RapidSOS learned that the best product design is sometimes no product design

RapidSOS EC-1 Part 2: Product and business

Sometimes, the best missions are the hardest to fund.

For the founders of RapidSOS, improving the quality of emergency response by adding useful data, like location, to 911 calls was an inspiring objective, and one that garnered widespread support. There was just one problem: How would they create a viable business?

The roughly 5,700 public safety answering points (PSAPs) in America weren’t great contenders. Cash-strapped and highly decentralized, 911 centers already spent their meager budgets on staffing and maintaining decades-old equipment, and they had few resources to improve their systems. Plus, appropriations bills in Congress to modernize centers have languished for more than a decade, a topic we’ll explore more in part four of this EC-1.

Who would pay? Who was annoyed enough with America’s antiquated 911 system to be willing to shell out dollars to fix it?

People obviously desire better emergency services — after all, they are the ones who will dial 911 and demand help someday. Yet, they never think about emergencies until they actually happen, as RapidSOS learned from the poor adoption of its Haven app we discussed in part one. People weren’t ready to pay a monthly subscription for these services in advance.

So, who would pay? Who was annoyed enough with America’s antiquated 911 system to be willing to shell out dollars to fix it?

Ultimately, the company iterated itself into essentially an API layer between the thousands of PSAPs on one side and developers of apps and consumer devices on the other. These developers wanted to include safety features in their products, but didn’t want to engineer hundreds of software integrations across thousands of disparate agencies. RapidSOS’ business model thus became offering free software to 911 call centers while charging tech companies to connect through its platform.

It was a tough road and a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Without call center integrations, tech companies wouldn’t use the API — it was essentially useless in that case. Call centers, for their part, didn’t want to use software that didn’t offer any immediate value, even if it was being given away for free.

This is the story of how RapidSOS just plowed ahead against those headwinds from 2017 onward, ultimately netting itself hundreds of millions in venture funding, thousands of call agency clients, dozens of revenue deals with the likes of Apple, Google and Uber, and partnerships with more software integrators than any startup has any right to secure. Smart product decisions, a carefully calibrated business model and tenacity would eventually lend the company the escape velocity to not just expand across America, but increasingly across the world as well.

In this second part of the EC-1, I’ll analyze RapidSOS’ current product offerings and business strategy, explore the company’s pivot from consumer app to embedded technology and take a look at its nascent but growing international expansion efforts. It offers key lessons on the importance of iterating, how to secure the right customer feedback and determining the best product strategy.

The 411 on a 911 API

It became clear from the earliest stages of RapidSOS’ journey that getting data into the 911 center would be its first key challenge. The entire 911 system — even today in most states — is built for voice and not data.

Karin Marquez, senior director of public safety at RapidSOS, who we met in the introduction, worked for decades at a PSAP near Denver, working her way up from call taker to a senior supervisor. “When I started, it was a one-man dispatch center. So, I was working alone, I was answering 911 calls, non-emergency calls, dispatching police, fire and EMS,” she said.

RapidSOS senior director of public safety Karin Marquez. Image Credits: RapidSOS

As a 911 call taker, her very first requirement for every call was figuring out where an emergency is taking place — even before characterizing what is happening. “Everything starts with location,” she said. “If I don’t know where you are, I can’t send you help. Everything else we can kind of start to build our house on. Every additional data [point] will help to give us a better understanding of what that emergency is, who may be involved, what kind of vehicle they’re involved in — but if I don’t have an address, I can’t send you help.”

With most of us holding GPS-enabled devices in our pockets today, it would seem obvious that 911 call centers would automatically receive that location information. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. As RapidSOS’ co-founder and CEO Michael Martin puts it, “The traditional software systems at 911 weren’t designed around data coming from the person in need. They were designed around a voice-call paradigm and passing the voice along the chain and maybe having the 911 telecommunicator taking notes and transcribing information, rather than having that all digitally transmitted.”

A dispatcher with Anne Arundel County Fire Department answers a 911 emergency call from their department dispatch center in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Image Credits: ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

With thousands of independent PSAPs across the United States, there are dozens of software vendors that power these dispatch systems, each with their own requirements for integration. How could RapidSOS actually work with such extreme complexity?

The answer was essentially brute force: The company painstakingly built partnerships with one vendor after another until it was integrated with the vast majority of the software that powers 911 call centers. “We’ve spent $100 million probably integrating into all these systems and these vendors,” Martin said. (Building those partnerships is the subject of part three of this EC-1).

