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Pete Tenereillo has had some blockbusters in his tech startup past — dreaming up some uber-technical behind-the-scenes technologies for e-mail and websites, and registering 11 patents as inventor of record.

But even his expectations were blown by the recent news that his company Trapster has surpassed the 5 million users mark. The company runs a mobile technology that alerts drivers that they’re about to pass a cop with a radar gun or go through an intersection with a red light camera, among other heads-up-worthy situations.

The Cardiff-based company launched publicly in November 2007 and has exploded, employing 11 workers now and striking partnerships all over the world. Those 5 million users aren’t passively consuming the speed trap info — they’re confirming known traps and adding their own information.

And it’s not just helping people avoid the police. It’s helping the police. Trapster is working with four police departments around the country, and counting, to warn users about dangerous intersections and flooded roads.

Tenereillo touts Trapster’s trophies: the map-based application was named CNET’s No. 1 free automotive iPhone app, Time magazine’s top 10 iPhone app for dads and Wired’s No. 1 location-based app.

We stopped in to chat with Tenereillo in his coastal Cardiff office to chat about ideas and proving his naysayers wrong.

I’m often struck at the solidarity between drivers. You know, you flash your headlights to tell them they don’t have their lights on, or you plug somebody else’s parking meter. Where do you think that solidarity comes from? It seems your app and your community is using that solidarity, or even furthering it. Where do you think that comes from?

How many things are there that really compel somebody to take the time, to run the app and to put something in?

One thing we’ve found is that with speed traps — it’s just shocking to see one, even if you’re not speeding. If there’s a cop behind you, or there’s one on the road, if he’s pointing that thing at you, with a motorcycle and a helmet and everything else, it’s intimidating. There’s something compelling about that. And we just find, empirically, that our users will plunk that in.

We’ve struck on something that’s very compelling. Navigation apps is something people only use for a few minutes a month when they’re lost, on average. Traffic apps, there’s plenty of them out there, and sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong. But it’s just not that interesting. Starbucks finders and things like that.

But this one here, we’ve found something that people get: Your mobile phone alerts you as you approach police speed traps.

Everybody understands that, and they want it.

You said that the word “idea” sets off all sorts of red flags.

Ideas are cheap. I’ve had thousands of them and continue to.

I think that in apps, there is a lot of the goldrush mentality, just as there was in the internet. Because the perceived cost of entry is low — that you can just put something out there and make a bunch of money. And I think it’s actually happened: I think some kid in the Bay Area made some game. Didn’t have any employees or anything, he was like a teenager. And he put it out and he made like a million bucks or something.

So that happened — once.

Developing a new app for the iPhone right now is very similar to not developing a new app for the iPhone right now. In other words, the likelihood that anybody notices that you did it is just about zero. There’s 150,000 apps on the store, and if you’re not in the top 10, forget it.

Trapster relies on users tapping their phones while they’re driving to alert others that “There’s a cop here” or “there’s a cop there,” right?

Yeah, that’s the bulk of our input. So we get input most importantly from our user base. And then we have a worldwide army of volunteer moderators. In every country, we have moderators, actually. We have a ton in Europe, a bunch in Australia — and of course a huge amount in the U.S.

Also in many cities in the U.S. for DUI enforcements, they’ll announce where they’re going to enforce, so we’ll put those on the map, too. And so the hope is that if they announce that they’re going to be enforcing, that people will just say, “You know what? I’m just going to take a taxi.”

Your company has quite a bit of a stick-it-to-the man persona going on. And yet you’ve said the company’s all about making the roads safer. And I’m wondering how you see those things jive.

Well, the likelihood that somebody uses Trapster to speed up between speed traps is pretty low. Our users are not street racers. Street racers have jamming technology, which is itself illegal. You can jam [police radar] and make it very difficult for them to give you a citation. It’s a jail-able offense. But if you’re going to go out and drive 150 miles an hour you’re probably going to go to jail anyway.

But those aren’t our users. I’d love to have those users, too — I’d love to have just more users — but those types of people, you know, the guys with a big wing on their tricked-out car, a big muffler. Those kinds of people are not our demographic. We just don’t see those kinds of people. We have business travelers and moms and just regular everyday people who use it.

Did you have anyone critical of your idea?

I had a good friend who called me when I first started this business. And he said he was ashamed of me for doing this business. He said all sorts of drug dealers were going to use it — which wouldn’t actually work.

But he called me about a year and a half ago. He said, “Pete, you know what I said? Forget it.” He got two tickets at Grape Street, at the red light camera, just coming back from the airport, in one week. But you don’t actually get the ticket, he didn’t know he’d got either one of them, until four weeks later. And each of them were $480. So that was $960 in violations.

It was one of those things where you know, there’s a lot of traffic and you’re stuck and you just follow the cars through the light. But if [his phone] would’ve said, “RED LIGHT CAMERA,” maybe he would’ve stopped a little earlier.

He’s a multimillionaire. For him, it didn’t hurt him that bad. But some people would not be paying rent, not buying their kids Christmas presents. Nine-hundred-and-sixty dollars is a huge, huge, thing and so if we can help consumers to avoid those kind of fees, and also get them to not run the red light, then there’s a good example of how it helps.

— Interview conducted and edited by KELLY BENNETT

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