GreatCall rings up $36M

Venture capitalists often use their children to validate adoption of new technologies. Maybe some are also using their parents.

PE Week has learned that GreatCall Inc. recently raised about $36.6 million in venture funding from Charles River Ventures, Nauta Partners and Steelpoint Capital Partners. Partners leading the deal for their respective VC firms were Bruce Sachs of CRV, Dominic Endicott of Nauta and Scott Tierney of Steelpoint.

Del Mar, Calif.-based GreatCall provides mobile phones and services for people who still can’t program their VCRs (and who still use VCRs). It’s the polar opposite of breakthrough technology, but the company is nonetheless carving out a niche among the feature-rich landscape of iPhones and RAZRs.

GreatCall offers two versions of its Jitterbug phone, a clamshell device made by Samsung and which are a little larger than most cell phones. The basic model is called OneTouch, and includes just three buttons labeled Operator, Tow and 911. The Operator button connects users to a live attendant who will put through the call. It’s similar to using 411, except that GreatCall customers are asked for names and phone numbers of contacts when they sign up, so they can just tell the operator to “connect me to my daughter.” The second handset is called the Dial, and includes a more traditional keypad, but still one void of bells, whistles or cameras.

“There are still a lot of people who don’t have cell phones, or people whose family members made them get cell phones,” says Arlene Harris, CEO of GreatCall. “But they often have all this extra stuff they don’t want, and end up pushing the wrong button and end up on the Web… We don’t want people looking at something on their handset that they don’t want. The message is that it’s simple.”

This is obviously an execution play in which first-mover status is particularly important, as technology is not a carrier to entry. The company does, however, have to continue innovating on the product side, as the population of mobile luddites will shrink with each passing year (either by adoption or attrition). Harris says that the solution will be for GreatCall to eventually produce other mobile offerings, as the technologies become more omnipresent and complex.

For example, a current baby boomer might have a cell phone without ever having used the mobile Internet. The GreatCall solution for that person could be a basic mobile Internet device.

“Others are on the bleeding edge of technology, and there are a lot of bodies there,” says Harris, who declined to comment on the VC funding. “But they will help pave the way to help us maintain viability as people age… There are lots of rich baby boomers out there, which means we should have a large customer base.”

This is the week’s second New Economy deal for the Old Economy crowd. TeeBeeDee, a social network for those over 40, raised $4.8 million in Series A funding from Shasta Ventures and Monitor Ventures.