That work became RapidSOS’ main offering. It’s a clearinghouse that aggregates location and other relevant data from consumer apps and devices and streams that into 911 call centers, regardless of the underlying software running the center. It’s essentially an API, similar to how Plaid gave developers access to financial data at banks, or Clever to student information systems at schools. It’s an abstraction layer that simplifies development time while ensuring that developers don’t harm any underlying 911 system in the process.

Unlike Plaid and others of its ilk though, RapidSOS needed the active cooperation of PSAPs if it was going to be successful. Even if it successfully transmitted location data or medical information, call takers actually had to use it through their existing systems or by using RapidSOS Portal, the company’s own browser-based display.

The challenge in 2017 and 2018 was that devices weren’t ready to send useful data into call centers. Marquez recalls, “We had nothing to give them other than, ‘Your integration partner has access to our system, our clearinghouse at the time, and we want you to sign up for it. I promise something is coming. I don’t know when, but something is going to happen.’”

That’s obviously not a great sales pitch, but two strategic decisions radically changed the momentum for RapidSOS. First, it offered PSAPs the product for free, which immediately changed the budget conversation and, in many cases, short-circuited requests for proposals (RFPs) and other government procurement processes.

As I wrote a few months ago, sales to emergency response agencies are really, really hard:

Seasonality, on-and-off funding, lack of attention, procurement scrambling and acute reliability requirements combine to make emergency management sales among the hardest possible for a startup. That doesn’t even get into all the typical govtech challenges like integrating with legacy systems, the massive fragmentation of thousands of emergency response agencies littered across the United States and globally, and the fact that in many agencies, people aren’t that interested in change in the first place. As one individual in the space described how governments approach emergency technology, “a lot of departments are looking at it as maybe I can hit retirement before I have to deal with it.”

RapidSOS fixed most of those challenges by just giving away its platform for free and integrating with existing software vendors. In many cases, that meant a PSAP just had to turn on a feed — no payment or installation required, reducing friction to adoption to a minimum.

Second, the company aggressively courted well-known figures in the emergency response community to provide it credibility and connections to smooth over sales cycles. The company added three former FCC chairmen to its cap table, and its advisory boards are stocked with dozens of industry veterans. It also consistently hired people like Marquez, who knew the language and the people in the 911 community and who could build a rapport with new PSAPs considering RapidSOS.

Former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Tom Wheeler, along with former chairmen Julius Genachowski and Dennis Patrick, have invested in RapidSOS. Image Credits: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Common Sense Media

“What happened is we were trusted in the community, we had credibility because of the work that we have done in our previous experiences,” Marquez said. “They knew that none of us were salespeople. So we’re not going to be in their 911 center feeding them a line, that we’re going to be selling them vaporware.”

That deep rapport helped the company iterate its products. RapidSOS Portal was designed with standard web aesthetics in place, including grays on whites. That palette worked well enough during the day, but call takers on the night shift couldn’t leave the app open due its brightness. The company got that feedback and added a dark mode to its product. “They might have minimized RapidSOS before. So that night mode is … allowing them to bring that screen back up in a comfortable setting and they’re using that information,” Marquez said.

An example of RapidSOS Portal’s UI. Image Credits: RapidSOS

As the company looks to the future on the PSAP side of its business, it wants to provide ever more rich data to call takers, such as live video and audio. That creates a slew of new challenges for its product. Videos of emergencies can be ghastly, putting even more stress on these frontline workers. Marquez noted that many of the product decisions that the company makes are based on the mental health of the call taker using the platform.

For instance with video, the product could initially show a thumbnail rather than a full video “so my brain is prepared for what I’m about to see,” Marquez said. “If my brain can tell my eyes to get ready, then I can manage my emotions better. But if my brain hasn’t had time to process things [and] my eyes see it, you go into trauma mode.”

She noted, however, that video can surprisingly eliminate some stress from the job. “Because we’ve been so voice-centric for so long, we will tend to paint a picture in our head of the absolute worst scenario on what we’re being told on the phone,” she said. “So, in reverse, the video and the imagery can actually help to alleviate some of that bad picture painting.”

After years of assiduously courting government clients, the company has nearly 5,000 PSAPs on its platform, an astonishing number that covers an estimated 94% of the American population. But even now, after nine-figures of investment into integration and years of outreach, hundreds of PSAPs are not on the platform.

