Location sharing over smartphones still faces challenges, whether it’s privacy concerns, the limitations of check-in services or more practical worries about battery life draining from services that constantly broadcast your location. But Echoecho, a Los Angeles–based startup, thinks it’s got the issue solved with a simple service that lets people request location updates from friends in their phone address book, who then can decide whether to respond with their coordinates. The company announced on Thursday that it has raised $750,000 in seed funding from Google Ventures and United Kingdom–based PROFounders Capital.
The new funding will help the company scale up its back end, add more features and build the team beyond its current four members. And the backing from Google will likely help raise the profile of the startup. The investment from Google makes sense in some ways because Echoecho is about searching for people in real time.
“Echoecho is in a growing space where consumers are using their mobile devices for everything social in their daily lives,” said Wesley Chan, a partner at Google Ventures. “We’re excited to be working with Echoecho as they have created a simple yet elegant solution to help people find each other quickly.”
The app works by allowing people to find friends in their address book and send them a quick but familiar message: “Where are you?” Users who have the app get a push notification, and they can decide to update their location and make both parties visible on a map. If a recipient doesn’t have the Echoecho app, she gets a text message providing an invitation to download the app and a way to respond via the mobile web app.
Nick Bicanic, the CEO and co-founder, said check-in services aren’t great at providing current location data. Services like Loopt and Google Latitude can broadcast a user’s location constantly, but that can eat into battery life and can also prompt privacy concerns. By pulling location rather than pushing it out, Echoecho lets people control when and how they make that information available to others. And since it can be used without both parties owning the app or joining a social network, it’s a simple way to provide location updates.
“Echoecho exists to the solve the ‘where are you?’ problem,” Bicanic said. “Our big competition isn’t check-in services, it’s phone calls and SMS. If we can’t do this better than texting and phone calls, we should pack up and leave.”
The latest version of Echoecho, which features a design overhaul, is now out on iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Symbian, with Windows Phone 7 coming shortly. It introduces new features, including the ability to find places to meet with a friend and a chatting service to carry on a conversation. That puts it potentially in competition with some group messaging apps like GroupMe and Beluga that also include location sharing.
Echoecho, which got going last year and had a more formal launch in February, might end up just being a feature in larger apps, or it could get woven into mobile operating systems. Bicanic said he’s had early stage conversations in the past month with mobile operating system owners and handset manufacturers about building in Echoecho functionality. Google could be an obvious company to acquire Echoecho at some point for Android or Latitude.
But Bicanic said the app can also stand on its own and make money. He said businesses like banks could use Echoecho’s technology to help verify a user’s location for fraud and security purposes. He said there’s an opportunity in lead generation by giving advertisers a way to surface their stores or locations when people are looking for a place to meet. But with the latest funding, said Bicanic, he doesn’t have to stress about the revenue side as much right now.
I think Echoecho makes sense. As I wrote recently, check-in services are slow in catching on with users, according to the latest Pew survey. And many people — 59 percent of women and 52 percent of men, according to Nielsen — still harbor a lot of concerns about privacy when it comes to location sharing. Making location sharing simple and safe solves a lot of issues and puts more control back in the hands of users. This kind of approach may help location services become more trusted utilities for users.