Q&A: Zach Winkler, Missouri alumnus and founder of SafeTrek app

On June 30, Downtown STL Inc. announced that it would pay for downtown St. Louis residents to download and use SafeTrek for six months. The app allows users to hold down a button if they’re in a situation where they feel unsafe; if they need help, they can release that button to contact local authorities for assistance. SafeTrek’s roots are in campus safety; it was created in 2013 by Zach Winkler, then a senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He says the app has helped people across the country get home safely and has also been used by domestic violence victims in emergencies.

Missouri Business Alert spoke with Winkler about the app’s success and his goals for the company moving forward. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: How does the app work? What’s the setup with law enforcement, since the app can work anywhere in the U.S.?
Zach Winkler: The app is really simple. So, let’s say you’re walking home late at night, and you feel unsafe. You open up the app and hold the button on the screen as long as you feel unsafe. When you get home, you release the button, enter in your PIN number, everything is fine.

But let’s say somewhere along your walk home you need help. You can open up the app, and then release that button, and it will notify the local police department of your exact location. It’s very similar to how home security works; we have three emergency 24/7 call centers. They’re in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, Louisiana, and also in Chicago.

If you were to call 911, sometimes it could take up to six minutes before you get help. With SafeTrek, we use all the latest technology available, and our call centers use real-time updates to local police departments.

One of the other things is that the way we built SafeTrek, we really care about our customers. There’s a story I like to tell; there was a young woman who triggered the alarm at 2 a.m. at the beginning of the school year. She instantly texted us saying it was an accident, but she also mentioned that she had just moved to town for school, had been drinking, and had no idea how to get home. Our dispatcher said “No problem, I can see where you are right now, and for the next 20 minutes the dispatcher stayed on the phone with her until she got home safely. That’s the type of service we provide.

SafeTrek_ScreenshotTell us a little about how the app started.
We started at Mizzou in 2013 with a competition at (the Reynolds Journalism Institute). The theme that year was for an app that was a community agent. I was a senior there at the time. On college campuses, you always hear about crazy things that happen; we’re always hearing stories from our friends — it’s ridiculous. There’s those blue lights around campus claiming to help people, but it’s kind of unrealistic that you just walk up to one and wait when you need help. So we created a mobile version.

The initial concept was to partner with police departments, and we tried to pair up with Columbia’s police department and kind of struck out with them. But we had potential customers saying things like “I’m a domestic violence victim, and I need this app, but I’m out in Los Angeles.” There are over 6,000 911 call centers across the U.S., and there was no way we could partner with them all at once, so we launched our call centers.

Downtown STL Inc. is paying for the app for all downtown residents for six months. How did this arrangement come together?
When I graduated in 2013, I moved to California. I was doing the tech thing there and wanted to focus on SafeTrek, but we always wanted to come back to St. Louis. It’s our home, and we were out there hearing all this bad press about St. Louis and about Ferguson at the time, and we thought “Hey, we’re building an app that can help with that.”

When you’re holding down that button, you’re giving data about how to stay safe in a community, and helping to figure out the impact of how people feel safe in their community. When we had the opportunity to come back to St. Louis, we started talking with Missy Kelley (president and CEO of Downtown STL, Inc.) She was really excited about improving downtown St. Louis and excited about the potential of SafeTrek, so Downtown STL purchased it for all downtown residents.

Are there plans for other cities to do what St. Louis is doing? Has this happened before?
We’re open to additional partnerships and looking at them. There’s a lot of interest in St. Louis. We had two employers purchase them. The Lewis Rice law firm purchased a year for all employees, and the web hosting company Contegix purchased a year for all employees as well. Downtown STL purchased it just for residents of downtown St. Louis, if they provide an address verifying they live there.

What’s the revenue strategy for SafeTrek? Obviously, people pay to use it after the 30-day trial, but are there other sources of revenue?
Our main source is our consumers and their subscriptions; it’s $2.99 a month. We’ve just started doing more strategic partnerships, such as employers offering it in bulk as an employee benefit.

How many people work for SafeTrek?
We’re headquartered in St. Louis, after we moved back from San Diego. Our core product development team is five people and we employ about 70 for the call centers. All of those employees are full-time.

SafeTrek recently raised money. What do you plan to do with those funds?
We raised $1.2 million in 2016. We plan to invest in a team full-time in St. Louis allowing us to “put the gas” onto scaling the business.

What’s the “big-picture” strategy for the future of SafeTrek? What are your plans for the app’s future, and have you considered implementing other safety-based apps?
When we started we really didn’t have any, just this app where people could hold until safe to keep people safe on campus. It’s expanded so much more and heard stories of how people get help, for example, domestic violence who can get help without talking.

We’ve learned about how inefficient the 911 structure is, and while that structure is critical to what we do, it’s not in 2016. We live in a world where you can get food delivered with just the touch of a button, but when you’re in an emergency, you have to pick up a phone and dial 911 and explain the situation and where you are, and then wait. So we’re building on top of the infrastructure with the 911 system.

Safety should be automatic. Help should be on the way.

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