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Dennis Crowley Of Foursquare On Social Search, Platforms And Rivals

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TechCrunch interviewed Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley a couple of weeks ago during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (referenced here). It was his third time visiting and speaking at the event, and perhaps Foursquare’s most engaged visit of all in terms of going there. Crowley says that, all told, he met with 33 different companies this time around. It’s a sign of how the company is looking for new business and new partnerships, and trying to extend itself as more than an app. As it gears up for whatever comes in its future, Foursquare is positioning itself as a location platform.

TC: Last year, you described an inflection point on Foursquare, where more people are using the app but not checking in. Do you worry about a decline in check-ins?

Crowley: It’s not about the decline of the check in but the emergence of search and discovery. It’s just new users just understanding Foursquare in a different way. I still see this as analogous to what Twitter does – you don’t have to tweet to use Twitter.

Now we have over 3 billion check-ins and you can imagine a point in the future where people can just get value out of those 3 billion check-ins already have in the system. That’s a lot of signal that a lot of other people don’t have. That’s the secret sauce at Foursquare that we can do what others cannot.

TC: But isn’t a lot of that signal temporal? That kind of information — places to eat, etc — changes all the time.

Crowley: We still get 5 million check-ins per day, and the influx of new check-ins is something that we can rely on. So we’re constantly getting signal of what’s interesting and not interesting.

TC: What else do you use for signal?

Crowley: All sorts of things. People will leave tips on venues, people will ‘like’ checkins, they will shout out. We can start to learn from that sentiment. There are six or seven of them: check ins, likes on venues, tips that people leave, the people who like the tips left by people, people saving things to their list, sending those to other people. There is a lot of activity around places.

TC: Any plans to add more signal — i.e. through deals with other location-based data providers?

Crowley: I think we’ve got most of the pieces that we want. The app has a lot of features and complexity and the challenge is to make it simpler for people to use. If you look at the current Android app, it’s a lot simpler than the app before that.

There’s a search at the top; there’s a map right under that. It’s very clear to users, more clear than in other apps, that Foursquare is an app for search and discovery, and we’re very good at delivering you a social map. That will show you friends’ faces on the map and things that you might like.

TC: What did you think of that post from Josh Williams on Medium about the early days of competition between Foursquare and Gowalla?

Crowley: I really enjoyed the post. It was really nostalgic. The thing I remember is how he raised $8 million. I remember that moment. I thought, oh my god what are they going to do with Gowalla that we haven’t done with Foursquare. So then we went out there and raised $20 million a couple of months after. The hindsight now is that if you have check-in data you can make great recommendations on that. But I don’t think anyone knew that at the time. I think it was 2011 when we rolled into SXSW with the Explore recommendation engine where I got on stage and had our Mr Miyagi moment. We were taking the check-ins, but what we were really doing was feeding them back to you and telling you about places where you’ve never heard about but are going to like. And that’s a big deal. That was the big idea that we had, even when we were working on Dodgeball and we knew we had to build a Foursquare.

I think everyone now takes it for granted that of course check-ins make an amazing recommendation engine. But back in 2011 that was a really big idea. We knew that we had to get a lot of check-ins from people, and we knew that game mechanics would help get us there. We knew if we got enough we would be able to turn those recommendations on. We found out along the way that those check-ins would turn into great incentives to deals and loyalty. That’s something we didn’t anticipate but figured out along the way. People used to pooh-pooh the idea of a check-in, saying that this wasn’t interesting. But when you have 3 billion of those data points, you can take any latitude and longitude anywhere in the world and I’ll tell you what is interesting now, 20 minutes from now and 6 hours from now.

TC: Are you getting fewer check-ins now?

Crowley: No [contentious answer: Foursquare says there are 5 million today, but later I checked and this was the same number mentioned a year ago]. We’ve doubled in size from last year: we went from 15 million users to over 30 million. The service is still growing great. We pick up more than 1 million users every month, and are around 60% international at this point.

The users built the data base and the users curated it. In 2009 there were zero venues in the database now there are more than 50 million places. that’s crazy. This is like the Wikipedia for places. It’s crowdsourced knowledge.

TC: How much are you using check-ins as a business service, for lead generation? How is that working out?