Marquez said, “We’re getting into the more difficult time” with these last holdouts. “These might be agencies that don’t have the funding to go to conferences. They may have never heard of us before, they may not have internet access to receive our messaging or they may not be allowed to be on social media to know what RapidSOS is, and they may be smaller centers or large centers who don’t have internet access at their workstations, so they’re not able to have our solution at their fingertips yet.”

The company is still endeavoring for 100% coverage, but as with any user acquisition tale, the late adopters will be by definition the most challenging to bring on board.

High friction, low rewards

Over the early years of the company, RapidSOS managed to get more and more PSAPs to use its clearinghouse and platform to bring richer data into 911 response. But who would send that rich data in the first place? The company’s first attempt at solving the flip side of its market was building its own consumer app called Haven, which offered “one-touch” dialing of 911 in the United States, as well as emergency numbers in countries around the world.

It was simple, but it was designed to be a beachhead. Once users installed Haven, the hope was that they would build out a medical profile (adding, say, information on health allergies or prescriptions) that could be sent to the 911 call taker along with GPS location if they hit Haven’s emergency call button. To add in network effects, the app included a feature called Family Connect that shared the location of fellow family members so they could monitor each other.

The company’s idea of enriching emergency calls was thoughtful, but its consumer app was a major misfire.

Successful consumer apps typically share a common set of properties. They have high engagement, strong word-of-mouth or virality built into the product flow, and they solve a key user need. Take, for instance, Tinder. The app’s swipe mechanism is highly engaging, encouraging users to return repeatedly to see who might turn up next in their feed. It has incredible word of mouth as people talk about prospective partners, and the app has features to share profiles, offering built-in virality. Perhaps most importantly, Tinder solves a deep-seated need: People are lonely and aspire to connect with a future partner.

Haven had none of these characteristics. It was an app that once setup, would almost certainly never be used by most users. While it had some simple virality with its family-focused features, that wasn’t a great affordance to get easy and cheap distribution to a wide set of users. Finally, while the app touches a key need for users — safety — it wasn’t perhaps clear how having a smarter 911 call button would really soothe a user’s fears.

Perhaps most problematically, the app was offered as a monthly subscription. Consumer adoption of subscription services has been more successful in recent years, but it was rare at Haven’s launch back in 2016. Given the constraints around engagement and user needs, it was hard to see a path where the company could push users into signing up for regular payments with so little usage.

The best user experience is no experience at all

In the end, RapidSOS brilliantly pivoted away from Haven, shutting down the app in December 2018, to something much smarter: Nothing.

The company approached the design challenge of user adoption from a totally different direction: Just embed RapidSOS functionality into every app and hardware device on the planet. Everyone wants better emergency calling, but very few people prepare for such contingencies in advance. So what if they didn’t have to?

From 2017 onward, RapidSOS reoriented its consumer-facing business to focus on building partnerships with app developers and device manufacturers. How it built those partnerships is the subject of part three of this EC-1, but let’s summarize and say it was extremely successful.

Suddenly there was an incredible range of potential companies to work with. You had the two big smartphone giants of Google and Apple, who each have hundreds of millions of devices out in the world. There are apps like Uber where safety features have become a critical selling point. Then there are connected home startups, security systems, surveillance cameras, smartwatches, road sensors, and much, much more that could use RapidSOS’ 911 API.

Jessica Reed, VP of strategy and global partners, puts it simply. “As long as there’s some sort of emergency detection capability within the device, we can sell our service to those companies,” she said.

Major breakthroughs happened in mid-2018, when RapidSOS nabbed the two smartphone giants and convinced them to join the platform. In June, the company announced that it was partnering with Apple to include its functionality into iOS 12, which would automatically transmit location data to 911 call takers. Then in September, it announced that it had partnered with Google to connect Android into RapidSOS at the OS-level through the newly launched Android Emergency Location Service.

Fall detection on Apple Watch. Image Credits: Apple

With those two partnerships, most smartphones in the United States were immediately integrated with the RapidSOS clearinghouse. And because of the trust-building that the company had been doing with the PSAPs, it had “hundreds” of PSAPs ready to start receiving data when Google and Apple switched on their systems, according to Marquez.

After five years of maniacal focus, RapidSOS suddenly found itself with a density of customers on both sides of its two-sided business.

