February 17, 2010 / 4:30 PM / 10 years ago

Entrepreneur closes door on criminals

CHICAGO (Reuters.com) - Several years ago Greg Whisenant unsuspectingly opened the door of his apartment building for a burglar, who then ripped off several of his neighbors. To make amends, Whisenant built an information-sharing web site for the local police, which is now one of the fast-growing crime data-mapping services in the United States.

Greg Whisenant, the founder of crime data-mapping website CrimeReports.com, is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

"I'd never been a crime activist or particularly concerned about my personal safety," said the founder of CrimeReports.com www.crimereports.com, who was working as a Washington lobbyist when he began attending community policing meetings in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia. "But I raised my hand, everybody clapped, and I was off the races."

The early CrimeReports web site, which allowed police departments to register for free, essentially served as an elaborate email system, creating a conduit for municipalities to send localized alerts to members of the general public who signed up.

Today CrimeReports provides comprehensive local crime-mapping data to some 750 police departments, including cities such as San Francisco and Boston, and the entire states of Maryland and Utah.

Depending on their size, clients pay between $100 to $200 a month for data on homicides, break-ins, auto thefts and other crimes occurring in their service areas. The company also has a handy iPhone application, and offers police internal analytics for an additional monthly fee of $300 to $1,000.

“President Obama has made it an issue to be more transparent,” said Whisenant, whose public-policy career included stints as a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), and later as a law-firm lobbyist working on technology and telecoms issues for large corporations. “There’s a lot of appetite at the federal level for more visibility and transparency, so it’s helped us.”

CrimeReports received a second round of venture financing totaling $7.2 million in August of 2009, and it expects to be profitable later this year. In the last year Whisenant has expanded his full-time staff from 10 to 37, made up mostly of engineers, sale reps and support personnel.

Whisenant called this growth a “rollercoaster” ride, recalling how for years he operated the site out of his home as a sideline project that wouldn’t go away.

“If the site ever went down, I’d start getting calls from the police and the public,” he said, noting that he sometimes ignored CrimeReports for months at a time. “I knew there was something there.”

SELF-TAUGHT EXPERT

A former student of English literature with a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard, Whisenant taught himself HTML Internet programing and initially ran CrimeReports himself.

Whisenant began profiting from his newfound skills in 2000, when he moved back to his home state of Utah to run marketing for a startup called Talk2, which offered Internet-based language interpretation services. When Talk2 was sold, he went on to form his own networking services company in 2001, Wasatch Solutions.

Whisenant saw the chance to make CrimeReports a viable company shortly after Google’s new mapping technology began to revolutionize geographical information, using satellites to offer users a richer viewing experience. He sold Wasatch to some of its employees and went to work raising money for CrimeReports, which is now based in Draper, Utah.

“I thought, I can’t kill this thing, it’s got a life of its own so I’m just going to go for it,” said Whisenant, who received initial VC funding of $1.1 million in late 2007 from Salt Lake City’s vSpring Capital.

The company used the seed money to develop software that mines police departments’ records management systems for crime data originating from 911 emergency call systems. Then, using Google mapping, it plots crimes by region, allowing users to search on details such as type of offense, location and date. Whisenant opted for a subscription-based revenue model, avoiding online ads that might have compromised the official look and feel his clients preferred.

LOW-COST PROVIDER

What sets CrimeReports’ system apart from the competition is its ease of use and relatively low cost, said Michael Dodd, venture partner for Texas-based Austin Ventures, which teamed up with vSpring to offer the second round of financing. Alternative providers of crime mapping, he said, require police departments to purchase costly hardware and software.

“It’s cloud software,” said Austin, who estimates the market for offering public safety software to first responders, including police, fire departments and rescue squads, is between $4 million and $6 million.

“It’s $100 to $200 bucks a month, versus 50 grand with some other companies,” he said. “That’s why Greg is really successful.”

Police departments say they like CrimeReports because it lets officers spend community face time focusing on prevention, rather than bringing citizens up to speed on violations that have occurred in their area.

“It allows us to focus on the real issues,” said Rob Davis, chief of police in San Jose, California, which was an early adopter of technology. “People have the ability to become informed before they hit the (community) meetings.”

Meanwhile, CrimeReports is pushing ahead to stay on top of the latest trends. This year the company plans to roll out a new service that will give police departments the ability to create community-centered social networks, using popular aggregators such as Twitter and Facebook, so they can share information and invite neighbors to participate in the CrimeReports interface.

Whisenant, who is no stranger to Capitol Hill, said there will be a myriad of other possibilities for his data at a time when the public wants more control over the information affecting local communities.

“I think a lot more is going to be happening to move this information out to the networks in a meaningful way,” he said.

This is a new monthly series about "Accidental Entrepreneurs" running on Reuters.com that will profile entrepreneurs who never expected to start their own business and are now running successful companies. If you think your company qualifies, please email Deb Cohen at smallbusinessbigissues @ yahoo.com

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