Josh Sookman is the CEO and founder of Guardly. Guardly is a venture-backed technology startup based in Toronto, Canada. Guardly is a platform for emergency communication that changes the way mobile personal safety is delivered. Smartphone users that find themselves in an emergency situation can alert, connect and collaborate with local authorities as well as their own personal safety networks in a single tap. Guardly is committed to dramatically decreasing the amount of time it takes responders to arrive at an emergency.
What made you want to start Guardly?
It was actually a lack of innovation that led me to start Guardly. I thought about how I could apply two key concepts of “location” and “saving time” to disrupt a market ripe for innovation. Improving personal safety seemed to be an obvious conclusion. Over a decade ago, my parents insisted that I get a cell phone so that I could easily reach them in case of emergency. These days, parents are still paranoid, but mobile phones are transitioning from “dumb phones” to location-aware smartphones at ever-increasing numbers. We also have low-cost, high-speed mobile networks that support data-rich features for over 150 million users in North America. Guardly has essentially created a next-generation home alarm system and placed it in your pocket.
Describe the beginning stages of Guardly: Did you face obstacles? Early successes?
Launching a technology startup is no easy feat. Since ideas are pretty meaningless, I knew that I needed to really develop a proof-of-concept to generate any meaningful awareness. So, I got my hands dirty and wrote a server-side application, architected a database and super-simple API and then wrote another simple iPhone client that could demonstrate my vision for Guardly. That prototype allowed me to attract a fantastic first employee, who had great technical chops, to take a risk and join the team. Two more joined Guardly within 10 days. We actually had a lot of help from the community, friends and other supporters in our early days. See “The First 300 Days’ for more at: http://blog.guardly.com/guardblog/2011/06/28/the-first-300-days/
How did you choose employees at the beginning? Were there any particular characteristics you looked for?
Picking great [early] employees is one of the most difficult things you can do at a startup, since they are going to help dictate much of the culture. I wanted to find others that were smart, resourceful, cost-conscious and friendly, and also have a similar love for solving real-world problems. Of course, their skill-sets needed to be complimentary to my own and help fill voids in the business so we could operate efficiently and as lean as possible.
Looking back, would you have chosen differently? What advice would you give to new startups (particularly in the mobile space) on how to choose new team members?
If I had to go back and pick a new team, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The team at Guardly is tightly knit. We have a great culture and I enjoy coming to work each day knowing that I’d be happy to spend the entire day with anyone on the team – they all pass the elevator test with flying colors. If I were giving advice on hiring for a mobile company, I’d recommend bringing on technical employees that have wide and distributed networks so that they can leverage their connections to help test any new products or services being developed and also help to generate buzz for new products launches.
What tips/advice would you give founders/CEOs on how to keep a team motivated/focused?
Work is where you spend the majority of your working hours, so I’d make sure to have a great company culture. How you pick your team is important, but that also means making sure you get rid of any “bad apples” before they change the culture in a negative way. Communication is important and I think everyone on the team wants to know how their work falls into the larger purpose of the company. I do my best to let everyone know why their role is important and why their contributions are paramount to Guardly’s success. I’ve read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh and “Drive” by Dan Pink and would recommend those books for Founder/CEOs who want to develop a stronger culture at the office and motivate employees. Our boardroom table is a ping-pong table and we have FedEx Days where employees have the chance to work on other “interest projects” associated with some aspect of the company.
Why is founding a mobile application startup different than more traditional startups? Pros/cons?
Developing for mobile is much more expensive than web startups, but Guardly is actually much more than a mobile application startup. We have built a many-to-many communication infrastructure for emergency situations that aims to decrease response time to emergency events. Guardly has a SaaS backbone that powers our service delivered through mobile apps that are in constant contact with our servers in the cloud. We have developed a mobile client for iPhone and are developing clients for BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Android. There is a huge contrast in complexity as you move across platforms. Our strategy was to launch on iPhone first, which is now the most common strategy undertaken by mobile app developers. We are planning a launch for Windows Phone and BlackBerry in 2 weeks, after a significant development effort. Although Android has a big footprint in terms of distribution in the US, the propensity for consumers to pay for apps is much lower than on iOS. Also, developers are now finding that the Android OS is becoming increasingly fragmented, a problem that has now been plaguing BlackBerry for some time.
What is the most important lesson you have learned about entrepreneurship /business thus far?
Customer development is absolutely crucial in developing an application that is used, trusted and helpful to people experiencing the market pain you are trying to solve. As an entrepreneur, your mission is to go out and speak to as many customers and potential customers as you can. Always bring your latest beta or mockups with you and continue to validate assumptions – even when you are sure you’ve nailed down the final feature set. There are merits to the “Lean Startup” methodology, but in our case we had to tread cautiously since we are developing personal safety applications, which must work flawlessly and have a feature set that would be considered valuable in case of emergency.
How would you describe Guardly’s industry advantages?
Guardly has a great team, strong advisors and supporting investors. Guardly has developed a best-in-class service that sits upon a standard RESTful API, which allows us to easily work with partners who want to take advantage of our infrastructure to power their own alerting and collaborative services. We are also in a market vertical that is dominated by large home alarm and monitoring companies that are generally slow to make decisions and innovate. Comparably, we are a startup that is agile and able to pivot quickly when we recognize opportunities in the market.
Why do you think Guardly has been so successful?
At the end of the day, a company’s success is driven by the quality of the people that make up the organization and the quality of the code written to power the technology services. Beyond our team, our success has largely come through designing a great service that we hope will continue to keep people feeling safe and saving time during emergency response events. Last, we have had many news outlets and bloggers cover our story and our journey because we are working tirelessly to create a service that helps people in times of need.
If Guardly had a mantra or an internal mission statement, what would it be?
We do have a mission statement: “To build a technology platform that will help save lives and positively affect millions of people around the world.”
What marketing channels have you seen to be most effective?
Guardly was designed to be inherently viral, and we are constantly optimizing the way our users and responders interact with our systems to make sure they are getting the best experience and that we are educating them about how Guardly works effectively. We’ve also found mobile advertising networks to be effective in driving downloads. We’ve worked to build a strong content network on our blog, which increases in traffic on a weekly basis. Otherwise, we have been busy working on developing a number of relationships with other organizations that share similar visions and we hope that they will help us increase discovery and ultimately net downloads.
Yotpo’s goal is revolutionizing the way companies integrate product reviews into their site. In your opinion, how influential are app reviews to a customer’s purchasing decision?
App reviews are a very important component to most customers’ decision-making process. Several bad ratings can drastically decrease the number of downloads from potential customers who reach the landing page on the application store. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to track potential customers that reach the app store and understand how many times they don’t click the download button – that would be a very valuable piece of analytics for app stores to provide developers. We have not yet incorporated app review on our website, but agree that positive reviews may have provide social proof and influence toward driving a download and potential conversion to a paying customer.
Guardly provides mobile safety solutions for reporting and managing enterprise and public safety emergencies.Our safety apps act as personal emergency phones that transmit real-time indoor/GPS location, and provides two-way communication with private security, 911 authorities and safety groups using our real-time platform for emergency incident monitoring, management, communication and response.
- Read our customer campus safety study showing how Guardly helped improve emergency response times by 44% at a school.
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