Crowley: It’s working well. The biggest challenge is to take revenue-generating products that we launched in Q3 last year and take them out to the market. The businesses using these are mostly national retailers. But we’ve got over 1 million merchants who have claimed their businesses on Foursquare, running specials and doing other things. What we want to do is take these tools used by the 50-100 national retailers and make them accessible to our 1 million merchants. Then you’ve got something really powerful. [note: these tools currently do not integrate with other point-of-sale systems, and Crowley declined to discuss whether this is something that Foursquare is discussing integrating with such services at this time]

We don’t have a sales team. We have a small sales force internally who deals with the large retailers. [Update: Crowley says in fact there are 10 people dedicated to both small and large retail sales.] So question is, what do we do to get out to those 1 million merchants? But then again, those 1 million merchants came originally to us on their own. That implies that self service should be a big thing for us. [So to target them more] I think self service will be a big part of it. If you look at what we’re doing in terms of harvesting intent from users, we have millions searching for things, and we’re helping them find places. It doesn’t look that different from what google has done with AdWords. If you search for “Hawaiian vacation,” Google shows you websites to get you there. And “Italian tasting menu” will bring you a list of venues on Foursquare.

TC: I’ve been thinking about how Facebook has pulled back from providing so much data to third parties that it sees as competing with it, and wonder if we might be approaching a time when developers may look elsewhere for their social graph data. Do you think you could be an alternative? Do you see yourselves as an anti-Facebook?

Crowley: I think that’s why people flock to our API. That’s why we have 40,000 developers using it, from Instagram to Jawbone, Evernote, Uber and Flickr — any app that does anything with location is polling from our location data.

TC: Are you pushing that more?

Crowley: We’ve always pushed it. Now, I don’t want to say it’s on autopilot but it used to be a tossup if i’m a location startup which data set do I want to use. Now there’s enough traction behind us, where people think Foursquare is the one to use. iI’s self-healing, places close and people delete them. Our apis are very easy to work with.

TC: What is your response to the Yelp comparison?

Crowley: I don’t think I have heard anyone say we’re trying to be more like beat Yelp, I hear people saying we are better than Yelp. I think the biggest challenge for us has been in telling the story of the product to people. We’ve known all along a lot of check-ins makes for amazing recommendations. The best way to get a lot of check ins to make it fun. But as the app starts to evolve and you see search front and center, and the map front and center, people are starting to get it. This idea is that I’m going to use Foursquare because the results are customized to me.

TC: Are you looking for native device integration anywhere, along the lines of what, say, Twitter has on iOS?

Crowley: We are a four-year old company. We’ve been talking about this. Of course how do you get to what Facebook or Twitter have is the finish line for us. It’s what we shoot for, but you’ve got to work your way up there, and every year this is different for us.

TC: Given that Apple has revisited its maps in the last year how much are you talking with them?

Crowley: We don’t talk about any specific partnerships. But guys like Nokia and BlackBerry know they need specific apps on their platform to succeed. [No comment on whether they were paid to develop apps for those platforms.]

TC: What about Android?

Crowley: There are a lot of android handsets here. They all run slightly different software because people are trying to differentiate. You know how you can differentiate? Foursquare makes maps special. We take maps that are blank and put dots on them to help you figure out what to do. We can launch widgets so that when you open them on your phone you know stuff that’s going on, where you can save money.

TC: So that’s your pitch. Do you do that with any handset makers now?

Crowley: We do that on our own Android apps. But when people want to talk about customizing and how do you make your phone stand out in the market, that’s one the things that we can offer.

TC: Do you have plans to make a mobile web app? Foursquare on Firefox OS?

Crowley: We have a bare bones one that is not very pretty, which supports feature phones. We’ve had that since 2009. It’s not super sexy. We think our stuff is so niche that for now we don’t have HTML5 in our strategy. We’re a small team so we have to focus on where our users are.

TC: Back to Josh Williams’ post. He mentioned obsessing about the check-in race but then something else came along that they didn’t see coming: the rise of Instagram. Do you see that similar challenge of trying to do something simple? What is the benchmark for you? What do you distill down to for simplicity?

Crowley: Any good product person will tell you that it’s easier to add in features than it is to remove them. Jack Dorsey has a great quote about being the product editor at Square, and I think that’s a good way to think about it. We’ve built a lot of stuff. I keep telling the team that we don’t need to build anything new. We need to put it together in ways that are simple. I love all the features that we have in there; we just need to make them more accessible.