Plus, it actually had a business, since the company charges app and device companies for access to the clearinghouse. “It’s a license fee,” Reed said. “So it’s a recurring fee that’s charged to the partners and it’s dependent on the partner. In some cases, that license fee is dependent on the volume of units or users that are being supported.” Given the custom nature of each deal, specific details on the structure of those fees were scarce from RapidSOS, and a spokesperson for the company merely noted that, “Every deal is unique and works differently.”

RapidSOS is now integrated into all kinds of consumer apps and devices and has even built out a moniker it dubs “RapidSOS Ready” to bring brand awareness to devices that include its technology. New devices are proliferating quickly, and that requires the business and partnerships team to constantly be thinking about how new products debuting on the market might be useful for call takers working in PSAPs.

The company has branded connected devices as “RapidSOS Ready.” Image Credits: RapidSOS

“We’re always learning more about what data they want to see, because there’s more and more connected devices coming into the market,” Reed said. She gave an example of a hypothetical call-connected device installed into a building. “We work with public safety to say, ‘Hey, this type of technology, would that be beneficial for you? They can detect that there’s been a shoot-out, for example. In that sort of incident, what type of information is going to be valuable to you?’ And then we work with those companies to ensure that [they fill in] the right data fields.”

By its count, RapidSOS is now included in 350 million devices.

This is London calling (and Mexico City too)

Since 2018, RapidSOS has been on a tear, signing up more and more customers on the tech side as it expands to ever more PSAPs across the United States on the government side. Even with hundreds of millions of devices covered with its technology, there are huge segments of the market still available for the taking.

Nonetheless, RapidSOS has been increasingly looking overseas for additional and earlier revenue growth. This element of its strategy was partly opportunistic: Many of the tech companies it works with, like Google, Apple and Uber, have extremely large overseas user bases who already have RapidSOS built into their apps and devices and just need integration with local emergency call centers.

The company carefully evaluates markets for potential before diving in. “We need to make sure that we do full diligence on that particular market to understand how we are going to get the data into their systems and how long it’s going to take us,” Reed said. If the United States took $100 million by Martin’s estimate to integrate, other countries are unlikely to be massively cheaper.

So where has the company looked? Mexico is one focus for the company. Reed noted that the country offered several benefits for expansion. It’s close to the U.S. and shares similar pain points in the emergency response market. “We had some people on our team who were Mexican and understood the culture, which is incredibly important when you enter a new market,” she said. Plus, “we also had a partner in Google that was also looking to be able to solve that problem in Mexico.”

A paramedic attends the radio at a Red Cross station to answer an emergency call in La Paz, Mexico. Image Credits: Alfredo Martinez/Getty Images

One benefit to Mexico is that unlike the United States’ extremely decentralized model of PSAPs, most of the budgeting and operations for emergency calling happens at the state level. “The more centralized a 911 ecosystem, the faster it is for us to expand our presence,” Reed said. “Which is always ideal because we want to make sure that we’re servicing every single 911 center in the country and all of the citizens.” In a bit more than a year, the company says that 70% of local emergency call centers in Mexico now have RapidSOS access, and Google and Uber would be among the first partners with RapidSOS partnerships in the country.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, RapidSOS partnered with MedicAlert UK in November last year to get its information into the country’s emergency call centers. In addition, it announced in February it has partnered with Hexagon, a 911 call center vendor that sells its software in both the U.S. and U.K.

As with most two-sided businesses, the earliest days are brutal, but once the flywheel gets spinning, it gets easier to grow. Big names like Apple and Google attract smaller vendors to join the platform, and now with hundreds of millions of devices on its platform, fewer PSAPs can ignore the utility that RapidSOS offers.

Perhaps even more importantly, there is a secular trend around consumers wanting safety that bodes well for RapidSOS long term. “Safety is just becoming more and more of an important topic in the world that we live in,” Reed said. “I mean, look at 2020, you’ve got the pandemic, you’ve got an increasing number of natural disasters, population is aging … there’s more and more of a demand from end users, from citizens to have an enhanced offering when it comes to keeping their loved ones safe and ensuring that they get the best emergency response possible.”

RapidSOS has a bright future ahead of it, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the scores of partnerships it has built the past eight years. How it built those partnerships is the subject of the third part of this EC-1.

RapidSOS EC-1 Table of Contents

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