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It was 2 a.m. and John Martin and his family had finally arrived at their cabin in Lake Tahoe only to discover they were locked out. Martin had forgotten the keys.

“While this conversation was going on in the car, a light bulb went off in my head. How come my house doesn’t know it’s me? This is my house, I pay taxes on it, but I can’t get in,” Martin recalled. “This thought hounded me for a long time and I obsessed over it.”

Martin took that obsession and turned it into a company. In 2016, he teamed up with Ken Goto, a former colleague of his from Apple, and started designing a smart lock that could be opened remotely using a phone or a computer.

They called their company Level Home and dubbed their first invention Level Lock.

Since that time, the two have raised $71 million in funding and have inked a partnership with Walmart. The Level Lock will officially go on sale for $249 on the company’s web site in January and will be available at Walmart sometime early next year.

The Level Lock converts a standard deadbolt lock into a smart lock.
The Level Lock converts a standard deadbolt lock into a smart lock.
PHOTO: LEVEL HOME

Unlocking a market

The concept behind the Level Lock isn’t necessarily a new one. Locks that allow homeowners to electronically enable kids, visitors, dogwalkers and delivery people to safely enter and leave a home without needing a set of keys have been around for at least a decade.

But most offerings on the market require you to replace the existing lock on your door or entail keypads and other equipment that must be installed then connected to your existing lock.

Level Lock can convert an existing deadbolt lock that’s already on a door into a smart lock. Made of stainless steel, the Level Lock integrates with the deadbolt inside the door. “Once you install it, it’s invisible,” said Martin. The installation, he said, takes about 10 minutes and requires a standard screwdriver.

Smart products should blend in naturally with your home and lives so that it’s not just early adopters who use them, but everybody – your child, your spouse, your grandparents,” said Martin.

Users can still operate the lock the conventional way with their keys or with an app on their phone using a Bluetooth or WiFi connection. They can also add family and friends to the app, which allows them to use their phones as a key.

Additionally, the lock connects with Apple Homekit, so you can operate it via Siri, and add automations like locking the door when the last person leaves or receiving real-time notifications when someone enters or exits the home.

Level Home founders John Martin [left] and Ken Goto.
Level Home founders John Martin [left] and Ken Goto.
PHOTO: AARON WOJACK

Yet, there are still challenges when it comes to getting consumers to embrace smart locks, said Jonathan Collins, research director overseeing smart home coverage for ABI Research. While smart lock sales in the US are up 45% over last year, Collins notes there are still major hurdles to overcome.

Price is one of them, he said, noting that locks often can range from $100 to $300, not including installation costs.

Trust is another. Consumers are concerned that the locks could be vulnerable to hackers, a power loss or general malfunctions, he said.

Groceries delivered to your kitchen

While Level Lock won’t be available online or in stores until January, some consumers are getting early access through the company’s partnership with Walmart (WMT).

In June, Walmart announced it was launching InHome Delivery, a service in which customers order their groceries online and a Walmart worker delivers the order and even organizes it in their kitchen or garage refrigerator. Delivery persons will wear cameras so customers can watch the delivery process live on their phones if they wish to.

Unlike most other smart locks, the Level Lock completely fits inside of the door.
Unlike most other smart locks, the Level Lock completely fits inside of the door.
PHOTO: ROLAND BELLO

For deliveries inside the home, the service requires customers to have Level Lock installed, said Martin. For in-garage deliveries, customers need a different device called the GoControl Smart Garage Door Controller.

Using Level Lock, Walmart’s delivery person would get a secure one-time access code via the Level Home app for entry into the home during a designated time frame.

InHome Delivery is currently being offered in three markets – Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Vero Beach, Florida. Customers who sign up for InHome Delivery service for $19.95 a month pay a reduced one-time fee of $49.95 for the Level Lock.

“We are a small company, and pre-revenue. So this is no small bet that Walmart has made on us,” said Martin.

Level Home
Level Home's team of former Apple engineers took three years to develop its first smart home product.
PHOTO: AARON WOJACK

In fact, Walmart is the lead investor in Level Home. The company has also raised funding from home construction company Lennar Homes (LEN), which has been investing and building connected homes, and other investors.

The company is already working on its next smart home device, which Martin said isn’t tied to home entry.

“Ken and I aren’t typical ‘move fast and break things’ entrepreneurs,” said Martin. “We start at what we call ‘square zero,’ a truly blank slate, so that we know what the experience is we’re trying to design for, [and] we can notice the little things that truly matter before we make it.”