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

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check-in function that simply allows users to push a location notification to others in their family group. It was right after that revision last fall that the company’s signup rate really started skyrocketing. The company made a big marketing push and got some favorable press coverage around the same time, so it’s hard to know whether the “check-in” language made a fundamental difference in the app’s appeal. But Hulls thinks it helped. “As a parent, a spouse, a friend, there is so much value in us passively letting you know where your loved ones are,” he says. “You get a lot of value just from being told that nothing is wrong.”

At the same time, there’s still a demand for services like Life360’s sex offender locator, which shows not just an offender’s name and address but their mug shot and criminal convictions. Hulls portrays this as just one element in the company’s overall safety and security package. “I personally have a lot of moral and ethical issues with how Americans react to that data,” he says. “I don’t think registered sex offenders are sitting on their porch waiting for kids to go by. What we can do is divert attention to things like check-ins, which really are helpful.”

How will Life360 make money? Hulls says that as Life 360 comes to understand more about its users and their movements (data that it gathers and analyzes in an anonymized way), it will eventually be able to monetize its service through location-linked marketing deals with larger companies. Home security, for example, is a $10-billion-a-year industry, but Hulls notes that it often takes the security companies like ADT or Brinks months to figure out that someone has moved to a new neighborhood and that they might be in the market for a system. “We will be able to tell algorithmically when you’ve moved, just from the locations of your phones,” Hulls says. “If we say, ‘Hey, welcome to the neighborhood, do you want a free safety and security trial?’ we think that’s a way of changing how anything safety- and security-related is sold.”

That may sound like advertising, but Hulls says that’s the wrong term for it. “We are going to enhance the experience of keeping your family safe,” he says. “It’s like Norton Antivirus for your family. When Norton pops up on your screen, you say ‘Thanks, you protected me.’ When Life360 pops up, if it feels like an ad, we have lost.”

For now, though, Life360 is focused on growth—which means both adding staff (last month the startup beefed up its software engineering team by acquiring a local software development house called MacSpots) and keeping the hockey-stick growth of its user base going for as long as possible. If it can do that without pandering to the worst fears of American parents about their kids’ safety, it could build a respected brand and find new ways to help consumers make practical use of their mobile devices. “I have damn big visions,” says Hulls. “We want to be the guys who turn your smartphone into a safety device.”

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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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