RedRover CEO Kathryn Tucker sat in her glass-walled office at the back of a Flatiron loft filled with controlled tension. Laptop cases, bottles of water and lotion, and books with titles ranging from Let’s Take the Kids to Algorithms were stacked by Mac terminals. Fittingly, six of RedRover’s 10 staffers have kids.
A buzzy new social network for parents that soft-launched in February, RedRover would be introducing its improved Version 2 that night, expanding from iPhone to Android and adding an interface to let users share their check-ins and photos on Facebook and Twitter, where a virtual “party” was planned for that evening.
Kathryn Tucker wears black-rimmed glasses and was once described in The Observer’s “Countdown to Bliss” engagement column, to her bemusement, as “strawberry-blond, busty and button-nosed.” (“I was like, ‘Really, I wouldn’t mind, but …’”) She could pass for your average attractive West Village mom, with well-fitted jeans, platform sandals and a loose, patterned top. Her hair, blond but no longer strawberry, is in a ponytail.
Her caseless iPhone, which beeped with a continuous stream of text messages, has a cracked screen and a RedRover sticker on the back.
The single mother of Loulou, age 7, and Henry, 4, Tucker is herself the perfect target for RedRover, a location-based smartphone service that lets users announce their location to a chosen group of friends, similar to Foursquare. But RedRover is ahead of Foursquare with some key parent-friendly features, like advance planning and uploading comments and photos into a narrative timeline that turns a phone into a virtual scrapbook.
The app offers constant touch-screen access to a list of nearby hospitals, clean bathrooms and healthy food. With parents increasingly concerned about privacy, and thus naturally inclined toward caution when using services that share your location, RedRover gives its users fine-grained control over which of their friends see their check-ins and photos.
Tucker cites a birthday party her kids missed after she stopped reading the email chain as one time RedRover would have come in handy. (“You wouldn’t believe how much email you get from your kids’ school and other parents.”) Or a day in Coney Island where her kids got stomach aches from boardwalk food because she couldn’t find healthy options.
“Moms are the best resources for other moms. It’s all about community and sharing information,” said Tucker pal Christy Turlington, the ex-supermodel who now runs Every Mother Counts, an advocacy campaign for maternal and child health. (RedRover has partnered with the organization.)
Turlington and Tucker met through their husbands, who worked on films together. (Turlington is married to actor and director Ed Burns.) Their children are of similar ages; a recent entry in Tucker’s RedRover timeline shows the two families minigolfing and scootering on Pier 25.
Tucker sees RedRover as more than an easy way to arrange impromptu play dates. She emphasizes the photo sharing and chat features as tools to help ease the loneliness and feminist guilt that confront mothers.
“When you first have a child, you are in this postfeminist strange moment where you are asked to be the good girl and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, you are going back to work.’ ‘She’s a stay-at-home mom.’ And then you are at work, you miss your kids. You are home, you miss your work. You feel guilty both places. And it’s this sense of constant anxiety,” Tucker said. “It’s hard but I think it’s solvable. Because women have wonderful things to contribute to society and they need to be supported as mothers. Technology could do that.”
“Kathryn has so many ideas, and part of my job is reining them in, defining them and putting them in a practical term,” said product manager Ami Moore. “You want the CEO to believe that the product will change the world. If they don’t, you are in trouble. She totally fits that bill, and that can be very infectious.” Moore, who worked in advertising and tech companies before coming to Red-Rover full time, said the office ethos reflects having a working mother as a boss.
“Technology is so dominated by guys that it’s refreshing to have a woman in charge,” said Moore. “I don’t have to explain to Kathryn about the school play I want to go see. She gets it. She just went to her kid’s play last week.” Mid-interview, Sylvia Wehrle, the chief product officer, rushed out, explaining that her babysitter had to leave early. The staff at the RedRover office nodded knowingly.
Kathryn Tucker’s personality guides the company. “Look at any founder of any social network and you will see their personality writ large,” she insists. Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley, a good friend, “is all about having a great nightlife,” said Tucker. “He wants to go on Foursquare and have tons of fun. RedRover is about what I want more of in my life—real-world, authentic human interaction. “Social media and technology don’t do enough to support us in our day-to-day lives. With RedRover, I’m trying to promote spontaneity, using location awareness and a feeling of connection, of happiness through the sharing of experiences.”
Before RedRover, Tucker produced successful indie films including The Station Agent, The Fog of War and Stevie. “People ask me how I transitioned from film to tech. I actually feel like I didn’t move anywhere,” Tucker said. “I am still all about the same things, which is problem-solving and narrative.”
While writing a screenplay titled The Truth About Business, about “a girl from the sticks who goes to Harvard and wants to be a media mogul,” Tucker first began researching net neutrality. “I realized that I couldn’t talk about it very simply, and the person who talked about it the most would be able to talk about it the best.”
