touched by Steve Jobs

What Apple's like in bed

July 6, 2011: 1:11 PM ET

A new sleep-tracking app for the iPhone from Lark offers a peek into life inside a retailing partnership with Apple.

FORTUNE -- Julia Hu got into bed with Apple (AAPL) so she could sell gadgets that get people out of bed. Hu is the CEO of Lark, a startup making a wristband that tracks your sleep until the moment it interrupts it. That's when it starts vibrating, a silent alarm that wakes you while your partner stays asleep. To turn it off you roll over and slide your finger across your iPhone.

You can then blearily look at what Lark has been tracking: When and how often you woke up during the night, charted out on a sleep graph. It's a neat, addictive little gadget, and after weeks of testing, I've started to use its readings to justify any and all crankiness. Caustic grumbles are excusable when I know my sleep was unconsciously interrupted 24 times overnight. Or so I keep telling myself.

If you want to read a full review of the product, look elsewhere. I'm more intrigued by Lark's business model, which is to say Lark's luck. Because while most startups have to shill to introduce themselves to strangers, Lark has already introduced itself to the one party that mattered most: Apple.

After only one meeting with Apple, the people in Cupertino agreed to put Lark on the shelves of Apple Stores across North America. And just like that, Lark attached its fortune to Apple's - a barnacle along for the ride.

Lark's story offers a rare glimpse into how things work inside Apple's retail operation. Not that Hu can say that much about it. "The Apple stuff is so under-wraps they don't really want me to talk about anything," she told Fortune a few weeks ago, before Lark launched.

Several other companies, from Jawbone to Logitech (LOGI) to SDI's iHome, declined to comment on their retail relationships with Apple. Apple's partners appear to be assimilating to Apple's notorious devotion to secrecy – or fearful of its vindictive reprisals. But that's the cost of receiving Apple's blessing. (Apple also declined to comment for this story.)

Lark's story, or as much as it can be retold, goes like this: In 2010, after graduating from MIT's Sloan School of Business and developing a working Lark prototype, Hu leveraged some contacts and got a meeting with Apple. "I went in there thinking it was going to be a completely cold pitch that we'd be explaining to them what Lark was and who we were," she says. But Apple didn't need an explanation. Doug Richardson, the man in charge of Apple's accessories merchandising, told her Apple had been tracking the buzz about Lark for six months. It only took a quick pitch from Lark to have Richardson put thousands of Larks in Apple's retail stores.

Jack Klein, one of Apple's lead visual designers, helped Lark design the packaging. "He told us several things," Hu says. "People want to feel what they're sleeping with. Figure out a way where you could quickly have an Apple associate prove that this is a comfortable product.'" Hu, impressed, did as she was told, rearranging what was inside the box. "I consider them almost like beta testers," Hu says.

And those beta testers, at least for the first few months, will be Lark's exclusive retailer. In exchange, Lark gets to take part in Apple's "roadshow," a – well... actually, nobody seems willing to talk about what Apple's roadshow is. Hu worried that telling me would violate her non-disclosure agreement with Apple. Apple of course declined to comment. Apple's own website, though, has information about a "K-12 IT Road Show." And a quick Google search shows it's a mini-conference for people to come and see what developers are doing with Apple technology. Hu apparently felt it was worth having Apple talk Lark up at these conferences. More proof that Lark's marketing is now inexorably hitched to Apple's.

And that's what this is all about: Getting Lark in front of as many people as possible. On average, more than 200,000 people came through each of Apple's 300+ stores in the last three months, according to Needham & Co. That's great exposure for Lark, even if a small fraction of those shoppers look at Lark. For Lark, Apple offers a retailing portal to its product. And as any web startup can tell you, portals are the key to generating that initial traffic bump that starts word of mouth. If that portal has hundreds of thousands of visitors in each of its 300 locations? Even better.

Lark, then, is using Apple the same way many app developers use the App Store: to be seen. Developers are hopeful Apple's network will help them find an audience. Lark's position is even more secure. Apple, after all, explicitly invited Lark into the retail store, and not just because it didn't violate its arcane terms and conditions document.

Lark has received Apple's imprimatur. And for Apple diehards, that's as good as being touched by Steve Jobs himself. In bed or otherwise.

This has been another installment of Fortune's regular column on startups and the tech bubble that may or may not exist. Come lie with me in my inbox, or just shout at my Twitter feed until I wake up.

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