Colin Billings: The future existed where you just woke up and walked around a space, and the lights responded to you. We’ve seen that for a very long time. Clearly, a desirable experience. The question was how and was that possible to create?
Joe Casabona: Colin Billings has built something that I’m incredibly interested in, in general. Hardware that contributes to home automation. You see, he built Orro, the first truly responsive lighting system, out of his own frustrations with lighting’s adverse impact on his wellness and sleep. Now the Orro Switch adds the computational power of an iPhone 10r inside the walls of your home. It detects your presence in a room and adjusts the lighting automatically to bring out the most natural light. Reducing artificial light exposure, etc. etc.. I will let Collin get into all of this, but I think that this is a very interesting topic, especially because I’ve been focusing a lot more on automating my home now that I own one. I don’t want to spoil any more of the conversation. Let’s get to it. But first, a word from our sponsors.
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Joe: Hey everybody, and welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks How did you build that? Today guest is Colin Billings, founder, and CEO of Orro, the first truly responsive lighting system. When I was reached out to have Colin on the show, I thought this was a fantastic idea. I thought it was a very cool product to talk about. Right now it’s really good timing because we just bought our first house and I want to make it as smart a home as possible. So, Colin, thanks so much for joining me today.
Colin: Hey, Joe, thank you so much for having me on.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. My pleasure. Why don’t we start off with a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Colin: Yeah. Founder and CEO of Orro. Orro is the creator of the Orro Switch and the Orro home lighting system, which is a seamless replacement for any light switch in your home. Works with your existing bulbs and you plug it into where your existing switch is today, in a way that in about a week at all autonomous to control your lights, that’s what we call responsive lighting. Then turn the light switch into something much more than what we commonly expect from our light switch today, which is an easy control for all the other smart things in your home.
Joe: Wow, that’s fantastic. Something very appealing to me here is that it works with the current bulbs in my home. Other lighting fixtures, you’d need to buy these Wi-Fi connected bulbs, right?
Colin: That’s right. The previous era of smart lighting was focused around the bulb. That was very easy to install but very difficult to have across your house. One of the biggest problems was that you had to rely on an app to control these bulbs because as soon as you turn off the light switch, the smart bulb becomes dumb. Aside from the fact that there are quite a few light bulbs and it gets quite expensive. Experience is just much better with the intelligence at the switch.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. The other thing that you mentioned is that within a week, it will automatically work with the way you live. Is it AI-powered to figure out “The lights are always on at this time. Let’s turn them on at this time.” Can you explain that a little bit more?
Colin: Yeah. There’s two things that are really at the core responsive lighting. One is machine perception. It can observe the environment. The other is, is what I would call machine intelligence, which is not AI in terms of convolutional networks and other things like that, but more understanding the patterns of your home. You use the Orro Switch after you’ve installed it like a normal light switch, maybe it’ll automatically turn the light on, and it’ll turn it off after you’ve left. It’s essentially making memories of all those adjustments and understanding your particular preferences for that room and how you use it and that it can begin doing that automatically for you within a relatively short period of time.
Joe: That’s fantastic. I think a good illustration of this is every morning I wake up around 5:30 or 6:00. I go downstairs to my living room, and I have a smart switch, so I say, digital assistants. I won’t say any names on the show. Digital assistants, turn on the reading light, and then the reading light gets turned on. Then I read for about an hour, and I turn it off. That’s a very specific pattern in my home that says the Orro Switch could probably learn, right?
Colin: That’s right. Two things about that. One is that the most transformational thing that Orro does today is moving you from that having to consciously think about your lights. Everything that’s existed prior to Orro was essentially some version of a remote control. You could pull out your phone and make an adjustment. You could connect it to a voice assistant and ask your assistant to do that. Today, with Orro, you walk in the room. We learned that at 6:00 a.m. in the morning, you like it soft or a particular light on, and we’ll automatically turn that on for you. To the right level, based on what we’ve learned about your preference.
