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“I love collaborating, and not just to build a product or a strategy, but to build a culture, a place where we come together every day to “do battle,” celebrate the wins, and be able to laugh together when things go wrong—because it’s bound to happen.”

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Prior to founding Location Labs, Tasso Roumeliotis, was a Vice President at Claridge, a $3 billion fund operating wireless and media assets. Tasso co-founded a medical device startup, Coroneo, with products now deployed in hospitals including Stanford. He was also an associate in the merchant banking group at Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette.

In 2011 and 2012, Tasso was announced as an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist.

Established in 2002, Location Labs is the worldwide pioneer in mobile location and device management technologies. Its Sparkle® LBS and MDM platform is licensed by Tier 1 global wireless carriers and is today pre-loaded on tens of millions of mobile devices. Sparkle powers essential value-added services that increase ARPU and reduce churn for wireless carriers. The company’s Safely consumer division, launched in 2011, employs these innovative technologies to create mobile safety services for families. In partnership with Tier 1 global wireless carriers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Telefónica, Safely builds and provides subscription-based services that make it easy for parents to keep tabs on their kids, set limits on phone use and instill healthy digital habits for life. Location Labs has appeared on the Inc 500|5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

MO: Can you talk about how Location Labs has literally been built from the ground up? What are some key differences between the company now than when you first launched in 2002?

Tasso: Well, when we started the company in 2002, all sales, business development, product management, operations, cleaning, laptop ordering, pizza ordering, you name it, was done by me. Our CTO, Scott Hotes, was 100% devoted to building the product, meaning not just overseeing but actually executing the entire process, from engineering to writing code to doing QA.

As we grew, we had to be smarter about how we divvied the work. At a certain point, it wasn’t good for the business for me to spend a half-day ordering office equipment. So we began to specialize, and our first hire managed logistics, like payroll, office management, so I could do my job better.

What hasn’t changed, though, is our philosophy about the division of labor. Our structure is of course hierarchical to the degree it needs to be, when it comes to decision-making and strategy, but mostly it’s a web. We’ve focused from the beginning on hiring people who are not just good at solving problems, but who really love solving problems. And when you get a bunch of people like this together, they form connections among themselves to improve processes and products. They wind up creating intersections of skills that I would never have anticipated, they make mistakes together, they try again, they learn together. It’s really exciting to watch and be part of.

MO: Can you expand on the development process behind building your Sparkle platform and any challenges you encountered in the early days?

Tasso: We started building Sparkle before there were iPhones and Androids, so it was hard to find location with the operating system that our first services used. We decided that it would be better to get location right from the phone, rather than going through the network. If we did that, we could build much better services. Around the same time, the smartphone tidal wave hit. And because we’d already been building Sparkle and using it on feature phones (which was very hard), we were essentially ahead of the curve, already equipped with a base technology that could enable many more capabilities and opportunities you could derive from location.

Our “early days” were in 2002, after the dotcom collapse. Raising money then was by far the hardest thing we’ve ever done. We literally met with at least 30 different VCs. And were rejected by 99% of them. But all we needed was one to get us started, and that was Nokia Venture Partners (now BlueRun Ventures), and the rest, well, we’ve just continued to grow.

MO: What are some examples of how you bring safety and innovation to your customers through the power of mobile phone technology?

Tasso: We know that, these days, most kids have phones. In fact, 85% of kids middle-school-aged and older do. We also know that parents want their kids to have phones, for good reasons: they’re a safety net, a way to stay connected. So phones are a given in today’s world, no doubt about it. And we have focused for years on how to use a phone’s “locatability” to enhance that safety net it provides. That’s what our Safely Family Locator products do—let parents pinpoint their child’s location at any time, as well as create schedule checks. With these, mom can set up an automatic alert at, say, 4 PM every day, to tell her that her son is where he should be at that time, like home or soccer practice. Or tell her that he isn’t there.

But, like most “improvements,” phones also introduce new problems, which we’re all familiar with: excessive use, inappropriate use, texting at all hours, texting while driving. So part of “bringing safety and innovation through the power of mobile phone technology” is being mindful of that entire use spectrum. Location services make a phone’s positive aspects and capabilities even better. And our mobile controls and no-texting-while-driving products mitigate the “bad” that comes with the good, giving parents pretty fine-grained oversight over their children’s use of what is, let’s be frank, a very powerful piece of technology. And if we’re talking about kids with smartphones, then we have to face the fact that they’re essentially walking around with supercomputers in their pockets—with virtually no oversight. That’s kind of scary for a parent. And by looking at phones in this holistic way—the good, the bad, the ugly—we’ve been able to develop services that let parents feel a lot better about giving their kids phones for all the right reasons, knowing they can combat the wrong uses that often occur.

MO: What are some trends you’re noticing in how mobile devices are changing the way we relate to the world and each other? How does Location Labs try to enhance the good and curb the bad?

Tasso: I would add to what I talked about above that we very much believe that mobile technology is incredible, full of potential, powerful. And anything this powerful can be used for good or for bad. We focus on services that help people look honestly and clearly at their habits. Take Safely Go as an example. Safely Go is a manual, more lightweight version of our premium Drive Safe product (available today as Sprint Drive First, for a monthly subscription fee). Sprint Drive First is geared toward parents who want to put the app on their teen drivers’ phones. It automatically detects when you’re driving and locks the phone. No texts, no calls, no distractions. Now, Safely Go (which is available directly to consumers, via Google Play, for free) puts a lot more of the responsibility on the user to decide to lock their phone. Which is a really good additional way for us to address the danger of texting-while-driving. Because it’s not just kids doing it—it’s adults. And we’re setting an example, whether we’re aware of it or not. We have an obligation to be aware of how we use technology. And, possibly more important, to be aware of when our technology is using us, by distracting us, compelling us, diverting us from focusing on what’s really important, like the road, our loved ones. And then finding ways to take back control.

