Home / Gadgets / Go go gadget: the kid's watch that can phone home – The Guardian

Go go gadget: the kid's watch that can phone home – The Guardian

It was witnessing a frantic mum searching for her son two years ago that first gave Colleen Wong the idea of creating a wearable mobile phone for kids. “It just made me think, why are we not more connected to our children?”

The Gator Watch has an in-built GPS tracker and SIM card that can both receive and make calls. By pairing it with a smartphone, you can assign what numbers the device is allowed to connect with, and track the location of your child via the app. Parents can also receive notifications in case they wander outside pre-programmed “safe zones”.

Founder of Gator Watch, Colleen Wong



Gator Watch founder Colleen Wong. Photograph: Emily Gray Photography

When Wong first started manufacturing the watch in April last year, after leaving a career as an investment banker, the kid’s wearable market was still relatively untapped and existing products focused on play. But like the mushrooming sales of adult wearables, kids’ wearables are poised to skyrocket. IDC forecasts that the wearables market as a whole will double over the next five years, with 240m units being shipped in 2021. Pets are even getting in on the act.

But launching a wearable that allows you to track a child is not without controversy. Questions have been raised about the security of these devices, and privacy campaigners are worried that they are in fact having a negative impact on children.

“The attraction is obvious – especially for parents with small children, if you are worried about them getting lost,” says Vicki Shotbolt, CEO of Parent Zone, a social enterprise that gives advice about parenting in the digital age. “But putting a tracking device on a child isn’t the way to go, it won’t make them safer. In fact, it is likely it will lull parents into a false sense of security and make children less safe.” Shotbolt thinks that instead of nurturing independence, trackers could hinder parents learning to trust their children, and ultimately imply they don’t have confidence in their children’s ability to follow the rules.

Addressing these concerns, Wong argues that the primary function of the Gator Watch isn’t to track, but to be used as a communication device. It’s a stopgap for five- to 10-year-olds who crave some freedom, but are too young for a smartphone. It allows parents to stay in contact, both in an emergency but also in order to help family life run smoother – you can summon your kids to the dinner table or give them gentle reminders to bring home their sports kits. As to privacy? “I personally don’t think it’s invading their privacy,” she says, adding: “I think it’s at that age that the parents have to be there, they have to be involved to know what’s going on.”

Before launching the company – Wong put £26,000 of her savings into creating the watches – she felt there was a gap in the market for a paired down device that allowed kids to call their parents, but not give them access to the internet. At £99, plus an additional £9 per month (which includes 60 minutes of outbound calls and free roaming in the EU), the watch is cheaper than a mobile phone. But whether or not it genuinely delays that first smartphone purchase, remains to be seen.

Wong has sold about 1,500 watches so far and has found the feedback positive. “It makes children feel more comfortable and more confident [and] some parents say they just can’t live without it anymore. One mum told me her nine-year-old said ‘You know mum, when I wear my watch, I don’t feel like I’m alone’. That really captures a lot of what I’m trying to do.” Earlier this year, she signed a contract with John Lewis and has plans to sell through QVC in the next few weeks.

While the past year has also seen an influx of similar products, including the Move Time family watch and Carl Kids, by German manufacturer Cat Berlin, Wong isn’t fazed by the competition. In fact, she’s used it to her advantage before. “I found that there was another company who had started before me and I saved a significant amount of money by taking that existing product and modifying it.”

Cutting costs wherever possible was vital for Wong, who quickly found her savings ran out. She spent six months talking to angel investors but found them reluctant to fund her company. “They didn’t like hardware businesses or sole founders generally,” she says. She had more luck with crowdfunding in July and raised £200,000 on Crowdcube in seven days. The money has allowed her to expand her team and invest in marketing. “It was actually really brilliant,” she says of the experience. “I had been told that it [would be] difficult, really time-consuming, and it costs a lot of money. But I was really prepared. I made sure I had about 20–30% of the total I needed before launch, and got a lot of promises of investment beforehand. That started the ball rolling. [Crowdfunding] was good for my product because the crowd just gets it.”

She now employs nine flexible staff, who are predominantly all working mums. “These mums are so educated, so experienced, but none of them can go back to their original jobs as they want that flexibility,” explains Wong. Being a mum of two herself, Wong knows all too well the challenges of juggling running her own business with parenthood. “It’s hard,” she says, “but I’m so much happier. It’s been worth fighting for.”


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