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Wink opens up about surviving the fall of Quirky

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Nathan Smith knew that Wink would have to go. It was early in 2015, and the smart home company he'd started less than a year earlier was being held back by the very thing that brought it into existence: Quirky. "We knew that Wink needed a parent other than Quirky to achieve its full potential," Smith tells The Verge. In under a year, Smith had gone from founding Wink inside of Quirky to looking for a way to escape it.

"Quirky was very much a launchpad for us."

The reasons were obvious. Quirky, the ambitious tech incubator, was a wildly mismanaged sinking ship. It was going broke, and little of its business seemed sustainable outside of Wink. So months before Quirky declared bankruptcy, Wink started searching for a suitor. "We were out looking at either raising some money to spin Wink out as a separate company or a potential acquisition for Wink," Smith says.

In November of 2015, Wink sold to the component manufacturer Flex (formerly known as Flextronics), for $15 million, an unglamorous transition that struck many as a last-ditch bid for survival. Flex had been manufacturing Wink’s smart home hubs, so the pairing wasn’t entirely out of nowhere. But to Wink customers, it seemed like their smart home service might just disappear amid the chaos.

Now Smith contends that, free from Quirky's baggage, Wink is better-positioned than ever to take on the smart home market. "We've always thought that Wink was best suited to use the resources and scale of a good parent company," says Smith, who is today Wink's chief technical officer. "Quirky was very much a launchpad for us."

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The Wink Hub. Image credit: Wink.

Wink, which launched in 2014 with a smart home hub tying together several competing standards, now has 1.3 million devices on its network, with another 20,000 coming online every week (Wink declined to say across how many homes). Smith says growth hasn't slowed down, continuing throughout Wink's ejection from a failing parent. "We never lost a step as far as user and device growth," he says.

Flex can seem like a strange bedfellow for continuing that journey. But the truth is Wink didn’t have much choice. As Smith notes, Quirky’s financial situation "encumbered Wink to a certain extent." Though it had been looking for a buyer for months — and though Quirky technically put it up for auction — Wink largely ended up in Flex’s lap because Quirky owed Flex a ton of money; nearly $18.7 million, according to its bankruptcy filing, making it Quirky’s single largest creditor. By handing over Wink for $15 million, Quirky was able to write off a big portion of its debt, and Flex ensured it didn’t walk away empty handed.

Unlike Quirky, Flex doesn't focus on consumers

Wink's new parent company focuses on making electronics for other businesses, not on selling electronics and services to consumers like Wink does. That means Wink doesn't inherit powerful retail relationships like it did under Quirky. One of those partnerships, with Home Depot, plays a big role in Wink's existing and continued success; it’s maintained that relationship even after the separation.

Flex does have its advantages. It's profitable, for one, so Wink doesn't have to worry about disappearing next year (so long as Flex stays interested in the smart home market). And Smith says that Flex can direct companies with smart home aspirations toward Wink, allowing Flex to build their products and integrate them with Wink's system. Wink remains independent inside of Flex, but Smith implies that the two will work together closely when the right products come along; it has nothing to announce along those lines just yet, however.

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The Wink Relay, a touchscreen controller for smart home products. Image credit: Wink.

In the future, Smith suggests that the Wink hub could go away, eventually being integrated with any number of hardware devices. (When the hub first launched, in 2014, a Wink VP commented to The New York Times that "We'd love not to be in the hub business.") That makes Flex's acquisition feel a bit more logical, opening up opportunities for Wink to embeds the hub inside more practical smart home products, though Smith still sees this as a few years down the line.

Smith says Wink's immediate goal isn't to ramp up user growth or available products — it's to make using smart home products on its network easier for homeowners. That's an increasingly important battle, as the smart home landscape has become far more competitive over the past two years, attracting entrenched tech giants. Apple is now in the market ("I try to think on my good days that we're not in competition with Apple," Smith says. "I certainly don't like betting against them."); and Samsung bought a company called SmartThings that offers a product that's almost identical to Wink. That's why Smith views building a smoother smart home experience as the key to Wink's continued expansion. "If you look at SmartThings on the App Store, and you look at us on the App Store, you'll see [the difference] right away," Smith says. "It's a 1.5 star app. I think people will gravitate toward experiences that make things simple for them."

Wink's competition is getting stronger, but it now has time to compete

Wink's plan to get there involves, essentially, making its users forget it even exists. "We're gonna be rolling out features that sort of allow you to use Wink more but use the app less," Smith says. The hope is that Wink can make the smart home legitimately smart, letting products automate themselves, rather than requiring homeowners to program in everything they want to happen. Imagine if your lights just knew your schedule, and turned on and off automatically. "We've been working on this for two years internally," Smith says. "These features are actually going to live up to the promises the smart home has been making for years."

Of course, there are good reasons no one has gotten there yet. The smart home landscape is still a mess, and Wink's solution for it — tie together multiple standards — is functional but inelegant; not to mention something that can be reproduced by competitors. But going into 2016, Wink very much seems to be in a better place. It's growing. It's planning new features. And it doesn’t have Quirky’s black cloud hanging over its head. Wink isn't a profitable company yet (it's working out a timeline with Flex for when that might happen), but it now has a stretch of road to get there. The smart home landscape is far from settled, and it seems like Wink is still in the fight over what it'll look like.