Four years ago, Tim Gill and Alex Capecelatro formed a company — JStar, which would become Josh.ai — to bring natural language processing to the then-burgeoning smart home. And while voice may be all the rage now, with Alexa, Google, and Siri bringing its attention to the masses, in 2015 it was not really a “thing” yet. Buzz was building with Amazon’s first Alexa device, the Echo, showing up in March 2014, but that couldn’t even hint as to the direction voice control would take.
In 2016, Josh.ai premiered at CEDIA Expo, being billed as a “whole home artificial intelligence platform,” and already boasting integration with Lutron, Meridian, Sonos, Crestron, and others. Installation was easy — Josh.ai shipped on a Mac Mini server and was plugged into the home network to auto-populate the configuration of integrated systems and devices. The company stated that it was looking to ship 100 units to focus on quality and service.
By 2017, voice control had caught on, with the CEDIA Expo 2017 show floor showcasing more and more products that included Amazon Alexa skills. Josh.ai was there with the debut of Josh Micro — which combines a home control processor, far-field microphone array for voice commands, a touch-capacitive surface that can be programmed to activate scenes with single and double taps, and a touch dial around the top to control music volume, light dimming, and shade adjustment.
Key to the Josh Micro is that it intuitively understands where it is, making room-specific commands simple. Rather than having to specify a location for voice commands, simply say “turn on the lights” to activate the room the user is in. Josh Micro was the first hardware product capable of accepting compound commands, which are a string of commands issued at once, creating ad-hoc scenes on the fly. For example, “Open the shades, dim the lights, stop the music, and watch Breaking Bad.” (What were you watching in 2017?)
Jump to 2018 and everybody is talking to something — Ok Google, Hey Siri, Alexa, Bixby, and so on. With the presence of these always-listening devices all over the home, Josh.ai focuses on security, making it clear with the Micro’s LEDs as to when Josh is listening, and keeping as many of the commands local — and off the cloud — as possible. The company also promises to never sell client data. Ever.
This year proved to be a big one for Josh.ai, with announcements of new integration partners coming nearly weekly — including industry mainstays such as Sony, Barco, and DISH. Halfway through the year, it passed 300 dealers, signed on its first sales rep — CET & Associates — and added Chad Russell as the company’s first national sales director. Plus they had a busy booth at CEDIA and were found in many of their partners’ exhibits.
So it’s been a busy four years.
“The adoption has been really impressive to see, and it’s keeping us busy,” says Casey Levy-Tulloch, business development, Josh.ai, who has been with the company for about two and a half years, during its busiest growth period. “When I started, I was the guy building the Mac Mini servers and the Alexa skills with Josh to make it work before the Micro came out, and we were only at around 40 or so dealers around the country. At this same time last year we had 150 dealers on our roster, and now we are eclipsing 370.”
And the dealers aren’t the only ones who came around. “When I started, our head of product, Scotty Allen, and I would be knocking on any and every door trying to establish all of the partnerships,” Levy-Tulloch adds. “We were running around CEDIA 2017 and 2018 to the different booths on Saturday, begging people for the right contacts and APIs. At this year’s CEDIA, it was really nice to see that we had our current partners coming by our booth to check out the Josh experience with their products, and even our prospective partners were coming by to ask us what we needed in order to work with them.”
Working with Josh.ai
Before selling Josh, you need to know exactly what it is and what its benefits are — natural voice control and artificial intelligence are only part of the picture. It is also a standalone whole-home control system in and of itself, or as a layer to an existing control system such as Crestron, Control4, or Savant. It also takes voice control to a whole new level.
“In order for us to be the voice platform for the custom integration space, we needed to build the full extent of a home automation platform to make the natural language processing as good and as accurate as it is,” says Levy-Tulloch. “That has been the power of the Josh app for end users — making our platform understand how you would talk to different devices around your home by simply adding those extra ‘aliases.’ Josh also understands how the shortcomings of speech recognition work — how speech-to-text is converted depending on accents or mishearings — so we still know what to do with words that sound very similar to what they are supposed to be.” For example, “open the drapes” can easily be misinterpreted as “open the grapes,” but Josh still knows to infer that you’re talking to your shades.
