Life360 location-sharing app is changing the way we communicate

Entrepreneurs

One Aussie investor saw the power of what once seemed ‘intrusive’ but is now an essential communication tool.
Life360 founder and CEO Chris Hulls | Image source: Supplied

Knowing where your friends and family are has become so commonplace with the proliferation of smartphones and social media tracking. But in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina caused 1,800 fatalities and US$125 billion in damage, tens of thousands of people were left wondering about loved ones who could not be contacted because of the damage to infrastructure and services.

It was from that disaster that San Francisco local Chris Hulls thought there must be a technology-enabled way to make sure people were safe and it sparked the idea that became ASX-listed Life360.

Location-sharing app Life360 was founded in 2007, the same year the first iPhone was launched, and in 2008 received a grant of US$275,000 as a winner of Google’s Android Developer Challenge, which also allowed Life360 to be a launch app when Google Play went live. The company was listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in May 2019 and has a market cap of just under $1 billion.

The company’s first investor was Australian James Synge, one of the principals of Carthona Capital in Sydney.

“My initial investment was about US$50,000 and the first round might have been less than US$300,000. It was extremely early in the process, and it was not a focus. It didn’t stand out as an immediate opportunity. Back in 2007, you certainly weren’t thinking about giving your children a smartphone,” says Synge in an interview with Forbes Australia.

When it first went to market, the concept was misunderstood and seen as intrusive, even “creepy”, but location has become very much a part of everyone’s life and is pretty much accepted as a useful and convenient tool, now.

Life360’s core and the largest market is the US, although the original freemium version of the app is available in 170 different countries. Until recently the US was also the only market where Life360’s Membership offerings, the big driver of revenues, were available. The rollout of the Membership offerings in Canada started in 2022 and Life360 is next looking to launch Memberships in the UK, followed by Europe.

“At Carthona, we are not in the biggest investing city in Sydney and Chris was getting a lot of people telling him what to do in the US, so sometimes it’s good to have another voice at the other end of the world,” says Synge. “We grew that relationship over time. When we looked to list in Australia, the ASX was on a big drive to get technology companies especially from overseas, onto the bourse down here. He was getting hit up by them independently. It was clear that investors here were looking for technology investments and global opportunities as well.

“Listing on an exchange makes a company more disciplined, too, and you tend to get a general upskilling in the organisation, attract better talent and the things that come with that.”

– James Synge, Carthona Capital

“He had a lot of strategic investors on his cap table. That can become difficult as the business grows, as they might all try to pull you in different ways, whereas if you have financial investors, they want the company to grow in the most efficient way.”

Synge admits that Hulls’ personality “was not your typical West Coast, beat your chest talker”.

“He is quite reserved and what he says he will do, he does, and tries to overdeliver. I thought that would resonate here. Listing on an exchange makes a company more disciplined, too, and you tend to get a general upskilling in the organisation, attract better talent and the things that come with that.”

Life360 founder and CEO Chris Hulls, 39, tells Forbes Australia that the change in attitude to location sharing has meant he is confident that one-day, losing your dog or cat, or your laptop will simply be a result of having not shared its location.

“At one point the most common text message in the world was ‘where are you’,” Hulls says. “It just makes it so much more efficient and easy to share location with the people that you care about … no more worrying … and you are in full control over how it is used.”

Hulls was a teenager working in cafés during the original dot.com boom and bust era, watching people come and spruik their businesses, and then seeing them crash. It gave him perspective. At the very start, Synge was his first angel investor who had faith in what Life360 might create.

Synge is a shareholder and an executive director on the board, along with Randi Zuckerberg.

“Even though it is a 15-year-old company, it is still at the start of the product journey. You have people that are becoming parents now that are first-generation digital natives, and the opportunities are vast. The product resonates around the world, even though it hasn’t really been promoted outside North America. It has a free-user base in many other parts of the world,” says Synge, who credits Hulls’ product leadership as having taken the company to where it is today.

“We made some relatively significant acquisitions last year, Tile, and I see some great parallels in terms of his initial statements around Tile and the technology that Tile provides,” says Synge. “The idea of Life360 being more than just people … it’s people, pets and things. The notion that in five years’ time, it would seem very strange to people that they wouldn’t know where valuable items were. We’re starting to see that trend and it continues.

Hurricane Katrina inspired the creation of Life360. | Image source: ROBERT GALBRAITH/AFP via Getty Images

“True entrepreneurship is having that vision and being able to carry through with it. He’s a partial success now, but there is still so far to go as far as what we are able to add for the consumer,” says Synge.

The Tile and Jiobit acquisitions include physical trackers for pre-smartphone children, for luggage and the important things in life, including pets. The Life360 app allows family safety, security and coordination through location services including crash detection, personal safety through an SOS button feature, medical advice and assistance, and alerts when elderly users fall or are in crisis.

Life360 uses the scale of its user base to negotiate deals that provide members with value on services such as Roadside Assistance, ID Theft Protection, Online fraud reimbursement.

“We’re wanting this year to improve what we have. We can innovate from the core. From a user base, we cross all socio-economic classes and cultures. This is the protection of your family … we think this can be a truly global brand,” says Hulls.

Hulls is not the typical tech founder. He grew up in a ranching community and joined the military after high school and served in Afghanistan after 9/11. It has created a mindset that has served him well for business.

“Any company that gets funded by the top VCs, you’re going to see 10 competitors out there. But we beat to our own drum, and we had no competition. Some, but not these aggressively well-funded, venture-backed competitors. It was largely just us. The obvious benefit is that we dominated the market. By the time people caught on to what we were doing, we had become this stealth giant,” Hulls explains.

“It’s way more than safety, it’s a replacement communication,” he says. “People don’t answer their phones, and now it’s not even about texting where you are … people say just look at where I am.”

When emergency events happen in a community, “particularly in less mature regions, we usually see new waves of people coming into the platform. They come for safety and stay for communication.”

The company this month cut 14% of its workforce to save $15 million in this financial year, pushing the share price 11% higher on the day of the announcement. Hulls believes there is mass market potential – cross border, globally – and with the demographic of Millennial users growing, whose children are barely ageing into the category. He thinks that in some areas, the app is five or six years away from hitting the prime time for the demographic where parents are wanting to know the whereabouts of their 13-year-old who has a phone.

“One of our board members is Randi Zuckerberg, one of the first Facebook employees and Mark Zuckerberg’s big sister. When she joined, she was a big Life360 user and she said it was like Facebook in 2007 when people were externally thinking it was a college party app, but internally thinking that it could become part of the social fabric of everyday life. We think we can truly become part of the fabric of family life … this is something everyone can use.”