How Life360 overcame creepiness to replace the most common text message you send

By Sarah Lacy , written on November 21, 2013

From The News Desk

Let's face it: We're not always the most self-aware social media consumers. We claim to be outraged by invasions of our privacy and yet we chronically over-share of our own volition.

Life360 has lived this strange dichotomy. It was launched to connect families by mobile, keying off the most commonly sent text message: Where are you? (Or for the under 18 set, "Where r u?")

The insight has been a double-edged sword for Life360. It makes the social network super utilitarian, universal, and distinct. But it also makes it, well, a little creepy. All we do is track one another in a mobile world. But owning it is a different thing.

As we close our series on closed social networks, I sat down with Chris Hulls, the founder and CEO of the special report's sponsor Life360, to talk about the challenges of building an Android-first social network that inherently doesn't have the advantages of virality and selflies.

Sarah Lacy: There is no shortage of ways to stay in touch, digitally. What was the hole you saw in the market?

Chris Hulls: There were really two origins here, and they tie together. The initial idea was emergency focused. Katrina was the inspiration. We wanted a way to connect families in big emergencies. The government spent billions on, and all it was was a PDF form you could download and fill out. It wasn't technology. But this was 2005 or so, and I wasn't ready to start a company.

The idea then turned into an SMS-based system to send texts out to everyone in your family. In 2008, we entered an Android developer challenge, and our prototype ended up winning it. What we quickly realized was the practicality of the idea. There wasn't a service out there for the closest five to six people in your life. A lot of people had built family networks, but they were Facebook-like in their functionality.

There are different things you want to do when you are in touch with someone every day. You aren't as into sharing photos. You want to know if they're on their way home from work. "Where are you?" is literally the most common text message ever sent. You never need it anymore.

Were you aware of a creepy factor?

Yes, that's been one of the biggest challenges. We think it's going away as location sharing apps become more common. A lot of people say, "I trust my spouse" or "I have good kids and want to give them freedom. Why would I use this?"

I usually explain that you are probably leveraging location information anyway through other apps. And you can turn it off whenever you want -- both ways. I think you can use Life360 to give kids more freedom. You can give them a later curfew, because you know where they are.

One thing we encourage is to try it with your spouse first and see if you think it's creepy in practice. A lot of apps have a hard time retaining users. The challenge for us is activating users. It's a really big hurdle, but once you overcome it, you tend to be a user for life.

When you talk about this becoming the norm, it reminds me of how people talk about pre-nups. They used to be highly offensive, and now they are pretty common if you are wealthy or successful. Do you see location becoming similar? 

Like pre-nups, it depends on the verbiage you use. If you say "I want to track you" the walls are instantly up. If you say "I'm always texting to ask where you are, and you find it annoying. Let's try this instead," the framing makes the problem go away.

I think it's different than a pre-nup though, because no one sees it as a positive thing. Live360 isn't a necessary evil; people who use it really do view it in a positive way. We are making their live easier. They don't have to actively keep tabs on anyone.

You recently launched a new feature to broaden it, called Circles. How has that gone? 

We launched Circles in response to people using the app with their families, but who wanted to bring others into the fold. Baby-sitters and nannies are the most common use case. Parents want to know whether the kids are at the park or at home, and now they can see that all the time. You can have one group for extended family, for a little league team, and can pause a whole group at the same time. It was a way to let power users bring others into the app without diluting the core of what we do.

What are your biggest concerns? 

We are a chronically misunderstood company. But I would mortgage my future and my life on the belief that in the future, everyone will have some location-sharing app for their family. We are finally seeing people say, "I get it now."

Did you launch too early?

We were one of the earliest Android apps. That was a good thing and a bad thing. For three years, we didn't have any users. We needed smart phones to have deeper penetration and younger kids to have phones. A big part was also the tracking stigma.

What are some things you did to overcome that stigma?

We call ourselves a "family locator" not a tracking app, and our colors are warm tones like hot pink and fuscia. We describe it and design around a warm, female-oriented focus. Other tracking apps have things like satellites in their logos or heavy colors. They are more security focused. We want it to be a more positive thing we are doing for families versus preventing a negative.

Also, you have to make the controls two-way. Other apps allow whoever owns the account to be able to see anyone. With us, anyone in the family can pause sharing whenever they want. The biggest feature request is from people who want us to lock down their kids' phones or get instant notifications when sharing is turned off, but we just don't do that. We want to be friendly to everyone in the family.

Do you think Circles is the future to growth?

We don't expect most people to use it, but there's been a lot of interesting feedback. Divorced families are one of the biggest use cases. People use it for school groups, if they are chaperoning a field trip.

One of the most unexpected use cases was brought to our attention by the DEA. They were interested in getting our data, because drug lords were using circles to track their mules. I was a little nervous about helping them, but it was really fascinating nonetheless that people were using it that way in some hot spot in South America. I'm a big "Breaking Bad" fan.

What are you going to do product-wise from here. Is this it?

Group calendars is a big suggestion. We're also looking at what we can do as part of smart cars and smart homes. We can provide data on where the family is. Imagine if you can get in your car and say "Drive to my husband," instead of entering coordinates into a GPS, or your door locking when your family is all out of the house. We have the platform to enable all of that.