MO: I love that you look forward to checking out www.kickstarter.com every day. What businesses are you most inspired by and how often are you tempted to invest?

Tasso: The ones I find particularly appealing combine a passion for cooking with a passion for tech. I love it when people work on, say, creating a cappuccino machine that offers all the precise temperature controls you get with high-end equipment, but for only $300 (instead of $4,000!). That’s innovation. How can we do something in a smarter way, a less costly way, a more inventive way? It’s like applied science: how can someone take a principle or an idea and turn it into a product or experience? I love projects that civilize us, that force us to slow down, think, and look at how things are done, think of people who do those things, then come up with a better way. For instance, I have a friend who invented a way to more quickly cool coffee beans after they’re roasted. That saved time has a snowball effect. It can affect an entire process, an entire industry.

As for investing, I’ll invest in almost anything, I’d give money to everything, and that’s because there are so many things that I just think are really, really cool. Recently I’ve become very interested in sleep, and I’m particularly interested in a mask that would allow you to lucid dream, for example.

I’d be a terrible VC. I’m too much of an optimist.

MO: Where does your strong entrepreneurial streak come from? What do you most enjoy about building a company and what are biggest insights you’ve gained being a serial entrepreneur?

Tasso: There’s something about being the “underdog” that appeals to me. I get excited about building something from scratch, and enjoy the feeling of pride that comes with that. Working against the odds, being scrappy—that makes everything more rewarding. And there’s a kind of magic to it, too—building something from nothing.

That drive / motivation/ ”underdog appeal” didn’t come from nowhere—my parents emigrated from Greece to Montreal, and they spent every hour of every day building our family business, a neighborhood store. That made a big impression on me. Of course, I didn’t appreciate it at the time, when they made me show up for work in the morning, when I’d have much rather been with my friends, goofing off. But I can see now that they instilled a really powerful work ethic and hunger for success in me. And I’m glad they did.

I think the most important thing I learned from them, though, in terms of being an entrepreneur, myself, is that the best marketing is genuine. For instance, one Christmas, my mom got a great deal on chocolates from another local business owner who couldn’t use them but wanted to recoup some of what he spent. Now, she could have turned around and sold them, which would be a smart decision for any business owner. Instead, she—well, let’s be honest, I, because she made me—carefully wrapped those chocolates up into pretty, individual packets, and she gave a packet to every customer who came through in December. She knew her customers, she cared, and she knew that conveying—making real connections, in real human moments—was way more important in the long run than making a few dollars in the short run. I’ve never forgotten that.

What I most enjoy about being an entrepreneur is getting to choose the people I work with—you get that very rarely in life. I love collaborating, and not just to build a product or a strategy, but to build a culture, a place where we come together every day to “do battle,” celebrate the wins, and be able to laugh together when things go wrong—because it’s bound to happen. And it’s because of this that I don’t think of myself as a serial entrepreneur. I didn’t get into this to get out of it—I got into it to build a business, and take it as far as it can possibly go.

Another insight I’ve gained: You have to make sure that whenever you have an idea, no matter how good it is, if the market is not ready, for whatever reason, that should tell you something. You have to understand the environment you’re creating in, all the factors that will help or hinder your trying to sell your product. For example, we initially thought selling to carriers would be easy. It’s definitely not. Carriers were understandably wary about sharing location information, for reasons of privacy, and the fact that it was all so new. We had to work hard for a long time to build those relationships and processes with carriers, and it was well worth the time and effort it took.

I’ve also learned a lot about myself, how I operate, and the most important thing I’ve learned is to recognize and be okay with what I’m not good at. And then make sure I work with people I trust who complement my strengths and weaknesses. It’s so tempting to want to have every answer, be in charge of everything, but it’s just not possible. You can’t do that. You have to hand off and trust. For instance, I rely heavily on Joel Grossman (our COO) for his sense of setting limits. Like I’ve said, I’m an optimist—I’ve never met an idea I didn’t like. That’s a great mindset to start with, as an entrepreneur, but you just can’t follow every single idea. I trust Joel to be selective.

MO: Can you elaborate on how Location Labs is in the process of building products and services that will start enhancing the relationships among parents and children?

Tasso: We believe that the best way to set kids up with good digital habits for life—because, let’s face it, computers and mobile phones are going to be a part of their lives long after we’re gone—is not to block their access, but to gradually give them access, appropriate to each stage they go through. And if a parent, rather than having to choose between smartphone or no smartphone, instead has services that help them modify the smartphone (by locking it during school hours, for instance), turn it into a tool that’s right for an 8-year-old, it helps them breathe easier, knowing that they aren’t exposing kids to way more power and information than they can handle. And if you give your child a phone that’s modified in this way, that has limits, it gives you the chance to tell kids why these limits are in place. It opens a conversation that, hopefully, continues for many years, as kids mature. By gradually giving kids more access, more control, you can teach them how to be what we call “digitally well,” forever. Another interesting thing that comes up when we talk with parents is that when they’re faced with placing reasonable limits on their kids’ phone use, it sort of forces them to examine their own habits. Because kids watch us—all the time. Are we telling them one thing—“You shouldn’t always have your face buried in texting!”—and demonstrating another? Digital wellness is about the whole family, and it’s as important an aspect of how we live as is nutrition, exercise, emotional health.

 

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