A silver lining amid lost privacy? Life360 wants to make you safer

By Richard Nieva , written on February 12, 2013

From The News Desk

It’s clear that Instagram’s success has been seminal for photo-sharing apps. But it and a handful of other apps have made their mark in a broader way as well. According to one entrepreneur, apps like Instagram and Foursquare and even Path have changed the way an entire population of youngsters thinks about broadcasting its surroundings. These apps have made geo-tagging the most normal thing in the world for a kid with a phone. And because of that, they’ve created a generation of mobile users that doesn’t mind people knowing exactly where they are.

That’s one of the observations Chris Hulls has made from examining his users’ behavior at Life360, a network that focuses on connecting families when they are out and about.

The app is nifty in its own right. The way it works is, each family member signs up for the app on his or her phone. Once everyone is connected, they can do things like group chat, check in to different locations, or get crime alerts about incidents in their area. It doesn't have the deep pockets of Nextdoor, which doubles down of crime and safety and just today announced a hefty chunk of funding led by Greylock's David Sze. But while Nextdoor focuses on neighborhoods, Life360 focuses on an even smaller set – the nuclear family. The app, available of iPhone, Android and Blackberry, has 29 million users.

The behavior around checking in, though, is where it gets interesting, almost in an anthropological sense. The feature is meant to be a lightweight way for a parent and child to keep in touch. “Most parents say, ‘Just check in from time to time, and I won’t bug you by calling,’” says Hulls, the company’s CEO. It’s a clever variation on the garden-variety check-in function that’s been losing steam on social networks. I admittedly would have loved this while in high school – instead of explaining to my parents where I was each day, at a time when people over 50 didn’t text.

And it turns out kids today are more than willing to opt into using a system that keeps tabs on them. “The iPhone generation has no concept of geoprivacy,” Hulls says. But that divide isn’t necessarily based on age. Instead, it has more to do with when that person first got their smartphone. If they got if after the proliferation of apps that hinge on you sharing your location, it’s generally not a problem for them to agree to the occasional tracking. For those who have had their phones for longer, and can remember a time before photos and check-ins weren’t casually tagged with a location, there is more pushback. These people tend to be a little older, but it’s not the clear indicator.

Hulls says he can pinpoint the exact moment that began to change, at least for his company: Christmas 2011. That was the year younger kids began getting smartphones – either new, or hand-me-downs, he says.

Of course, there are other things at play here too. For example, an older teen might push back on checking in because, well, were you always everywhere you told your parents you were going to be when you were 17-years-old? And if check-ins suddenly go quiet, that might be as much of an indicator as knowing where they are.

A younger adolescent probably has less to hide, but I still do buy the premise that they think about these things in a different way – kind of like the way your grandma might be appalled that you are using your real name on the Internet. This has some interesting implications, if the trend holds up and continues. Targeted marketing becomes easier for a population that gives up its location as standard fare. Conversely, it could also open the door wider safety concerns.

Aside from what it reveals about user behavior, Life360 does have some genuine utility. Niche social networks have been notoriously bad at gaining traction. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how different its features are or how well its designed, people just don't want another place to constantly update and check into. There has to be real utility there.

It's wise that Life360 focuses less on the social – it has no news feed or photo sharing ability. Its focus is on keeping a family in touch. One particularly useful scenario, Hulls says, is using it at a theme park to make sure no one gets lost. And if an emergency does occur, hitting a panic button alerts the entire family. That might be a clear enough reason to convince mom and dad to adopt Life360, while they've lagged on adopting other more photo-based social networks like Path.

Of course, the more narrow you make any social circle, the bigger a challenge you have with getting to any meaningful numbers on which to build a business. This is why local is such a tough category online, requiring deep pockets and patience in every case where it's worked. It took Craigslist and Yelp and OpenTable more than eight years to create city-by-city network effects, and Nextdoor will have an even harder road trying to create network effects by the neighborhood. That's one reason it now allows you to communicate with nearby neighborhoods-- it allows users to invite more people they know to join, hopefully turbocharging the site's growth.

If you take that down to the family level, Life360 is basically counting on one person in each family to be the evangelist. That's an exponentially harder marketing challenge.

But, for now, the strict focus on beyond-photo-sharing utility has at least gotten Life360 some attention and some cash.

Hulls said one VC was convinced to fund the company when, during the pitch, he secretly pressed the panic button while Hulls was demoing the app. Moments later, Hulls' mom called, worried. And the VC was as good as sold. The company will be introducing paid and premium features in the spring, and has raised $10 million to date from a slew of investors, including 500 Startups and LaunchCapital.

[Image courtesy: moonlightbulb]