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

12/16/09Follow @wroush

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the frictionless selling environment. But as the other platforms catch up, it will be really interesting. If you think about where all this is headed, the iPhone today is very much about siloed applications. You spawn an app for this, you use it, you close it. The next iteration is a much looser coupling. Android has a thing called OpenIntent—a few lines of code that let you easily integrate somebody else’s content into your app. For instance, we have integrated OpenTable into Where on Android through OpenIntent; you can find a restaurant, book it, and track the reservation. You will see a lot more of that happening. We are pretty impressed with Android, and also impressed with the devices, like the Droid. Motorola is back!

X: As far as I can tell, uLocate doesn’t put any resources toward formal marketing of Where. Is your growth completely through word of mouth?

WD: We really pay attention to the users that we have, because you want them coming back. That’s critically important, because they are your best marketing department. We figure that for every user we get, we get one more by word of mouth, though that is a difficult metric to track. So the consumer experience has got to be great.

DG: Whenever our partners like the carriers are talking about apps, we tend to be featured. They’ll choose five to 10 apps that they’ll put out there in their marketing programs. We’ll reach a lot more people through one Verizon commercial for the Droid than we ever would on any kind of budget that Walt wants to give me.

X: The Where platform is all about getting people information. So do you think of yourselves as a technology company, or a media company?

Movie reviews on the Where platformWD: We are a media company. If you were to ask Google whether they are a technology company or a media company, they will say technology, but their model is all about media, and that’s how they make money. You can’t do what we do if you don’t have a great technology platform that is very robust at operating at scale. But our model is media based, where we aggregate an audience for Where and monetize that through search, advertising, subscriptions, and commerce.

At the same time, we do some heavy-duty technology stuff that very few other people do. We are one of very few companies in North America that has access to network-based location information from the carriers. We can see the location of a phone without having to have [software] on the phone. That’s pretty neat stuff when you start thinking about monetization: push notification of events, deals, things around you that you might be interested in, for example. And when you look at the companies that support seven [mobile] operating systems, there aren’t many of them.

X: I keep wondering how a company like uLocate, which has a good number of software engineers all dedicated to working on this one platform, can thrive in the new world of mobile apps, where there are 100,000 apps just for the iPhone and 20,000 for Android, including thousands of location-aware apps.

DG: If you look at where we were two years ago, we were one of the only companies with access to location. All of a sudden, Google comes along and opens up their own map database, and the iPhone comes out with an open API [application programming interface] to core location, and anyone can create a location-based app. Now there are a couple of thousand location-based apps out there. So you have to evolve. We’ve made some mistakes along the way; there have been a lot of false positives. But we’ve figured out how to build a great app and keep customers engaged and distribute the app and stay in the top five and create a sustainable enterprise.

WD: If you look at the overall numbers, we’re just getting started. 3G wireless data penetration rates are still only 35 to 40 percent. If you look at our market share [across all mobile phones] we may be at 3 or 4 percent. But if we can grow that, you are talking about a huge number. It’s true, every 18 months there is some new thing that you’ve got to catch up with. That’s what makes it fun. If you rest, you’re rust. But it’s not just services—it’s everybody in mobile. Just look at Motorola. Four years ago they were king of the universe, two years later they were dead, then Sanjay Jha [Motorola's CEO] comes in and says, “We’ve got to have a smartphone,” and boom, they’re back with a great story. This is a hardcore, competitive environment. You’ve got to continue to innovate every day.

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

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