Detroit Startup iRule Wants to Control Your Universe

About three years ago, two buddies who worked together at an automotive company were fed up with paying thousands of dollars for the universal remote controls required to manage their home theaters. Itai Ben-Gal, an engineer, lamented to Victor Nemirovsky, a computer programmer, that he wished he could just use his iPhone to control his gadgets. Nemirovsky pondered it for a moment.

“Do you think people would pay money for that?” he asked Ben-Gal.

“I don’t know,” Ben-Gal answered. “But at least I’ll have the remote control that I’ve always wanted.”

The two began working in their spare time on a universal television remote app for iPhones and iPads called iRule, which starts at $95. iRule’s online database stores codes for thousands of devices, as well as dozens of templates and layouts, by utilizing a cloud-based infrastructure, which also makes it infinitely updateable. Using the cloud, iRule’s customers can share new devices that they have programmed and the layouts they have created, Ben-Gal says.

“Victor, unlike most programmers, has a great ability to learn how end users will use a product,” Ben-Gal says. “When we started this, he invested a lot of time learning about the terminology and how similar products are used in the real world. It helps our customers to know we live and breathe this stuff.”

They launched the first version of their universal remote about a year after they began developing a prototype. Customer feedback was positive, and Ben-Gal and Nemirovsky were pleased, but neither had plans to quit their day jobs.

Then, Ben-Gal says, they started to get a lot of calls from professional home theater installers.

“We found out that programming the remote via the cloud changed everything,” Ben-Gal says. “Customers were sick of waiting for technicians to show up to fix their remotes, a process that would take hours or even days. When installers realized they could save time and money with our remote, we started to deal with more and more professionals.”

A year ago, Ben-Gal and Nemirovsky realized things were going much better than they had expected. They decided to write a business plan after a friend offered to invest six figures in their growing startup. Ben-Gal realized how much more time he could devote to the company if he worked on it full time, so in January he finally quit his job.

Today, iRule employs six people and has an office in the Compuware building in downtown Detroit (Compuware Ventures is an investor). The iRule app has been sold in 39 countries, and Ben-Gal estimates that each morning, he talks to people in a dozen different time zones between Australia and Hawaii alone.

After a successful fund-raising round in September, the company just launched the Android version of its app. The company plans to develop a high-end version of its remote that will allow users to collect information from their home devices, as well as send musical content from iTunes docking stations to areas outside the home, such as a poolside deck. With affordability in mind, iRule plans to offer these new options on an a la carte basis.

“Although we want to offer richer functionality, we still want to bring it to a price point that normal, working people can afford,” Ben-Gal says.

Ben-Gal says they’re also done raising money, for the moment.

“We were already a lean startup because we bootstrapped everything, so in terms of dollars and cents, what we needed was really quite modest,” Ben-Gal said. “We saw a need in the market, but we would have been happy just making some fun money that would have let us take our wives on vacation. Above all, this is a product driven by passion—we just got lucky that the things we cared about, other people cared about too.”

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