Joe: That’s fantastic. This sounds like something that my father would love to invent because when I was a kid, the thing that my dad said all the time is every freaking light in the house is on. He would say it constantly because we’re always wasting energy. It sounds like this is the perfect thing for my dad to have circa 1996 when all four of us were running around.
Colin: It would have probably saved us all a little bit of grief. I think two things are true. One is that we waste an incredible amount of energy from our lighting. About half of all lighting energy is wasted because people are not there or because you already have enough brightness in the room from natural light or other sources. In terms of total energy consumption, that’s one-tenth of the world’s energy. It’s a massive amount, and it means a lot both at the world level, but also in your pocketbook, over the lifetime that you own a home. Orro completely eliminates that. I think the important part and the reason why this is something that is only now possible is that we don’t like to conserve if it means we have to have a sacrifice in our quality or comfort of living. What Orro was able to do is understand your patterns and make sure you have all the light you need and that it’s perfect for that moment, but make sure that when you don’t need it, it’s off.
Joe: Yeah, That’s perfect. That’s fantastic. Where I’m less likely to recycle if it means I have to take my recycling somewhere. But if my garbage man picks up the recycling, as long as it’s in the right bin, fine I’ll recycle. That’s no skin off my back.
Joe: As a crude example. This is super interesting. How old is Orro? When did you found this company?
Colin: Orro is about three years old now. We spent the first about two and a half years working product development research. We launched our first product that Orro switch at the beginning of February.
Joe: Nice. Oh, wow. So it’s been two and a half years in the making. This is perfect. I love hearing about stuff like this, because most of the people I interview and myself included, we are in a very digital space. If I have an idea on a Friday night, I can code the weekend and have it launched by Monday, if I wanted to. Two and a half of the three years you spent doing the research. Let’s focus in on there. First of all, how did you come up with the idea?
Colin: The idea started with an experience I had in my own home, and it was one related to not sleeping well. I was struggling with sleep. I was recommended an app for my computer called Flux, which adjusts the color, temperature, and brightness of your screens. You have it on your phones now with things like Night Shift, and there’s a couple of ones on Android. I started sleeping better immediately. That was fascinating to me. I learned, through some research, that the way that we expose ourselves to light throughout the day matters immensely to our health. I wanted to build Flux as a hobby project for my home, because that’s where I spend the most amount of time around artificial light. That was an interesting technical project to start working on. As I started working through what was available, smart bulbs, you talked a little bit about that, very expensive systems that cost $20,000 for your home. I was like, “I’m not going to do this for my apartment in San Francisco.” I think I saw what was an opportunity, which was that clearly, the future existed where you just woke up and walked around a space and the lights responded to you. We’ve seen that for a very long time. Clearly a desirable experience. The question was how and was that possible to create? That was the thesis around where the experience should be. We started as a business when we realized that the light switch is the most widely distributed electronic device in the world. It’s in every room. For 60 to 100 years, it’s done nothing more than turn the lights on and off manually. That seems like a pretty interesting space to begin trying to build a company.
Joe: I love that. The light switch is the most distributed electronic around the world. Every home needs light switches. Every home needs multiple light switches, maybe multiple light switches in a single room. You’re not limiting yourself to iPhone users or Android users, or whatever. You’re like “Homes need light switches, every building has light switches. That’s fantastic. Walking around and the lights change around you. The example of that that will always stick with me is from the 1998 movie Antitrust. Have you seen this, with Ryan Phillippe?
Colin: I have not, but I’m going to go check it out. I’m a big fan of finding these old movies where they had things like Orro in them.
Joe: Yeah. Yeah. This was lights, but also music. The music would follow this guy around. I was like, in 1998, I’m like, “This is magic.” But now, today I’m like, “You could probably do that.” It’s cool to see this put into action. You mentioned a little bit about researching the smart bulbs. Like you said, really expensive. We’re renting right now. We’re going to move into our new house, and that’s when I’m ready to bite the bullet. If I’m spending, I don’t know. It’s like $120 bucks for two Phillips Hue light bulbs. We’ve got dozens of light bulbs in our house. That’s a ton of money. As far as the research into the competition goes, it sounds like you did that. What research did you have to do to make sure that the switch idea was viable?
