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Why Many Founders Don’t Actually Work for Themselves When They Own a Business: With Chris Hulls

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“…if you are going the venture-backed route, you will feel less freedom, not more. I have a huge sense of obligation to the people who work at and have invested in Life360.”
I had the opportunity to interview Chris Hulls, CEO and co-founder of Life360, who has brought together millions of families through the world’s leading family location app and driving safety service. Seeing a gap in the family tech marketplace, a largely overlooked category, Chris recognized the main component families were seeking was peace of mind when family members were outside the home. To keep families together, Life360 offers peace of mind via location sharing, day-to-day communications, driver updates, emergency response features, and more.
Life360 is now one of the largest sources of driving data in the world, providing actionable data and safety insights around driving behavior to better protect family members on the road.

Thanks for doing this with us. What is your backstory?

I joined the Air Force after high school and ended up finishing training on September 11, 2001. I was deployed to the Middle East and did combat missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the military, I came home to attend University of California Berkeley and landed a summer internship with Goldman Sachs. A full-time offer materialized, but I had other plans. After applying and getting into Harvard Business School, I decided to use my last free summer to travel.

I had a crazy idea to go to the South Pole, and was able to secure a job as a dishwasher at an Antarctic research station. I had to get a mandatory physical before going, and it was at that physical when I found out I had a tumor.

As a result I never did go to Antarctica, and also decided to forgo Harvard Business School. Instead I chose to move forward with a business idea I had back in my undergrad. I began to build Life360 in 2008 and that same year, Life360 won Google’s Android Challenge. In 2013, the business began to see major growth and we were officially leading the way in the emergence of family tech.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

I became a planted informant for the FBI. Over the years, we have had interactions with law enforcement where our data was used (with user consent!) to help validate people were actually where they said they were.

There was a random incident where a scammer was pretending to be me and requested that our finance department send a wire to a fake company on my behalf. I knew it was a scam, but I sent the request to an agent at the FBI I had worked with in the past just to see what would happen. It turned out that it came from a crime ring they were trying to take down but didn’t quite have the evidence for. The FBI asked me to play along and send them the money they were asking for, and as a result the leaders of the crime ring are in jail.

So what does your company do?

Life360 is a location service that keeps families together. We build technology that extends the realm of safety beyond the front door so that families feel safe and synchronized no matter where they are. Whether they’re hopping in the car to go to school, heading to soccer practice, or on their way home for dinner, families spend a lot of time on the go and should have the peace of mind that comes from knowing family members are safe, even when you’re not with them.

Some of our features include:

  • Real time location sharing and place alerts for your family and close friends. You can see where people are in real time, whether they are driving or moving, and even get alerts automatically for things like arriving and leaving from your favorite places, when a battery runs low, or a family member completes a drive.
  • Our Driver Protect feature offers crash detection, weekly driver reports & extended roadside assistance. Life360 automatically detects a car accident. If the person involved needs immediate assistance, Life360 dispatches emergency services and stays on the line until help arrives. Driver Protect also lets users know what occurred during each drive with instant, detailed reviews. Driver Protect also gives your family access to a 24/7 direct hotline of trained advisors that can provide minor accident support.
  • Our users utilize the Check In feature for quick updates. Research shows that 6–8 text messages a day are dedicated to the question, “Where are you?” Life360’s map gives you the answer without the need to ask.
  • Finally, Help Alert is a panic button that when pressed, sends a text, phone call, and email to your Life360 Circle and pre-inputted Emergency Contacts, sharing your location at the time you pressed the button.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Aside from making family life easier and less stressful, Life360 has assisted in saving thousands of lives.

From natural disasters like the Japanese Tsunami, to terrorist attacks like the Boston Marathon bombings and family emergencies like car accidents, Life360 has been the vital link bringing families together or getting them the help they need.

One customer testimonial from a Driver Protect subscriber that showcases the impact Life360 can have was one parent’s teen was in an accident late at night coming home from a party. He was knocked unconscious and the car had driven over an embankment so could not be easily seen. The parent noted that if it weren’t for Life360 detecting the crash and sending an ambulance to his location, he might not have survived. That parent thanked Life360 for saving their son’s life.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my startup,” and why?

  1. You can roughly bucket your life into three categories: work, family, and you. Realistically, you can only excel at two of these at the same time — how does that change things for you? After college, I picked Work and You. It wasn’t a problem because I didn’t have a wife or kids, and it was not a problem to be selfish. Now I do, and it is a struggle. There is no more me time. I think this is the real reason most venture backed companies are started by younger people — it isn’t anything to do with intelligence, rather they don’t have to make what feels like a very unfair set of tradeoffs.
  2. People often think of startups as failing or succeeding. If you start a company and it goes big day one, great. If you start a company and it fails in a year, you are essentially just back to where you started so no worries. If you beat the odds and don’t fail, it doesn’t mean you succeeded — it most likely means you will be living life in the grey zone where you have invested a ton of time so you don’t want to quit, but you haven’t truly made it. For most of my company’s history, I have been in this grey zone. Even now, I still feel like I am in the grey zone because although I know we have built real value, I have the burden of trying to generate a return on nearly $100 million of invested capital — the goal posts are always moving. Most of us aren’t Facebook or Snapchat.
  3. You don’t actually work for yourself when you run “your own” company. Maybe if you have a small coffee shop you actually feel like your own boss, but if you are going the venture-backed route you will feel less freedom, not more. I have a huge sense of obligation to the people who work at and have invested in Life360. This does not give me a sense of freedom.
  4. Raising money is not fun or sexy. Sure, maybe your first few VC meetings are exciting, but it is the biggest slog out there. I have been denied by over 150 investors. The silver lining from all this is that these rejections are how I built my network — once you are successful everyone seems to remember you. It is a surprisingly small world.
  5. For those of you who tend to procrastinate, you will have to provide yourself with your own structure. Although you will have plenty of stakeholders who make it feel like you have a boss, you will be self managing yourself day-to-day. This was and still is a struggle for me personally. My latest experiment is to have a board chairman pretend to treat me like he is my manager. It is helpful to have someone to hold me accountable to what I say I will do. I have seen many early stage founders completely flail and waste time by not getting their focus and time management issues under control.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to meet Steve Wozniak. While he is obviously best known for starting Apple, he had a much lesser known company in the 90s called Wheels of Zeus (WoZ — like his nickname) which was essentially a precursor to Life360. It was a hardware-based system for tracking people’s whereabouts, and from what I hear it literally involved putting antennas on individual school so kids could be located. While Life360 was perhaps 5–10 years ahead of its time, Wheels of Zeus saw what was coming but was about 25 years too early. I’d be very curious what he thinks about Life360 given that it is not only an evolution of an idea he had long ago, but we would not have existed if it were not for this new mobile era that is directly traceable to him and the original Apple computer.