The First Lady of Wireless Built Mobile Startup to Send Message of Simplicity

3/13/09

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family’s paging business to GreatCall, has lasted 47 years. In 2007, she was first the female innovator to be inducted to Wireless Hall of Fame. She co-founded GreatCall with her husband, Martin Cooper, who is considered the inventor of the mobile phone. He made the first mobile call on a New York City street using a portable cell phone on April 3, 1973. “Young engineers and marketing people have a difficult time finding out what people want. Engineers just want to show off their technologies. They want everyone to see how smart they are. That’s what has gotten us into this mess,” Harris says.

GreatCall evolved from Harris’ SOS Wireless, which provided senior citizens an oversized, three-button mobile telephone for emergency use. After introducing Jitterbug in 2006, GreatCall had the senior citizen market to itself. But a year later, Verizon took a cue and came to market with its own simple-to-use Coupe.

jitterbug-cell-phoneGreatCall is still guided, though, by Harris’ vision of what a cell phone should be, with an emphasis on user-friendliness and on providing personal services to Jitterbug customers.

“Why must you have a camera in your phone when you can’t easily show the pictures it’s taking? That is why we won’t have cameras (in our phones),” says Harris.

Jitterbug’s functions are basically answering yes or no, or dialing with big buttons. No music. No maps. No internet. No strange buttons. Plain colors, yes. It’s like a landline phone, but wireless.

GreatCall has about 150 employees. The company raised $38 million in venture funding last June in a round led by Court Square Ventures. According to Harris, since it was founded, GreatCall has raised a total of over $100 million from investors that include Charles River Ventures, Nauta Partners, Steelpoint Capital Partners, Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation. Harris and Cooper are also investors in the company. In a statement released last year, Court Square managing general partner Jim Murray said, “We saw this as an opportunity to expand our portfolio in a space where underserved demographics, healthcare, and technology are converging.” Using the proceeds of its venture rounds, GreatCall has built up their 24/7 U.S. based call centers, and expanded their brand development and marketing. Harris says the private company is now profitable.

Some of that marketing and brand development can be found on the walls of GreatCall’s offices in Del Mar, about 20 miles north of San Diego. The headlines of the advertising displays for Jitterbug tell it all: “If it were a chair, it would be the most comfortable chair you ever sat in;” “On. Off. Yes. No;” “It’s as complicated as yes or no;” “It doesn’t take pictures, play games or tell you the weather.”

Harris says, “Large-scale integration has blended all sorts of technologies in the phone. We are bringing the phone back to the consumer. It’s about getting simplicity back.”

Harris asks why should we have to care whether a message is sent by e-mail or as a text message. Shouldn’t its content be the only thing that counts? And with U.S. demographics favoring an aging population and a lot of people baffled by new technology, maybe GreatCall has found the right message to send, after all.

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