Lookout Security: An Antivirus Company That Wins Without Scaring Your Grandma

The web is more dangerous than ever. LulzSec, Anonymous, Julian Assange, News Corp. employees--they all make our grandparents wonder if their computers are indeed infected, and require iron-clad protection from McAfee or Symanetc, lest their Windows 98-running Gateway desktops explode.

At least that's the tone many antivirus firms strike to fuel fear and goose product sales. Take Symantec, for example. Its homepage features a terrorist-threat-level-like color bar, called "ThreatCon," to indicate danger. (Today, we're at Level 2, the yellow "Elevated" risk warning. Call Jack Bauer.) In February, the company even launched the Norton Cybercrime Index, a real-time threat tracker designed to scare the bejesus out of folks (see above image) with warnings of spam, fraud, malware, ID theft, and general impending doom.

But a new player on the scene is showing that you don't need scare tactics in order to grow in popularity. Lookout Security, a mobile security startup founded by ex-hackers, is booming. In just a year and a half since launch, Lookout reached 10 million users--10 times more than corporate giants Symantec and McAfee in the mobile space--and is currently adding a million new users per month, without fearmongering.

"How you sell antivirus is kind of like how you sell insurance: If you want to sell fire insurance, you show pictures of sad kids who lost their home, with their teddy bear," says cofounder Kevin Mahaffey. "We never wanted to sell through fear--it didn't feel right. We wanted to focus on the feeling or protection, instead of just trying to convince you there are viruses and wave our hands around in the air."

Lookout aims to focus on the positives of safety: how the service backs up your contacts and photos, how it will help you find your phone if it's lost, and how it will run in the background silently without battery drain. In that sense, it's the Allstate approach: The startup wants to provide that same paternal comfort you feel when watching Dennis Haysbert ask whether you're in good hands. "We focus really hard on not scaring people," Mahaffey says.

The design of Lookout's app tries to carry this sentiment. Its simple UI is unlike the cluttered security programs of yore, riddling you with requests to scan your system and update your definitions. "If you've ever encountered a virus on a PC," Mahaffey says, "you get asked: Do you want to ignore it? Quarantine it? Repair it? Delete it? What does that all mean?" His team stripped down the design to make it intuitive. For example, a status bar atop the app reads, calmly and reassuringly, "Everything is okay."

And as the threats and viruses on mobile devices continue to grow, Mahaffey hopes Lookout's unique approach to mobile security will prove the company a game changer.

"I see this world where there will be a Symantec-size company in mobile," he says. "But it won't be Symantec."


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