Summary:

Life360, a family safety app, has been on a six-month tear, hitting 2 million families using the service. The growth highlights the work done to drive daily engagement, but more importantly, underscores the rise of smartphones and their increasing use as family utility tools.

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Life360 isn’t a hot new app embraced by the digerati; it’s a family safety app that has been around since 2008, when it won the Android Developer Challenge. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at its growth over the last six months, which has skyrocketed to 2 million families or about 4 million downloads, up from 300,000 families in November. After signing up 3,000 to 5,000 new users a week for much of last year, the service took off in November and has been on a tear, reaching 125,000 new sign-ups last week.

What’s behind this recent success for the San Francisco-based service? It got a bump from more media exposure, including coverage from the Japan earthquake and tsunami, in which about 1,600 families used Life360 to let their family members know they were OK and reconnect with them. Life360 lets families locate each other online through iPhone and Android apps and get information about local threats. Another boost occurred with Life360’s decision to add a check-in button in November, in addition to a panic button. With one click, users can push out their location to a spouse or parent and confirm where they are and that they are safe. That has helped boost daily engagement with about a quarter of all users checking in every day. The fact that location sharing has also become more common has also certainly helped Life360.

But the big story appears to be that Life360 is finally reaping the benefits of the rise of smartphones, which are becoming family utility tools, said founder and CEO Chris Hulls. Hulls said as smartphone penetration has risen and phones have matured and become more reliable, people have started using them for more things, and families have begun to understand the potential for the devices to promote safety. Hulls said it has taken a while, but Life360’s message is now resonating with its target audience of users in their mid-30s and up. And it’s getting great traction in the south and midwest and in suburbs, where families are embracing the tool, said Hulls.

“What’s really changed is smartphones have moved into the mainstream and people are understanding there are more things they can do with these advanced features,” Hulls said. “This isn’t the early adopter crowd, this is middle America looking to make their daily lives more helpful.”

Hulls said many of Life360’s users are spouses using the service to let each other know where they are. But as smartphones have proliferated to younger users, the app’s demographics have shifted. Now 40 percent of the people being tracked on Life360 are teens and a smattering of children as young as seven and eight, said Hulls. He said 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the smartphone as utility tool.

As Life360 sees more traction with smartphones, it’s doubling down on mobile, with the acquisition of Atlanta mobile developer MacSpots. The deal, Life360’s second acquisition, allows the company to double its engineering team and focus more on mobile. Previously, the service was focused on the web as well.

Hulls said the company is hoping to build off its newfound momentum and create a more comprehensive safety service for users. He said Life360 is talking to home security firms to integrate their information into one dashboard for consumers. But he’s also talking to them about marketing opportunities that might unlock Life360’s future business model. Hulls said the company could use its user data to know when a family has moved to a new location, which could be useful for home security companies who want to sell them on a security system. He said there are other ways that Life360’s data could be used to provide more robust premium protection for users and better marketing information for corporate customers.

The company, which is part of the Facebook Fund and Dave McClure’s 500 Startups, has raised $2 million to date from Founders Fund, LaunchCapital, Mark Goines, Seraph Group, Kapor Capital and Venture51. Hulls said Life360 is in the process of raising another round of funding.

Life360’s growth is an interesting story that illustrates the reach of the smartphone. It’s not as hip as some check-in services, but its rise shows there’s going to be a sizable market in serving up “boring” utilities to families. As smartphones get cheaper and reach down to younger ages, it’s only going to grow the opportunity for developers and entrepreneurs who pay attention.

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