For those placing bets on which startup Google will buy next in its impressive social shopping spree (Jambool, Slide, etc.), you might want to lower your wager on Gowalla, at least for now. According to founder, CEO Josh Williams, Google has yet to initiate takeover talks with the the location based service— although, he says reading the market speculation “made me smile just a little bit.”
Google or no Google, Williams remains adamantly upbeat, even as competition escalates in the scorching hot LBS market and rival Foursquare sprints ahead. At last count, Foursquare has racked up about 2 million users, while Gowalla is pushing ahead with a more modest army of 400,000 users. You could attribute some of Williams’ optimism to a recent pick-up in Gowalla’s numbers— according to his figures, the service is adding a couple thousand users a day now, a 50% increase from last month and the percentage of daily active users is increasing at an even faster rate— but Williams also seems genuinely comfortable with Gowalla’s pace, at least for now.
We got a chance to talk to Williams via Skype about competition, the new API (and why it took so long), the “6 commandments” and his fascination with the “real check-in,” video above.
While an analogy to Aesop’s cliche fable of the tortoise and the hare is probably unfair, Gowalla has moved carefully and deliberately relative to its rivals, focusing on sharp design and holding back product launches until they’re fully baked.
Take for instance this week’s formal announcement of Gowalla’s Check-In API with full write-support. While Foursquare’s full API has been out since last November, Gowalla only released a read-only version in February and has been developing the full API with OAuth2 support for the last six months.
“It was something that we’ve been really pondering the right way to do for awhile now and some of the delay in getting out the door was due to some technical limitation on the Gowalla platform that have now been fixed,” Williams says. “And then some of the other delays were simply around us wanting to make sure we had our head in the right place when we rolled it out. Again ya’ll [TechCrunch] had some fun with the six commandments of Gowalla check-ins but we wanted to make sure that we were providing the right ecosystem for developers.”
I interpret “head in the right place” as code for understanding brand identity. Although Gowalla does not seem to be in a rush to acquire as many users as possible, Williams has been very focused on refining Gowalla’s message and differentiating his startup from the rest of the field— namely Foursquare. As Williams implies (and as my colleague MG Siegler points out in Monday’s post), the core of Gowalla’s identity is strongly reflected in the API’s 6 commandments:
* Check in where the user actually is
* Don’t encourage checking in where the user isn’t
* Never check in without permission from the user
* Encourage social behavior, discourage bot-like behavior
* Rapid, repeated checkins are not tolerated
* Use the API responsibly
Or to put it more succinctly: authenticity.
“At the very least, we wanted to provide some guidelines for developers…that gave them a little bit of an idea of what…the character and vision of Gowalla is, specifically that of connecting real people and real places,” Williams says. Elaborating on his vision even further, Williams says, “I think the goal for us has always been to find ways for people to share their love and connection with real places, we kind of have this metaphor of the passport, that being a record or log of the places you’ve been, the places that are important to you. And we definitely see even the new features that we’re building as being extensions of that…As time goes on, I think we all understand that location is going to become a very much commoditized asset on the social web… [And] I think that once that starts to happen, the nuances and the differences and the values behind all those services will start to become more apparent.”
As Williams insinuates, fake check-ins have no place in Gowalla’s mission. The operative mantra is “real people and real places,” which he says will be more evident in the coming months, as Gowalla builds new layers on top of the check-in process. He didn’t want to give away too much, but later this month users can expect new tools to help them share their affinity for specific locations and eventually, Gowalla is expected to support video-sharing (i.e. quick 10-20 second clips).
Is that enough to set Gowalla apart from Foursquare and more importantly, provide a strong value proposition for prospective users? Not yet, at least not in its current form, but there’s still plenty of time to catch up—- or get acquired.