Portland-based Circle Media makes software and hardware for families to control their screen time.
The app-only version has limited use, but for $129 there is a white plastic cube that plugs into your router and gives much more control. Many parents are wary of tinkering with the router, that flickering plastic box that brings internet into the home, preferring to merely turn it off and on when things go wrong. But Circle's cube promises more control than the built-in timers and trackers that come with phones and game consoles these days.
(The Circle hardware is $129. This includes a year of service, which is $9.99 a month thereafter.)
Families now have seen screens — or devices — proliferate, as well as the excuses for using them. Everything from 'I need to be online to do homework' to 'This is how I relax,' to 'This multiplayer video game is socializing because I am on with my friends from across town and across the planet.'
Marketing VP Gwen Smith says Circle's challenge is helping parents manage family screen time without alienating the children, who always seem to want more time for gaming and television.
Smith joined Circle in November 2018 with a view to bringing her consumer electronics experience with her (from Jawbone) to revamp the brand and make the Circle story more relatable.
Anne Bryan, Circle's VP of Operations, started helping the founders of Circle six and a half years ago, when it was just an idea.
Tiebing Zhang, CTO and cofounder of Circle, is in California, where his team is primarily engineering, Android development and a bit of research. That is different from the common set up (such as at Vimeo, Vadio and UrbanSitter) where Portland is mostly seen as a good place to find competitively priced engineering talent that won't change jobs every year.
Portland has all the finance, operations and marketing — and half the engineering team — including cloud services and iOS for Apple.
"We've really committed to Portland within the last year," says Bryan. "And almost all of our growth has really been here last year." Some of the leadership has come from established tech firms such as Intel, McAfee and Puppet.
Bryan says that Julie Crawford, CFO, is an expert at helping startups get their finances in order so that they can take the next step. They now refer to Circle as a "scale up," which is what has been happening with the $20 million investment by T-Mobile as well as with Netgear.
The origin myth is that a dad was trying to figure out a way to control his kids' screen time. He talked to two others, including Tiebing Zhang, who added some hardware and made the interface simpler. Together they formed Circle. (Oddly no one can remember why Circle.)
"They like to say it was three dads around the kitchen table that really thought, 'What is it that we can do to make our families lives better, and then help share that solution with other families around the world?'" Smith said.
The way she puts it, "Most kids have their own smartphone now and increasingly we're seeing depression and anxiety connected to screen time. They use them in online bullying, and according to Common Sense Media, it's really sobering when you realize that 36% of kids are sleeping with their phones and waking up in the middle of the night in order to check them."
Smith said that 45% of parents feel that same addiction to their phones.
"We (as parents) just don't have a lot of experience to help guide kids through that. Our goal (at Circle) is to improve the family dynamic, not to tell people how to manage their devices, but really to give them the tools so that they can make those choices themselves."
The unique selling point of Circle is it is comprehensive. It works with devices from Android and Apple, as well as smart TVs, game consoles and Kindles. In fact, anything that shows up on the Wi-Fi devices list.
Smith added, "And we really aim to be easy to use, so that you don't have to be a techno geek in order to get this set up on your own."
Brave new world
Technical support team member John Lussier's team has to deal with 2 a.m. phone calls from frantic parents who find their kids are up in the night playing games or otherwise tooling about online.
The modern living room has spread to all corners of the home, with every screen now a TV, and people are often using two screens at once. According to ratings agency Nielsen's poll in 2018, 71% of North Americans said they use their device to look up something related to the TV content, while 41% said they text, email or message someone about the content.
Keeping track of all those devices, and who is watching what, has become a headache — and that's not to mention the visitors who use the home Wi-Fi.
Circle lets the person in charge set up profiles of people, it shows which devices they are allowed to use and which applications. When you begin, Circle pops up likely applications by age range. For a small child it shows Nickelodeon and PBS. Amazon and Instagram might be lurking there too, but it's up to the parent to opt them in.
It can filter out content by age (teen, adult, etc.) and cut access to the internet at certain times (such as bedtime). There is a "PAUSE" button which cuts off all devices from Wi-Fi at the same time, for example at mealtimes.
