Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

One to Watch: “Red State” App Life360 Helps Families Track Themselves

Do you know where your kids are right now? Has your significant other left the office yet? Is anyone home? If you were a Life360 user, you’d never lack an answer to those questions.

Yes, constant location tracking is creepy, but with Life360 it’s your own family you’re stalking.

The Life360 mobile app is location sharing for the smallest of networks — families, teams, maybe a babysitter. Users opt in to sharing their locations to designated circles of people, and get alerts when others in the circle arrive at key locations. Everything is very utilitarian and safety-oriented. Users can send out emergency pings to everyone in a circle, and can access directions to navigate to family members. By default, the Life360 map includes geo-tagged updates drawn from local crime reports.

You may have heard a lot more about the sometime tech darlings of location and small-group sharing, Foursquare and Path, but Life360 co-founder and CEO Chris Hulls thinks he is beating them at their own game.

“Who says the family network has to look like a social network at all?” asked Hulls. “We are almost never mentioned because we look so different, even though we are dominating the space.”

“Dominating” is a strong word, but Life360 does seem to be bigger. Path claims it has 20 million registered users; Foursquare, 40 million. Life360 has 52 million. (None of the companies disclose what percentage of users are active, which would be a more useful comparison.)

“We’re a red-state product,” said Hulls, who said he’s often called for comment on child safety or trick-or-treating tracking for Fox News, but is rarely noticed in Silicon Valley. “When we were raising money, VCs were skeptical because there was no tech press.”

But venture capitalists came around. The company has raised $20 million in total, including a $10 million round from DCM this summer, and strategic investment from BMW and Bill Ford’s Fontinalis Partners.

“It’s the only product I’ve recommended to my wife, outside of Sonos, that she has actually used, including the Slingbox,” was the testimonial of DCM partner Jason Krikorian, who co-created the famous TV device before becoming a VC.

Hulls is now working on projects including Asia expansion and automotive integration, so someday a user could jump in her car and tell it, “Drive to my husband.”

“For people who think this would only be for the suspicious spouse or the helicopter parent, you explain the car-use case, and it clicks,” Hulls said.

Life360 is actually relatively old for a mobile-only startup, having been founded in 2008. In the early days, the company won money from both Google — $300,000 in its first Android app contest — and Facebook, which contributed $50,000 through its fbFund.

Due in part to that head start on Android, today the company’s users are 75 percent on that platform. Half of users are international.

Still, it’s inherently hard to grow something that’s designed for small groups — unlike social apps which spread through networks of people, this kind of family utility app is basically antiviral. Hulls said Life360’s growth primarily comes from search, as parents often want to find an app to track their kids.

Life360 CEO Chris Hulls

Also, some people might prefer tools that share their location more selectively. My husband and I have used apps like Twist and Glympse, where we explicitly share our location with each other while we are en route to a common destination. So far, it feels more comfortable to only stalk each other on occasion, though we are sacrificing the convenience of automation.

And there are already some dead apps in this space. For instance, Google previously had an always-on location product called Latitude that it changed to an opt-in check-in service and then eventually shut down entirely. Apple’s built-in Find My Friends app gets extremely poor reviews.

So, what is Life360’s advantage? For one thing, its existing audience. And on the technological side, Hulls said that Life360 minimizes battery impact through techniques like building its own database of locations so it doesn’t have to access GPS. The company also uses OpenStreetMap for maps — it formerly was built on top of Google Maps, but switched when Google started charging, which Hull said would have cost Life360 $15 million per year, given the amount of traffic.

But Hulls said he ultimately wants to be more than a stalking service. “Our vision is not location, it’s what are the interactions with the closest five to 10 people in your life,” he said. And he argues that because Life360 is a utility, people will be willing to pay for it. Today, a $5-per-month-per-family service gives added stuff like emergency responders and roadside assistance in the U.S. Tens of thousands of people have upgraded, Hulls said.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik