Life360’s Family Safety App Rides the Wave of Smartphone Adoption—and Parental Fear
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watching the U.S. government’s botched response to the Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast. Agencies had spent more than $1 billion on disaster readiness initiatives prior to Katrina, but much of that money went to low-tech solutions such as “this ridiculous emergency contact form that you could print out and stick on your fridge,” says Hulls. “I thought, why not built an automated system that would send out texts or emails? I thought I could do a much better job, and it wouldn’t take a billion dollars.”
Hulls let the idea slide for a while he finished his finance studies at Berkeley and applied to business school. But a cancer scare caused him to rethink his priorities. He’d applied for a summer job at a South Pole research station in Antarctica, and during the physical exam doctors discovered a tumor. “They caught it early, and it was an encapsulated tumor, so I was good to go,” he says. “But I had the clichéd epiphany of wanting to do something more true to my passions.”
Hulls deferred his acceptance to Harvard Business School, recruited a Berkeley business graduate named Dilpreet Singh as a technical co-founder, and started building an Android app that might function as his envisioned Katrina warning system. That app went on to win Google’s Android Challenge in 2009, bringing the company $300,000 in prize money. Most of that went to contractors who’d done free engineering work for the startup, Hulls says, but the company’s new notoriety helped it raise a seed round, which it used to build a range of online safety widgets including a lost-and-found app, an identity protector, and emergency messenger, and a sex offender monitoring service.
Meanwhile, the company kept working on its mobile apps. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the technology needed to support Hulls’ vision really came together. GPS tracking didn’t work very well on the first couple generations of Android devices, Hulls says. And until an operating system update in mid-2010, Apple iPhones couldn’t handle multitasking—that is, the ability to run third-party software in the background all the time, which is a prerequisite for an app like Life360. “We started with emergency IDs and a lot of low-tech stuff because the mobile platforms had not become mature yet,” Hulls says. “Only in the last nine months are we 100 percent all-in on mobile.”
There are three main components to the Life360 app, which is available through the iTunes App Store and the Android Marketplace (and will soon come to BlackBerry devices). There’s the GPS tracking element, which shows the whereabouts of everyone in the family whose smartphone is running the app. There’s a “What’s in my neighborhood” section showing the locations of nearby safety resources such as police stations, hospitals, and fire stations, as well as the home addresses of registered sex offenders. Finally, there’s the check-in function—formerly the panic button.
“The tracking, we are really careful to say, is not the main core of our business,” Hulls says. “Our vision is to turn the phone into a safety device—more like a personal OnStar. It’s a lead-in to this much broader service, a bundle where everything you worry about as a family is solved in one place.”
The app still includes a panic function that sends a help request via phone, e-mail, and text message to everyone in the family. But it’s now paired with a … Next Page »
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