Do You Know Where Your Child (or Husband or Girlfriend) Is? Whereoscope Can Tell You

This is the eighth in a series of profiles of companies funded this summer by Paul Graham’s Mountain View, CA-based startup incubator, Y Combinator.

Every day millions of people check in or submit geotagged updates using mobile-friendly services like Foursquare, Gowalla, Twitter, SCVNGR, Google Latitude, and Facebook Places, sharing their locations with the whole social-networking world. But who really needs this information? That’s a question the founders of Whereoscope had to confront almost as soon as they arrived at Paul Graham’s startup school this May.

“When we first entered Y Combinator, our idea was all about being a Google for people’s locations,” says Mick Johnson, who started the company with fellow Australian James Gregory. “We built some really cool pieces of technology, where we’d find strangers nearby, or you’d type somebody’s name into your phone and we’d tell you where they are. But the key question that Paul kept asking us was who are the users who really care about this. The answer, although it took us a little while to realize it, was that there isn’t anyone.”

Or at least, there aren’t enough people interested in the locations of random strangers to build a business around the idea. On the other hand, Johnson and Gregory, realized, there are a few key people in everyone’s lives whose locations do matter.

“I think the watershed moment was when I was chatting with my girlfriend,” Johnson recounts. “She works extremely hard, she can’t see me that often, and we don’t live together. She said it made her feel better to know where I was. I said ‘How much would you pay for a service that told you where I was?’ and she said ‘Five dollars.’ And then I said, ‘How much would you pay for a service that tells you where your kids are?’ and she said $10 a month, straight away.”

Multiply $10 per month by the millions of families with multiple smartphones, and you have a potentially interesting business. So that’s what Whereoscope built.

Whereoscope MapThe startup’s first product, launched in early August, is an iPhone app that taps into the device’s GPS- and Wi-Fi-based positioning system, sending users alerts about the locations of family members whose phones are also running the app. Parents, for example, can set the app to tell them when a child arrives at or leaves a certain place, such as their school or sports practice. Users can also set the app to tell them when a family member approaches within a certain distance. If you’re cooking dinner and waiting for your spouse to get home from work, for example, Whereoscope can send you an alert when they drive across an adjustable boundary line (called a “geofence” in the location business) anywhere from 1 mile to 20 miles away.

For now, the app only works when everyone in the family has an iPhone with the latest iOS 4 operating system, which is capable of running the Whereoscope app continuously in the background. The startup is waiting for App Store approval on an updated version of the app that also works on iPads and iPod Touch devices, and Johnson says Android and BlackBerry versions are planned.

The service is free at the moment, but the company plans to experiment with fees that could range up to $10 per month per phone. That’s roughly the same price charged by AT&T’s FamilyMap, a similar service that lets users of AT&T’s cellular network locate the phones of family members on a digital map.

As of last week, 3,500 people were using the service, and the number is increasing16 percent per week on average, according to Johnson, who taught English in Japan for several years before going to work for a Sydney-based security company called Sensory Networks. That’s where he met Gregory; the two decided to strike out on their own after scoring an initial success with … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Do You Know Where Your Child (or Husband or Girlfriend) Is? Whereoscope Can Tell You”

  1. I’m surprised by the suggested price point and by the methodology used to back into the market opportunity. We should put similar technology in shoes. Millions and millions of people wear shoes and you could have an interesting business.

    The app can be easily duplicated and duped and I’d predict app adoption rates never exceed 10,000 users. There will be even fewer paid users. The value prop is a tough sell from where I’m sitting.