If you missed the opportunity to meet with Josh at CEDIA, you can fill out a form to become a dealer on the company’s website, also named josh.ai. Levy-Tulloch promises that you will quickly hear from a Josh rep for a 30-minute or so interview, and, barring any obstacles from the dealer’s side of the business, can be approved in as little as a day or two.
So what is Josh looking for in a dealer? “We evaluate not only the subsystems that they work with to make sure that the compatibility with Josh is going to be successful, but also the caliber of the projects that they work on,” says Levy-Tulloch. “We also look at the average budget for a project, as well as the annual revenue that their business pulls. We make sure that all of our dealers have a demo location — whether that’s a showroom or their home — where they’re able to continuously tweak the Josh programming in tandem with their other systems so that they’re always up to speed. That’s very important to us — that engagement between Josh and the dealers, that they’re using the system and staying up to date, as we push software updates every two weeks.”
“In order for us to be the voice platform for the custom integration space, we needed to build the full extent of a home automation platform to make the natural language processing as good and as accurate as it is.” —Casey Levy-Tulloch
Once approved, there is a $2000 fee, which covers two Micros, one in black and one in white, and the travel costs of the Josh personnel that flies out to spend one day training both the technical and sales staff. Although the ever-evolving company is re-thinking the timing of that trip.
“We’re working on ways that we can equip our new dealers with gear and training ahead of time,” says Levy-Tulloch. “With a few recent trainings, we’ve seen it has been more impactful having them use our training videos to set up the Josh Micro before we get there. Then they have a list of deeper, more technical questions that they can ask us in person.”
For the dealer’s first customer Josh install, the company asks that you let them know when it is scheduled so they can have someone on hand to help remotely through the cloud or, if possible, in person.
In terms of profitability, dealer margin is 50 points on hardware and software with Josh’s MSRP/MAP, however, the company doesn’t publish pricing, so dealers are able to price projects however they see fit.
Keeping Up with the Joshes
Josh follows the Tesla model that, even though they have hardware, they are really a software company. As mentioned, updates get pushed out on average every two weeks, so it is important the company communicates well with the dealers and continues their training after being onboarded.
“Just as we’re talking about restructuring our new dealer onboarding, we are also structuring some group trainings around the country as well,” says Levy-Tulloch. “We will hold these at our affiliated partner sites, in our engineering lab in Denver, and our office in Santa Monica. We will have current dealers come by for a couple hours and take them through all the new updates as another in-person touchpoint.
“We just did a webinar post-CEDIA going through all of our new integrations and updates, so that’s now posted on our web portal for everybody to be able to watch and tune into whenever they have time. We know how busy all of our dealers are with projects, so we try to create as many online one-sheets or training videos modules as possible so that, when they have a question, we can shoot them a link to a video or refer them to that new material that we just published.”
If a dealer runs into trouble in the field, Levy-Tulloch promises that all calls will be answered and directed toward the person at Josh who is in the best position to help. The company can also remote in and provide direct help in the home’s system.
“We pride ourselves in that we’re a small team, and that’s a good thing because, whether it’s myself or someone else on our business team, we know a lot about the Josh product and how it works with our integrated devices, as well as our control system partners,” he adds.
In terms of leads, for end users that find their way to the Josh website, there is an option to fill out a form for more information. The Josh team vets those leads, calling prospective customers to find out exactly what they are looking for, and then directing them to dealers in their area.
Will Clients Want it?
The demand for voice control does not appear to be slowing down, and the abilities Josh provides take it to a whole new level for clients. They seem to be making good use of it, too: In July of this year, just over a year since the introduction of the Micro, over 300,000 voice commands had been issued by Josh clients.
“It’s great to see the buy-in from the industry — not only from the dealer perspective, but also the consumer,” says Levy-Tulloch. “I particularly liked the turning of the tides from industry manufacturers realizing that Josh is here, and we’re here to stay. Now we can offer their products as part of the experience because that’s ultimately where all this is focused — providing every homeowner out there with their ideal smart home.
“We want to be Switzerland; we want to play nice with everybody. We want to explore ways with every company — manufacturer and dealer — on how we can best work together to give our shared clients the best experience.”