Startup Spotlight: Flares, like smoke signals for your iPhone

Despite its name, Flares, a new app set to launch in the next two weeks, isn’t about explosions of colors and sounds. Or flair, for that matter.

Instead, Flares is all about simplicity — how little can we say when trying to send a message? Most of us are sucked into texting, Facebook messaging and emailing all day, and words on a screen have become the primary vehicle for most of our communication — with parents, children, spouses, bosses, colleagues, the Verizon customer service agent.

But take away the words and the emoticons, and what message can you tell just by telling people precisely where you are?

“You can communicate a lot by where you are,” said Brogan Keane, founder and CEO of FlareWorks, which created the app. “There is so much you know without having a conversation.”

Keane, a former EA and Sony employee and seasoned valley entrepreneur, most recently of taxi-ordering app Flywheel, founded Flares with idea that communication in the digital age had gotten a bit too verbose and inefficient. Think back to the days of smoke signals, he said, one of the oldest forms of long-distance communication, and the decisive messages that could be sent via a plume of smoke.

Flares, while absolutely steeped in modern-day engineering,  hopes to bring a similar type of stripped-down communication to our mobile-driven, instant-gratification lives. Flares, which will be released for iOS in the Apple App Store by mid-August, is a one-push (or swipe) answer to the question “Where are you?” The location-based app sends an alert that appears on a smartphone or tablet screen as a flare, such as those shot off from sinking ships. The alert shows the receiver the exact location of the sender on a map.

The idea? To tell your friends, family and people close to you where exactly you are — at San Francisco airport, pulled off on the side of Highway 101, or at your neighborhood bar. The message? My flight has landed, my car broke down, or I’m waiting for you to join me for a beer. All without typing a word.

The flare stays live on the receiver’s phone or tablet for 40 seconds before it disappears.

“There is a sense of urgency,” Keane said. “When you see a flare, you’ve got to act on it. We want people to look at that before they look at a text or listen to a voice mail.”

According to Keane, it’s safer than texting to use while driving because it takes just a couple second to swipe the app, and there is no typing involved. It’s a basic interface with few features or options to customize, although users can also add media to flares, such as video and photos. The app does not track your location.

“There’s a lot of complexity on the back-end but it’s really simple and easy to use,” Keane said.

Keane has released the app for testing to about 300 family and friends, and said its been especially popular among parents, who ask their kids to send a “flare” when they arrive somewhere. Couples have also been active on the app to send a flare to tell their partner they are at their child’s school to pick him up, at the dry cleaner’s to pick up the clothes, or at the grocery store to grab ingredients for dinner. Millennials are using the app to coordinate group meet-ups. On average, users are sending six flares per day, Keane said.

The San Francisco-based startup launched in January and now has six employees. After the North America release this month, Keane said he plans to bring the app to Brazil, a country with some of the most active mobile phone users in the world. Flares is also working to develop an Android app, which will also have a voice-command feature.

Keane also sees the potential for Flares to disrupt shipping and delivery services, such as FedEx and UPS. If the driver could send a flare, the customer would know exactly where the truck was, he said, and know when to be home to receive a package — rather than finding notices stuck to the front door. Or cable companies could use the app for installation service, so instead of waiting at home for hours for the cable guy, customers could receive a flare to alert them to his arrival.

There are more critical situations when Flares could help, Keane said. Imagine a search-and rescue for a lost hiker, an elderly person who has fallen down or a kidnapped victim, he said — these situations could be solved though a smartphone alert system such as a Flares. Those use cases would require partnering with law enforcement and first responders, which would be years down the line, but Keene is dreaming big.

It’s “just the beginning,” he said, of discovering “what’s beyond texting.”

Screenshot courtesy Flare


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