Tucker emailed Tim Wu, the Columbia professor who had given “net neutrality” its name. He wrote back at 3 a.m. and said he would meet her the next day. “We became friends,” said Tucker. She spent three years working on Wu’s groundbreaking book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, which traced the history of information technology back to the telegraph.
That project became Tucker’s introduction to the people in the tech start-up scene in New York. Her new friends, fellow early adopters, were the first to flock to the then-emerging crop of social media services like Twitter, Facebook and Dodgeball, Crowley’s early, SMS-based version of Foursquare. Those networks helped build her social life after she and her husband split up in 2007.
“I was single and I was in a funny social position, because my girlfriends were all just married and just having babies,” she said. “I was a little before them in the process.”
As Tucker saw Dodgeball help make nights out with her new tech friends more entertaining, she realized moms could benefit from similar tools during the day, to cope with both parenting logistics and emotional stress.
These goals drew from her experience raising kids, as well as her own childhood. “I didn’t have the easiest early life, so I am very interested in how people can connect in deeper ways through social networks,” she said.
Tucker grew up in York, Pennsylvania. Her father, a professor of creative writing and then a lawyer, left when Tucker was young. He moved to Tonga and set up offshore banking and tax shelters, and the two didn’t reconnect until much later. (Her father died shortly before her son was born.)
Her mother, who ran a preschool in a Presbyterian church, was forced to take over management of a biker bar her husband had bought in an ill-advised investment scheme before he skipped town. She found more similarities between the two jobs than one might think.
“The same skill set she would use to deal with the 4-year-olds she taught all day was exactly the right behavior to deal with the bikers.”
With her mom working long hours, Tucker was on her own a lot. She turned to books and movies, becoming an avid reader of 19th-century English novels and watcher of screwball comedies. While still in high school, Tucker decided that she had to go on a grand tour of Europe; she worked at a dairy farm to save money.
Tucker took a semester off to backpack around Europe before starting college at the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s, attracted by the school’s rigidly classical “great books” curriculum.
Midway through college, Tucker and a then-boyfriend went on a road trip to New Orleans. Liking the city but knowing very little about it, they stopped someone on the street and asked which was the best local college. On that stranger’s recommendation, she transferred to Tulane, studying philosophy and assisting Graeme Forbes with his text Modern Logic. That research ignited a passion for mathematical logic and algorithms, a fascination she revived when she entered tech and developed RedRover.
Tucker won a Watson Fellowship after graduating, funding a project on installation art and the spectator that sent her abroad for what extended into two years. She trekked through the Himalayas and Southeast Asia before winding up in Tokyo, where she worked as a model. Not being particularly tall (Tucker is 5’5″) was no problem; being a blond American was an asset.
“I was having such a good time in Tokyo I knew I must be doing something wrong,” she said. That was when she knew it was time to come back to the U.S.
Tucker moved to Los Angeles and got a job at Beacon Pictures, then at Warner Brothers, working on movies such as Bring It On, Air Force One and The Babysitter’s Club. She worked as a reader for Miramax and met John Sloss, her now-ex, at the American Buffalo film premiere. “I left that night thinking, ‘Oh, what a dreadful guy,’” she told The Observer shortly before their wedding in 2002. “Later… I was like, ‘You know, I bet I’m going to marry that guy.’” After trying to make their bicoastal relationship work, Tucker gave in and moved to New York.
Sloss is an entertainment lawyer who works in film finance and executive produces movies. The couple have stayed close—a 2008 New Yorker Talk of the Town item about the party Tucker hosted for her friend Galt Niederhoffer’s book The Romantics quoted her saying they are “still best buds.”
The kids go back and forth—which creates all sorts of logistical problems that are made easier by the combined forces of an au pair and RedRover.
Sloss has the RedRover app, but uses it mainly to view pictures of the kids rather than to make plans. (Though that may be changing: he now coordinates with the au pair over RedRover.) Still, Tucker says she was initially surprised by how many dads are using the service—RedRover lets users make plans for other people and invite them, so wives are programming their husbands to do things like pick up laundry.
“The reality of the mom in this day and age is that it’s still nine times out of 10 the woman who does planning and choosing the doctor, the summer camp and the after-school activity.”
The Version 2 launch was a success: Apple featured RedRover as a social networking “app store essential.” Friendly competitor Foursquare, the 800-pound gorilla of location-based social media, revised its interface to feature in-line comments and photos, bringing the user experience closer to RedRover’s “timelines.” It announced plans to market its service to new audiences—including moms.
Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But Tucker, whose audacity led her to start a business in an industry where she had no experience and make it a viable contender, takes the long view. Success, she believes, will come from knowing her audience and their needs, modifying her product in response to customer feedback. It’s O.K. to be copied—just as long as you stay a few steps ahead.