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Life360’s App Knows Where Your Children Are

Life360’s App Knows Where Your Children Are

Photograph by Allen Donikowski

In January, Chris Hulls, chief executive officer and co-founder of Life360, noticed an odd thing happening. Even though Life360’s family-focused location app was designed for use in the U.S., it was suddenly being downloaded in huge volumes in Asia. The trend quickly spread to several countries in Europe, even South America. Six months later, more than half of Life360’s user base is now overseas.

Life360 didn’t spend a dime on marketing overseas, and many of its app’s core features don’t even work outside U.S. borders. Life360 offers a location service, which allows families to keep tabs on their members’ locations through geofencing technology. For instance, when junior arrives home from school, mom and dad get a text message notification that he has arrived.

Life 360 supports international maps, and the app is available for download in the Google Play (GOOG) store, iTunes (AAPL) App Store, and further app markets internationally. But it doesn’t register phone numbers outside the U.S., and everything in the app is written in English. That means some 15 million customers are using only a bare-bones version of its service, getting location alerts through e-mail instead of SMS, amd many are deciphering a foreign language to use its core functions.

Why? Hulls says he has noticed that carriers all over the world have started launching and marketing their own family locator apps. As with many carrier services, those apps come with hefty monthly subscription fees and lack the features of independently developed equivalents. Hulls thinks Life360 basically rode the operators’ marketing wave. Consumers were disappointed in what their carriers offered, so they searched app stores and came across Life360, Hulls says.

“A good example is the carrier’s navigation apps,” Hulls says. “They were cash cows for a while, but consumers turned to free apps like Waze, not only because they were free, but because they were so much better at what they were intended to do than what the carriers were offering.”

You can imagine what’s happening now. Life360 is adding global support for its app. It will start with international SMS and foreign-language support in several Asian countries this fall, and then move to Europe and other regions of the world later this year and in 2014.

One of the main reasons Life360 needs to get fully localized in other countries is because it wants to get paid. Those millions of families are using its free service, which lets them track their members’ locations gratis but allows them to set only two geofences (usually home and work).

Life360’s business model is built on converting those free users into subscribers paying $5 per month per family. That premium service allows users to set up geofences around 25 locations and get access to a live adviser to help with minor emergencies, such as arranging a tow truck or contacting a locksmith.

Although only a small portion of its customers have signed up for the premium plan so far—Hulls won’t reveal how many—Life360 has a big base to work from. The Fontinalis-and Bessemer-backed startup has already signed up 30 million free users, each forming part of one of its 17 million individual family networks. I say networks because Hulls doesn’t view Life360 as merely a tracking app.

“We’re trying to shake this notion that we’re only a tool for over-protective parents or suspicious spouses,” Hulls says.

Instead, Life360 wants to use location as the foundation for a family-oriented private social network. (Think an even more restrictive Path built around GPS.) The idea is to create a social nucleus in which members can communicate, using location as the primary reference. If dad is halfway home, mom can ping him in-app to remind him to stop by the grocery store. When your daughter’s flight gets in early, the entire family is notified simultaneously, allowing them to coordinate who will pick her up.

You can actually think of Life360 as one of the new breed of anti-social networks that take advantage of social media’s new tools, while actually limiting their social scope. Hulls says that when you’re dealing in real-time location, privacy becomes of utmost importance. By limiting the social network to a family, Life360 can take full advantage of location services without imposing complicated in-network safeguards to protect privacy.

Ultimately Hulls believes this kind of nuclear network will set it apart from successful geosocial networks such as Foursquare and the not-so-successful networks like Loopt. That might also explain why Life360 is taking off overseas, particularly in Europe, where privacy on social networks has traditionally been a much bigger concern than in the U.S.

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Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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