Like most startup venture stories, Russell Thornton’s story originates from a personal experience. Unlike most, his stemmed from a terrifying few minutes as a parent.
The benefit to other parents is what Russell has accomplished as a response to his parental scare. He is the founder of Amber Alert GPS – a user-friendly service that helps parents know where their kids are and lets them know when they are not where they are supposed to be.
GPS tracking services are not new, and while many startups and even large corporations have attempted to tackle this issue in the past, none have “gotten it just right”. Protecting our children is not just a technology problem. It is a user experience issue that must blend technology with process and make using such a service intuitive, easy, and readily available. We applaud how Russell and his team have achieved a promising start to such a solution, and we encourage you to check out Amber Alert GPS yourself.
Below is a brief Q&A about Russell’s experience in launching and growing his company.
Q. Describe your “Eureka Moment”. What was the market opportunity that drove your decision to form a company around this product and service?
A. After losing my 3 year old son at an amusement park for approximately 45 minutes I thought I was going to have to issue an Amber Alert. This was a terrifying moment for me. After he was safety found, I was determined to find a solution to prevent experiences like this from ever happening again. I thought that it would be great to have something on a child that informed the parent where the child was at all times.
Q. How did you fund Amber Alert GPS to its current state?
A. The company was personally bootstrapped for the first 12 months and then was funded through friends, family and most recently angel investors.
Q. ActSeed champions the need for solid planning and preparation from the very beginning. How important is planning and preparation to your company’s success?
A. From the very beginning we received interest in using our product for markets other than child tracking. We now have a company plan in place to first successfully launch and dominate the child market and then launch in the senior and pet markets. Having a strategic plan to solidify the technology and deploy is crucial.
A. The idea came from the experience of losing my son in June of 2007. The first product was sold to customers in February, 2008 which was an off-the-shelf product from China to test the market. We quickly realized there was an appetite for this type of product and went into developing our own unit. Our new unit was completed at the end of 3rd quarter 2009.
Q. What influence have the internet and new media had on the way you are marketing, selling and supporting your products/services?
A. Our company was essentially built from the ground up through our online SEO efforts. 90% of our sales come from the internet through our website shopping cart. We also use a network of affiliates to help promote our product online. We use Facebook, Twitter, and Blogging to engage our visitors and customers.
Q. Describe the challenges you faced as you built your customer base, including defining the customer target, establishing the right price and pricing strategy and of course, closing the first few deals.
A. Our first efforts were mainly grassroots. We attended local school’s parent/teacher conferences and engaged with parents. We met with law enforcement and other child safety organizations to make sure we were meeting the needs of parents. Autism and special needs groups immediately saw the value of our product because their pain point is highest. Our pricing initially started out very high because we felt like we had to double our margins on the device alone. Since then, our device price has dropped by almost 50%. We have learned that getting the device in the customer’s hands and getting them to use it and like it is the most important factor. Once they like it and rely on it, then they have no problem paying the monthly subscriptions and refer us to family and friends.
Q. What techniques have you used to establish credibility in the eyes of customers, investors, partners, personnel and the general public?
A. The strong and credible Amber Alert brand has provided several media opportunities to introduce our child tracking product. Just a year ago we acquired AmberAlert.com. With this acquisition, we now provide the technology for States to issue Amber Alerts. We provide this technology for free. To date, we have 9 states using our technology which is called LEAP (Law Enforcement Alerting Portal). We are the only GPS company that sells a device to help keep track of kids, plus provides technology to issue Amber Alerts. Proceeds from the sales of our device fund the LEAP program which benefits the general public greatly.
Q. Have government, University, or other community and economic development programs been useful?
A. The Department of Justice, specifically NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) recognized our company early on because of the name Amber Alert GPS. We are invited to the yearly Amber Alert Symposium and looked to as a leader in the child safety community. Recently an MOU has been put in place with NCMEC and IPAWS to exchange Amber Alert information.
Q. What is the most important thing people never tell you about joining or founding an early-stage company?
A. The most important thing with startups in my opinion is persistence. Technology, marketing, finance and product development learning curves can be steep, but daily persistence can often compensate for limited resources.
A. Communication with a potential customer is invaluable. Early on we offered a free child safety kit from our website. We made sure that we gave away items of value that would help save a child’s life such as defense videos, safety tips, a child ID packet, etc. Since then our list has grown to over 30,000 subscribers. We make sure that our subscribers receive two newsletters a month on the latest safety tips. Even if they don’t buy a GPS device from us, they will have a positive interaction with our company.