ULocate’s Where Is That Rare Beast: A Location-Based Mobile Platform Earning Real Money

12/16/09Follow @wroush

As the news cycle slows down with the approach of the holidays, I’ve had a bit of time to attend to my towering backlog of unpublished interviews, including the one below, from a visit to Boston-based uLocate. CEO Walt Doyle and vice president of marketing Dan Gilmartin had me over on November 9 for the company’s weekly pizza lunch, and we talked about the latest developments with the company’s “Where” platform—a collection of location-aware widgets for your smartphone that can do things like find you the best local prices on gasoline, direct you to the nearest Starbucks, show you a live map of local traffic, grab movie reviews for the flicks playing locally, and so forth.

These days, of course, there are of plenty of apps for the iPhone and other smartphone platforms that do each of those things separately. But uLocate has been working in the world of location-based services for a long time—six years, with a total company relaunch in 2007 funded by Venrock, Grandbanks Capital, and Kodiak Venture Partners. And in that time, they’ve figured out not only how to combine all of the location-related information a mobile user might need into one convenient package, but how to bundle up that package and distribute it across six different mobile platforms on seven carriers.

Yes, I said six platforms (iPhone, Android, Palm, Blackberry, the Web, and SMS) on seven carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and MetroPCS). That’s a feat of remarkable engineering and sales prowess in the maddeningly fragmented world of mobile communications.

Perhaps even more remarkably, Gilmartin says uLocate is now turning a profit, having hit on a combination of revenue sources that are likely the envy of many a competing mobile-app company. Those include subscriptions (most Where users, with the exception of iPhone owners, pay a $3 monthly fee for access to the Where widgets), search-based advertising, banner advertising, and commissions on e-commerce transactions such as movie ticket purchases and restaurant reservations.

Where home screen“A lot of people are trying to figure out how to make money on mobile,” says Doyle. “The one that we’re after is around capitalizing on the personalization—-leveraging our access to network-based location information to present location-specific opportunities to users.”

Still, uLocate faces an uphill battle promoting Where, given the sheer number of competing location-aware applications exploding onto the scene through Apple’s iTunes App Store, the Android Marketplace, Palm’s App Catalog, and other mobile app stores. In our interview, I pressed Doyle and Gilmartin to explain what sets uLocate’s platform apart from other apps, and to talk about the areas where the company wants to keep innovating.

Xconomy: What’s the big idea at uLocate — the distinct, unifying vision?

Walt Doyle: The vision is pretty simple. I was the general manager at Mapquest; I’m a media guy by background, with some experience in VoIP, Gamespot, Dow Jones. At Mapquest we had begun to see location capabilities arriving on mobile handsets. Dan, who was at Sprint Nextel running location-based services, and I had the opportunity to meet. We said, it’s dead-dumb simple: you’ve got emerging devices with location capability that are portable and that are going to create an opportunity for exciting future services that are always-on and always with you, and the monetization capabilities will keep up and will be even more powerful as you gain the context of location. That was the vision. What none of us ever anticipated was how fragmented the marketplace is, from both an operating-system perspective and a distribution perspective.

X: But wasn’t that fragmentation obvious even back then?

Dan Gilmartin: The fragmentation developed over time. If you think back to 2000, everyone was walking around with a StarTac, and Motorola was the number one player. The fragmentation was there, but it wasn’t as large because you didn’t have so many pressures from people saying “Hey, I want GPS, I want Java.”

WD: In the end I think the fragmentation, both at the OS and the distribution level, has been our friend [because it keeps out major competitors]. What it translates to is that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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