Colin: Yeah. I worked on product teams, in those roles for most of my career. I knew that it’s very hard to pitch consumer products to customers on things like value savings, or you have to have a magical experience that also has the right timing. We spent a good part of our first four, six months just talking to customers. Asking them, “What is the role that light plays in your life? How do you feel about the jobs you have to do every day? To get that light to meet your needs, what are your desired benefits?” I would say that following something like a customer discovery plan, is a great place to start. We essentially did a version of that ourselves. What we found was that people at first, if you’re asking, “What is the role of light in your life?” That they’re like a little bit of a mental block. Then you ask, “What do you do every day? You go through that process. I wake up in the morning, and I walk down the hall, and I turn on a light, and then I adjust it down because it was bright from the night before. I am at my door getting ready to leave, and I’m having a moment of like, “Am I going to turn my lights off and be a good human being today?” You find out that it touches a whole host of moments across our life. You could simply think about it. If your light switch doesn’t work in your house, you basically go to the hardware store tomorrow and replace it. We narrowed in on what those pain points were and where we could delight people. Then we built a prototype, which was our validation of “Are we going to commit our lives to this?” Let’s get something that does an approximation. It was a super ugly product, sat on the outside of your wall, didn’t replace your light switch, but it did the core components and gave it to people and said “Do you like this? Is there something that you can see having in your home?” Those were the validation steps that we went through.
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Joe: If I am in my car and I see into my house that the light is still on, I always have this moment of “Am I going to get out of the car and turn the light off?” Which I do, because I like saving money. That’s an experience that we’ve all had. Or like “I’m halfway down the road now. Did I turn the light off? I don’t remember.” I love what you said here because it’s a theme that keeps coming up with people, especially people I talk to in the physical product space. We talked to customers for 6 months or 12 months, or we built a prototype, and we asked them these very serious leading questions. Again, the contrast between the physical product and just the software that I can iterate on quickly is different. I think software developers could learn a lot from this, because no matter what, if you build a product that nobody wants because you didn’t do research, you’ve wasted time. Stuff like this takes time, but you get the right information, and you can ultimately build a better product.
Colin: I think that that’s absolutely true. Coming from a previous company was mobile application space and streaming media. You definitely have the ability to move faster with product changes. With a piece of hardware, it takes a very long time to commercialize something to mass production. It’s a bit harder to steer, so you have to do a lot more work upfront. At the same time, the same principles of a more Agile development and other things from which you could do early stage with digital products, you have to find the different way of applying that same approach to the physical product. One of the things that is part of Orro and what we focused a lot on early on is there’s a physical component here. It has to control power, and it has to connect to the Internet, it has to talk to one another. Control your lights reliably. That’s one vein. It’s a very digital product. It is much more like a smartphone than it is a light switch. It can be reconfigured to do many different functions and adapt to your use cases in your home. That was designed intentionally so that we didn’t know what the light switch is going to be over the next 10 years. You put an Orro switch in your home, and it could be a light switch today. It could be an intercom tomorrow. It could be a security system down the line. We built a platform for software to eventually get to that world. The other thing was that we built a ton of data into the product so we can understand how people used and how it performed. Now that we’re live and out in the world, we understand what priorities are out there in terms of building better experiences.
Joe: Yeah. That’s great. Let’s get into the title question. Which is how did you build it? I’m going to make this a multifaceted question because I’m interested in the hardware. I’m interested in the software because in the brief that was sent over, it says that it’s like the power of an iPhone 10r. Then as a web developer myself, I’m curious about how you built the marketing website. What platform did you use for that? Maybe that’s the easiest question to answer here. Maybe we’ll get that out of the way now. What was it like building your website, and was there any headache involved in it?
