bluetooth serial port profile that’s not open for developers. Two hours after sending the email, I got a call from Apple essentially saying the executives loved the product and wanted to work with me. In June 2010, I went to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference; they loved the product and wanted it ready for the October/November timeframe.
I said, “Sure, we can do that.” Keep in mind, I didn’t have any employees at the time; it was just me. But I pulled together some contractors and we made it happen. We launched in Apple retail with a ton of fanfare. Internet of things (IoT) wasn’t even a phrase back then. The iDevices iGrill was the first product to take your iPhone through an app, through Bluetooth, connect to a device, and control it.
At this point, I had created a great relationship with Apple and it kind of spiraled from there. By 2011, I had hired several key team members and our product won Best of CES 2011. I made appearances on The Today Show and Good Morning America. It was a pretty crazy time—but very cool!
NAN: Tell us a little about the evolution from then to now.
CHRIS: The iGrill product grew fairly quickly with a strong revenue model. We sold it worldwide and, because of that, were able to build relationships with several large companies. And some of those companies decided to invest in us.
In 2014, we did a capital raise because Apple invited us to be one of eight partners in their HomeKit framework for Apple home automation. At that point, we had had raised around $5 million from local investors primarily, Connecticut Innovations, the Department of Economic Community Development (DECD), and some local super angels.
But we needed another $15 million and were fortunate enough to secure support from Thermos Brands, Schlage Locks, and an additional contribution from Connecticut Innovations. With that, we were able to grow the organization to about 60 employees and developed our first home automation product, the iDevices Switch, which we launched with Apple in 2015.
In 2016, we sold our original product, the iGrill, to Weber. As the company progressed into home automation, we teamed up with Lowe’s, Apple retail, Best Buy, and other home electronics stores to grow distribution.
Then, in late 2016, we were working on our go-forward strategy—either sell the company or continue to go it alone. That’s when Hubbell Inc. became part of the conversation. They saw the opportunity in iDevices, we came to an acquisition agreement, and we officially became part of the Hubbell family in April 2017. Which brings us to where we are now. We moved into this new facility in Avon in October 2018.
So, what you see now is a product technology division that resides within a much larger $4 billion company. We’re helping drive the innovation engine within the broader Hubbell organization by determining what products should or shouldn’t be “connected” and then developing the technology necessary to make those connected products.
Our team is still relatively small—around 100 folks—but if all goes as planned, we’ll continue to grow while providing the value and expertise necessary to drive even more success within Hubbell. They have more than a half million products—we obviously won’t be connecting all of them, but the opportunities are enormous!
NAN: Why Connecticut? Why stay here versus locating in Silicon Valley?
CHRIS: I was born and raised in West Hartford. I’ve been here for 42 years, so I’m loyal to the area and my family, and there’s amazing talent available in Connecticut.
Apple tried to acquire iDevices more than once, primarily because they wanted the talent. They didn’t need my business or the products we were making; they wanted the people. The talent we have here at iDevices was their key acquisition driver, and one of the many reasons we’re staying here.
NAN: What’s your leadership philosophy?
CHRIS: Work hard, play hard. I think work has to be a place you love coming to every day. That’s where a lot of my focus has been, creating a unique culture and a great place to work. It’s also why people enjoy working here and we have such a talented team, which we’ll always continue to cultivate.
NAN: What’s the best advice you’ve given or received?
CHRIS: Surround yourself with great people and everything else will fall into place. That was some of the best advice I once received from a C-level Kmart executive. I’d add a caveat: Hire great people and then let them do what you hired them to do.
In my experience, a lot of entrepreneurs and small business owners have a hard time letting go of the reins—something I can relate to. But I found it became much easier as soon as I started allowing the people we hired to make good decisions and experience those wins, but also make mistakes and learn from those too—that’s a key part of being a successful entrepreneur.