Life360’s Family Safety App Rides the Wave of Smartphone Adoption—and Parental Fear

Contrary to popular belief, the world is not a more dangerous place for kids today than it was in the mid-20th century. Rates of violent crime and kidnapping involving children are no higher today than they were in the 1960s, and physical and sexual abuse against children have declined dramatically since 1990.

For some reason, though, none of that seems to matter to the new breed of helicopter parents: every Amber Alert or missing-child frenzy on CNN raises their blood pressure.

All of which puts Chris Hulls in an awkward position. The 2006 graduate of UC Berkeley did not have a sheltered childhood—in fact his parents let him travel to Kenya alone when he was 12 years old. He says he’s skeptical of the helicopter-parenting phenomenon and troubled about the ethics of sex-offender registry laws as a way to protect children against perceived threats.

But the San Francisco startup Hulls launched in 2009, Life360, is building its business around parents’ craving for safety and security. Parents use the company’s GPS-powered smartphone software to keep closer tabs on their children and to see if sex offenders live in their neighborhoods. And they’re downloading the Life360 iPhone and Android apps in droves: the company announced earlier this month that it had passed the 2-million-family mark, and that it’s gaining more than 100,000 users each week.

How does Hulls reconcile the tensions? It’s been an interesting journey for the startup. While Life360 certainly works hard to be near the top of the search rankings when parents type in keyword clusters like “family GPS tracking,” its message isn’t all about keeping kids on an electronic leash, Hulls says. In fact, the design and branding of the Life360 app has been evolving over time to downplay the sense of omnipresent danger, and instead foster a more general sense of family safety and peace of mind. Exhibit A: the old “panic” button feature of Life360’s mobile app has been relabeled as the “check-in” button, to encourage kids to spontaneously alert their parents about their whereabouts.

“Moms have always had their kids call on Friday night to make sure they’re okay,” says Hulls. “We are doing that in a way that actually encourages freedom and tries to avoid politics. Helicopter parenting is real, and nothing we do is going to change that. But hopefully we are channeling that into something that is a little more liberating.”

With the disappearance of competitors such as Whereoscope (a Y Combinator-backed company I profiled last year, whose founders have since joined social game maker Zynga), Life360 is emerging as one of the leaders in the mobile family safety market. It’s been widely covered, not just in the tech and business press but on network TV and dozens of “mommy blogs,” and it’s adding users so fast that it could prove to be one of 2011’s breakout Bay Area startups.

Which would be welcome news for the startup’s investors, who include Founders Fund, LaunchCapital, Seraph Group, Kapor Capital, Venture 51, Band of Angels, and individual investors such as 500 Startups’ Dave McClure and Intuit’s Mark Goines. They’d probably also like to see the startup devise a business model—right now the app is free and “the focus is not on monetization,” says Hulls. But the startup figures that if it can position itself as the leading smartphone app for family security, there will be ways to capitalize on its millions-strong base of users and the trust they place in the company (more on that below).

When Life360 was founded in 2008, the focus was only partly on mobile apps. Hulls says the initial idea for a better safety application had hit him a few years before, after … 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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