Colin: Figuring out what to say on your website is always the hardest part. Knowing how to talk to your customer and how to get your customers. If there of any type of different persona to the right places on your site is always the seminal question. What we have done in terms of that stack, I think is something that I would definitely do again, which is we used a product called Contentful, which is a CMS/API based– It’s essentially content as a service. You can put code in there. You can put content in there, and you can call all those different components and reconfigure them. Imagine, in a couple of months, building something more robust and flexible than a WordPress site, or like a WordPress actually for yourself. The right amount of data structure, but customization to build the site the way you want it to do that. Clearly, Google Analytics underneath. We used a lot of plugins along the way to help us understand what we need to invest in. Whether it’s analytics or other things, I think you can get started very quickly with off the shelf things. Customization eventually becomes the battle that you have there, but until you know what you need to customize, picking something specific is hard to do successfully over time.
Joe: Yes, absolutely. I like that a lot. Until you know what you need to customize, picking something is hard. I want to ask one more question around this, because figuring out what you want to say on your website is absolutely the hardest part, especially because you want to tell the right story. You want to create that experience. Did the customer research you do help in writing the copy for your website?
Colin: Absolutely. When we did the customer discovery work, and we’ve done that regularly, every couple of quarters, to make sure we understand who our customers are. What we do or those is we tell them we’re going to record the audio. We’ve done hundreds of these now. As you start to listen to those things, you start to see common ways of describing different things. I think what we really tried to do is lift the narrative, the copy if you will, from the actual research that we did as much as possible. Clearly, you’re going to tailor it to be specific and talk about where your value lies but use their language. Having those recordings has been valuable. I’m excited, and we’re going to go back and run that through something that does speech to text. I bet you were going to even see new things come out just from that.
Joe: Yeah, that’s great. Use their language, and it’s something that I’ve just started to learn this year, as I wade more into the digital products space. Using the language that your customers use or your potential customers resonates with them. Like “Yeah, they’re saying the things that I feel. They’re describing the very problem that I have.” It’s another notch on the do more research beforehand belt.
Colin: Yeah. I think a great example of that is why we call it responsive lighting. You had a lot of “It’s autonomous lighting. It’s AI lighting.” You can throw all kinds of different places. When you heard from customers, they say, “What I wish is just my lighting responded to me. Not me having to control it or manage it.” The concept of responsive lighting came more central for us, just because that’s how people describe what they imagined the future of lighting looking for them in their homes.
Joe: Yeah, that’s great. I love that. AI might have a negative connotation. I’ve seen WordPress plugins, that’s mainly the space I’m in, talk about how it’s all React or all View or it uses APIs. I’m like, “Potential buyers don’t care about that.” They don’t care the tech you’re using. They want to know if it solves your problem. That’s a fantastic story about how your customer discovery shaped your language that you used. Let’s talk about Orro, the product. It’s a piece of hardware that functions a lot more like a smartphone, and then it’s very software-driven. Let’s talk about the software development, but also the manufacturing a little bit because I don’t know a lot about that and I’m always very curious about it.
Colin: This is my first hardware company. I learned a lot of this through the process as well. When you’re building a device that is basically a computer. I mean, a smartphone is a computer in many ways. There’s a number of complexities that come into the design and the choices that you make. Fundamentally, it’s what you want it to do and what you want users to experience and what roles do you want it to play. Those are things that have to ultimately come out in software. It’s not a pitcher of water. It does something digital. That was really what helped shape our focus on an operating system rather than something very simple, in terms of C code or something real-time only. We also knew that we wanted it to have an interactive capability, so it had a touch screen. You wanted to have something that felt modern, just the same way your smartphone does. That’s an operating system that has a GPU. As you start to walk from the consumer experience, you start to get parts of each of these stacks defined, from our requirements perspective. We knew that we wanted to be able to sense you in the room and not have the problems that motion sensors have. We had to find other sensors, like microphones, that were able to complement motion sensing, so that if you’re sitting in your room watching Netflix on your TV, your lights shouldn’t change because you’re not moving around. Being able to combine those sensing capabilities started to define that. We worked backwards from what the customer experience was going to be about and feel like, and that started to give us the framework for what parts of this stack we did in software and hardware. We ultimately ended up deciding on Android as the core operating system. We’ve customized Android. We picked Android because it has all those aspects of a smartphone, an operating system, great motion graphics, no complex schedulers and all the things you need to do when you have a lot of different software happening at the same time. It’s also something that, because it’s the largest operating system and it has a great community behind it, making sure that it’s secure and everything else. We chose to go the open-source starting path there because so much work had been done on it already and a lot of the big problems– I think part of starting something is choosing which problems you need to solve yourself, vs. something that you may have a better way of solving it, but the effort of solving it relative to what you can get by leveraging people who have come before you is a big influence on how much time and cost comes into the equation. Then as you start to get down from the operating system level, you get things that are defined by what it supports. That type of experience. Microprocessors and then you’re making tradeoffs on specs relative to what you need.