Retroactively, it also shows who has been watching what on their screens, and for how long.
"There's a really rich ability to take a look and see where are people using their time," said Smith, adding that people often underestimate how long they are spending on fun but not very constructive activities, especially games and social media.
The Circle device plugs into the family router by ethernet cable, but if someone simply unplugs it, it switches to a Wi-Fi connection and has a backup battery, so it has time to send an alert to the person in charge. Likewise, if someone deletes the mobile app.
For keeping track of people when they are out of the house, the Circle app installs a local Virtual Private Network on their phone, which Lussier says does not slow it down like a regular VPN. It also has location tracking.
Schedules can be set for different lengths but one key problem is how to change the schedule when you are feeling lenient. This is done with rewards. So, a well-behaved kid might get an extra 30 minutes of screen time. But it has to be granted by the person in charge.
Designing for two generations
Bryan and Smith admit that although kids don't generally like the product, they still have to design with kids in mind.
Kathleen Gamboa has a background in designing kids fashion, and she has to make the the product look uncluttered for adults trying to use it, but also make the social media feed seem cheerful, hip and useful.
"We're creating like a nice, clean, modern look but still having moments of copy that are cheeky and fun."
The site is aimed at parents, but the social media is for all. The goal is to keep people interested in what's going on with Circle by posting motivational tips and newsworthy suggestions.
"I feel like parents will take time to reflect, if they see something funny. It's to use the platform to educate but also have a reality of family life."
The deal with T-Mobile is to get the Circle software on a box called FamilyMode Home Base that sits alongside your router.
"This is to try to get in this many customers' homes as possible, so we're using as many different avenues as we can do that," explained Bryan.
Asked which is easier, selling them one at a time to consumers, or in bulk under the name of an internet service provider, Smith, VP of marketing said, "They both have easy parts and hard parts. I don't know if we could say that there's one. Especially because we are at this scaling point. In a year I hope to have a really good answer to that. Because we're still learning a lot."
This is Circle's third office in the Portland area. They moved into the space in October 2018. It's a fourth-floor walkup in a converted warehouse next to the 405 freeway on the edge of the Pearl District. They've already outgrown it and are looking for somewhere bigger.
"We've had quite a few people who are coming over the hill from the west side, because they used to work for Nike, Intel and so on. We don't want it to be too inaccessible for them. Some staff come from Silicon Forest and like being west of the river, yet a lot of younger staff live on the east side."
Parking is expensive so they need to be near public transit. It's a classic take of tech in Portland. One other thing: "We value time together as a team. We're not hiring anybody who's like, 'I have to work remote all the time,'" said Bryan.
In February the firm secured $20 million from strategic investors telecommunications provider T-Mobile, Netgear and Third Kind Venture Capital. Circle has a venture investment total of $30 million since it was founded in 2014. They're spending the money on hiring. VP of product Katie Mills joined Circle in May from Intel. Her task is to define the product direction. She used the product for two years before seeing there was a position open.
"We're excited that we were able to twist your arm," jokes Bryan.
"Yes, everyone's excited. Except my 12-year-old son," Mills said.
As part of product road mapping she has to decided which features the product offers. The interface is good, but they need to "make sure that we've got good performance stability, and that we're addressing ways kids could beat the app. And maybe help kids better understand what's happening in the warnings."
Could they give the hardware away and have people just pay $9.99 a month?
"That's not the current model right now," says Smith. "It's not something we speak about. We're always exploring new methods and ways of growing, but that's not currently how it is available."
Much of what they are doing is trying to get parents and kids to talk to each other so they understand screen time and why it should be managed. Apple just announced a new feature for dimming bright screens and making it easier to
set time limits, and Bryan counts this as a good thing. It's not competition, it's "building awareness of the issue. Category awareness is low, which means not a lot of people don't know there are solutions out there. There's plenty of market out there for everybody."
As Circle expands, it'll be interesting to see if it can become a brand that parents, and kids, talk about.
Screen time management for parents
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Reporter, The Business Tribune
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