In today’s digital age, the conundrum for many parents is determining when and how to introduce their children to smartphones. Enter Pinwheel, a tech startup envisioning a world where technology serves its youngest users safely. Dane Witbeck, the company’s co-founder and CEO, opens up about his personal journey in carving out a niche in the tech industry and his ambition to blend child safety with technological advancement.
In your own words, how would you describe your company?
Pinwheel is a tech startup on a mission to put people first in a world increasingly dominated by technology. We specialize in offering the first smartphone for kids, where we procure off-the-shelf hardware and enrich it with carefully selected software to provide a safe and useful tool for children. With more than 30,000 kids served, we’re more than parental controls. We’re a movement that champions technology serving humans, not vice versa.
What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?
In 2019, my oldest son’s friend received his first phone, and my son asked me when he could get one. I thought I had so much more time! This triggered a frantic search for the right tool for the job, a search that came up empty. I tried every parental control system I could find, but I didn’t find something that worked well and helped me solve the main problem: raising a child that can utilize personal technology but not become ensnared in the downsides. I realized that such a first phone for kids would be something that could help all parents, and I dove in!
Who is on your team and how did you come together?
We have a fantastic team at Pinwheel. Leslie Tyler is our CMO, and she comes from the edtech world. Her last company experienced a nine-figure exit, so she’s seen this happen. Brian Bauman is our VP of Engineering. He has experience at IBM and Cox Automotive, with a perfect blend of Android, back-end, front-end, and technical team management experience. In the summer of 2020, we brought on 15 recent graduates and college interns. Among them were Greta Crockett and Sara Shipley. They started doing everything needed to build the company with a passion for the mission and ownership of goals, and they are now the Director of Product and Director of Operations, respectively.
Do you have any direct competitors? If so, how do you stand out?
The smartphone industry is a mature economy, and there are certainly substitute solutions. First and foremost are the built-in parental controls in iOS and Android. These, unfortunately, have been the subject of negative press lately for not working (loopholes) or for being quite tricky to use. In addition, they don’t do things that we do, such as 1) curate content, 2) provide remote access to messages, 3) make contact management simple and easy, 4) provide a GPS history on a remote app, 5) make scheduled modes super easy and 6) use a VPN to block kid inappropriate content and 7) ensure social media is not accessible for young kids. Our customers tell us they couldn’t do this job without us!
In the future do you plan to offer “pinwheeled” iPhones?
The iPhone won’t allow us to do what we do, to the extent we do it, as Android does. Indeed, some families want to utilize the hand-me-down iPhone or otherwise can’t find it within them to escape the blue bubble jail cell (iMessage indicates other iPhone users through the blue bubble while indicating Androids as green bubbles). We encourage Apple to allow third-party developers to do more to help families and kids on the iPhone, and we are watching carefully for opportunities to bring Pinwheel to iPhone responsibly.
If we speak again in 12 months, what milestones will you have achieved?
We will have launched with additional partnerships, brought on more marketing power through influencers, and served many more customers! Our distribution will also be diversified, and our product will better serve the 14-18 market as a new “graduation step”!
Pinwheel is raising funds on Wefunder.