Joe: Right. I like what you said there. If we look at Tesla, for example, they’re reinventing the car, but it still has four wheels and two doors. They’re not changing it completely, and they’ve decided to focus on changing the engine. I think what you said is great because looking at your website, and it looks like the Orro switches is about, like you said, lighting today, but it could be about security tomorrow. It could be about controlling the temperature of your home. If you’re starting with something like Android, which has the right support for accelerometers and microphones and other stuff, then you’re not spinning your wheels there. The nice thing about software development is you can integrate later if you don’t like the way Android does something. Here’s how I know that you thought about this product. If you’re watching Netflix and you’re not moving, but the TV is still on, you don’t want your lights to change because of that. That is that’s just great. Because I think we’ve all been in a situation where we’re in a room, but we haven’t moved in a while, and the lights turned off, and you have to wave your hand and look like a dummy because you want it to come back on, but we’re still having a conversation in that room. I like that bit of it.
Colin: What we want to do is deliver on that vision of “I can just walk around my house and never think about my lights again.” That device that delivers that can become something beyond lighting. We have a very clear picture of what the next couple of years look like on that, but this is going to be in your home for 10 years. It’s going to understand a lot about how you and your family use your house. It’s going to be in more and more places across that home. What it looks like in five years is harder to predict., so build for the ability to be flexible downstream.
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Joe: I guess we’ve already touched, or we’re touching on this now, but there are a lot of big plans for the future. Let’s start here. If I bought the Orro Switch today, I’d be able to help control my lights. After about a week, you said, I wouldn’t have to think about the lighting in my house. Is that the full feature set, if I bought it today?
Colin: That’s a core feature set today. It also works with voice assistance and other things, so you can integrate it to your existing ecosystem if you want. This past Monday, we started our integration, so you can begin to connect other devices within your home to Orro. We’re adding more of those every week. That is where we focused today on control functions within your home. The first one [we launched] is a doorbell integration, so you can hear your doorbell when it rings. Sometimes that’s hard to do. You can also digitally mute that, in case you have a baby like I do and you don’t want your doorbell to ring. That will become being able to see who’s at your door. Starting the integrations of the beyond lighting phase currently. As we go forward, I think the next steps are built-in voice assistance, and whether that’s Alexa, that’s probably the first one. When you think about what you would do to prepare a room in your house for a smart future. There’s fundamentally sensors, usually and then some type of interface. Orro bundles all of those on top, into one switch. Through software, we expand on that. The more distant future, it may be things like security or other applications that help work on this peace of mind aspect of how lighting can play.
Joe: That’s great. I like the themes that we’re hitting here because the current state of things or the recent past state of things is you need to buy more and more hardware to do specific things. I’ve priced out what my smart home was going to look like. I need to get a Ring Doorbell. I need to get, and I don’t need but, the Nest thermostat. The Phillips Hues light bulbs, luckily I have a bunch of echo devices. It sounds like the Orro is this one piece of hardware that’s going to be able to do a bunch of things, which I like.
