HOT COMPANY PROFILE: Location service Echoecho

Mobile location sharing still faces a number of challenges, whether it’s privacy concerns or the battery drain caused by constantly broadcasting your whereabouts. But Echoecho believes it has the answer with a simple service that uses a member’s address book to request location updates from friends. The app aims to address the ubiquitous ‘where are you?’ question, with users receiving a notification if someone wants to know where they are, which they can choose to reply to or not. CEO Nick Bicanic says that by pulling in location data rather than pushing it to others it enables users to control how and when they share data, a key concern among privacy-wary consumers. Only launching in September, Bicanic remains cagey on download levels, only saying he is “very happy” with the firm’s progress so far.

¤ What differentiates Echoecho from other location-based apps?

We seek to directly address the ‘where are you?’ problem. Take check-in, the problem here is that it only really allows you to find out where your friends were, not where they are. For example, if your flight lands at 10pm and your friend is supposed to pick you up at the airport, you want to know where they are now. That’s the sort of problem we’re trying to address directly.

There are other solutions, Google Latitude being one of them, that do a form of real-time tracking. The biggest problem is that it’s a massive battery drain and causes serious privacy problems. Echoecho basically does an end run around all these solutions. We do not cause any battery drain whatsoever, we’re extremely private – you can find anybody in your address book but only if they want to be found.

¤ What is your business model?

We’re trying to create a useful consumer-to-consumer system, grow up the database and then leverage business-to-consumer solutions. For example, the situation where your bank has declined to let you use your debit card because you’re in a different country. The reason why such a thing happens is because the bank has no idea where you are. It would be far more sensible for any financial institution to pop up something on your phone.

We are also in partnership discussions with firms such as operating system developers. Our view is that sending ‘echoes’ will eventually be as ubiquitous as sending text messages, and if we have our way we’ll be able to execute that vision in the not-too-distant future.

When you’re building something that’s a vital utility to people, slapping ads on top of it isn’t necessarily the best idea on the planet. You have to be extremely careful when you pick a business model along those lines that you’re actually adding value to the interaction.

¤ Who are your main competitors?

We try to look a little bit more broadly at the competitive landscape, so we’re in competition with phone calls and with SMS. If we can’t execute the solution to the ‘where are you?’ problem better than phone calls or SMS, we should pack up and leave right now.

¤ What is the biggest challenge you currently face?

Our biggest challenge is making sure that we can support the growth that we’re already seeing. Also to make sure we don’t lose sight of our product design philosophy, which is: identify a problem, design a solution to fit that problem. It’s extremely tempting, especially in Silicon Valley, to create a solution and just go: “Whoa, this is useful, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Come on, somebody’s going to use this!” And instead you’ve actually built something that isn’t useful, but perhaps you can raise some money for it. In our case, that’s not what we’ve done. We’ve so far been driven by what we see as a pressing consumer need, and we hope to continue to do that.

¤ What is the hottest trend in digital media right now?

It’s easy to say social location and mobile, but that’s kind of like saying everybody needs to eat. It’s a bit obvious. I believe that everyone’s just scratching the surface of what you can do with location. People are extremely uncomfortable with anything they perceive to be Big Brother tracking-type solutions, so making people comfortable with sharing their locations with their friends in certain ways will actually allow us to build things we haven’t even thought of yet.
Echoecho is hoping its app will addresses the basic problem of finding someone you’re trying to meet, while avoiding the security concerns. The service is certainly easy to use, with the app enabling users to share their location and arrange places to meet all with just one click, while its location technology puts users within feet of each other, making it easy to find someone in crowded place such as an airport. It also has a clear privacy policy that means users can only find the location of people in their address book, and even then only if they want to be found, with users having to agree every time someone wants to see where they are. The app is also available on all the major smartphone platforms and is free to download, again boosting its appeal to consumers.

Investors have clearly seen the potential of Echoecho, with the firm raising funding from high-profile backers including Google. However, if it is to make the most of this opportunity, the firm will need to ensure it continues to build out its offering, something that is already doing with the planned introduction of group chat features. While it only launched last month, the startup will also need to start thinking about a business model, an area that more established companies in the location space, such as Foursquare, continue to struggle with. Yet, Bicanic already has ideas in this area and is exploring partnerships with mobile operators or platform developers that could incorporate Echoecho into their offering.

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