Colin: Think about like a front room in your house and what you might want to do with that, from a like a smart home perspective. You probably want to buy some type of voice assistance, so it’s like an Echo Dot or one of the Google products. That’s 40 to 50 dollars right there. I want my lights to turn on to simulate that I’m home, so that’s a timer, that’s 15 to 20 dollars. This is on my street, so I want to know if someone comes through my glass, so I want a motion sensor, and maybe I want to trigger other types of things in that room, based on a motion sensor. All of a sudden, you’re looking at $120 – $130 worth of hardware that you then have to go plug into the wall and find a way to power inside of that room. All that is in our sensors that are an existing switch today, from Orro.
Joe: That’s great. The thing you said about digitally muting the doorbell is fantastic because I have a toddler who still naps. My wife was just recently a night shift nurse, so she’d be sleeping during the day. We wouldn’t want the doorbell going off then either. Things that you’ve thought about, or have figured out, from actually using slash talking to people in their daily lives. I love that. We’ve talked about the current state of things. What are your plans for the near future, what’s coming down the pike?
Colin: We’ll expand our integration, so you’ll start to see climate control, other types of light. We’ll be able to control, maybe your lamps, and other things like that. That’ll mostly come through integrations. Later this year you’ll see a couple new products from us, on the hardware side, to do two things. One is expand the number of sensors that are in a room. There was quite a bit that can be done from the actual location of the light switch, but not every room works well with that, or long hallways, you don’t want to buy a switch on both sides of that hallway will be a part of that product rollout. As well as other switches in your home.
Joe: Awesome. That’s fantastic. You’ve given us a lot of really great advice so far, but I do need to ask my favorite question, which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?
Colin: Trade secrets? I think a trade secret, or it’s just a working principle that always helps us to always, at a regular interval, come back to “Why are you doing this and what’s the vision? What’s your North Star, and where are you going within a particular timeline?” You might have a five year North Star, and you might have a one month North Star, you might have a quarter North Star. The reason why I say that’s important is that the probably most expensive thing you have that you invest in, anything you work on is your time. You need to know how to prioritize your time. Revisiting why you’re doing this and is the thing I’m doing next week helping me towards that? Helps you get rid of the things that aren’t.
Joe: I love that. I was just to somebody recently, “You know you’ve made a shift in your career when you start to value your time more than money.” When you’re first starting out in your business, or at least when I was first starting out in my business, I feel a lot of freelance web developers do this. I can either spend $300 on FreshBooks for the year, or I could write my own accounting software. When I was first starting out, I was in college, so I had all the time in the world. Time was super cheap for me. But now, I am running a somewhat successful business. I have a family. 200 or 300 bucks is a few hours of my day now, and I will gladly pay three hundred bucks a year for FreshBooks if it means I don’t have to spend 50 hours writing my own accounting software.
Colin: Exactly. If you look at people who are successful, I think you’ll always find a time management strategy somewhere in their world. Some people are keen on scheduling time to work on creative things, or they are very maniacal about their calendar. Others are very good at “Every week is a new week, and I’m going to spend it on the most important things.” There’s just so many hours in a day and so much energy that a person has, that you have to try to make sure you’re doing the most with what you got.
Joe: Yeah. Awesome. That’s fantastic. Well, Colin, thanks so much for joining me today. I appreciate it. Where can people find you?
Colin: You can find us at getorro.com, and that’s where the Orro Switch is available for sale.
Joe: Awesome. I will link that and several other things we talked about in the show notes. Colin, thanks again so much for joining me. I appreciate it.
Colin: Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it, Joe.
Joe: Thanks so much to Colin for joining me today. Again, I think that this is a really interesting topic because I love home automation. It has a little bit of AI and machine learning. It has building hardware and the whole nine. I love his trade secret, which is, what’s your North Star? Why are you doing this? Figuring out if your actions are going to help you achieve your goal. I think that’s fantastic. I also want to thank this week’s sponsors, Ahoy!, Pantheon and CreatorCourses. I would not be able to do this without them. My question of the week for you is, have you dove into home automation? If so, how? Let me know by writing me at Joe@HowIBuilt.it or on Twitter @jcasabona. If you like this episode, please share it with somebody. Sharing it with somebody helps expand the show and increase the downloads and allows me to keep doing this on a weekly basis, so thank you for that. Until next time, get out there and build something.