Dennis Crowley On Reinventing Foursquare: De-Emphasizing Check-ins, Digging Into Data, Moving Toward Revenue

It has been a big day for Foursquare: The New York-based company finally unveiled the newest version of its popular location-based mobile app, Foursquare 5.0 — the iOS version of the app launched at midnight Eastern Time, and the Android version was pushed out several hours later. It’s a big overhaul for the now three-year-old Foursquare: The app was totally rebuilt from the top to bottom in a way that makes it both more simple and more fully-featured. Foursquare 5.0 is the company’s biggest and boldest step yet toward becoming a complete recommendation engine and standalone social network, a bid to move well beyond its reputation as a fun “check-in” app.

So TechCrunch TV was very happy to have the opportunity to snag the first post-launch interview with Foursquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley to get the full scoop on how Foursquare 5.0 has been received by users so far and what’s up next for the company. You can watch my conversation with Crowley in its entirety in the video embedded above, and below you can read some of his key insights:

Taking The Spotlight Off The Check-In

It’s not your imagination: The new version of the Foursquare app has indeed been designed to place less focus on the “check-in” function that in many ways Foursquare has pioneered. Crowley said that in doing so, Foursquare is really just following the behavior of its users. He said:

“If anything we might have de-emphasized the check-in a little bit. Just because we’re starting to see that a lot of the people that are using the app are not even checking in. They use it for recommendations, to explore, they use it to look up tips for the restaurant they’re currently at, to see where their friends are. We’ve been seeing this in our data for the past couple months or so.

And hey, if people want to use the app and continue to interact with it without checking in, that’s fine. That’s why we’ve made some of the other parts of the app the centerpiece this time around.”

Data Is The Mother Of (Re)invention

And while Crowley was quick to set the record straight to say that things like leaderboards, badges and mayorships are still important to Foursquare and present in version 5.0, the company is keen to finally shake off any reputation for frivolity that such features may have helped encourage. Now that the company has amassed so much data, it wants to make the conversation about the cool things it can do with it.

“People have pigeonholed us into, ‘Oh it’s that silly game about points and mayors and badges.’ Yeah, that’s part of Foursquare. But that’s not what we’re doing with all the amazing check-in data that we’re getting from the 20 million users we have. We have well over 2 billion check-ins at this point, and that allows us to predict what’s going to be going on in downtown Manhattan 2 hours from now…

There’s really cool stuff we can do with that data. And I think reinventing the app gives us a new chance to tell that story.”

Local Filters Are Probably Coming Back

One early complaint that some users have about Foursquare 5.0 is that it pulls all the updates from your friends on the app into the same activity feed, whether they’re close to you or not. Crowley said that he likes having a local view as well, but that the change was made in response to how people have been using the app. Either way, his team has heard the feedback loud and clear and changes are likely on the way:

“We look at the data for how people are using things in the app and we try to see how many people are clicking different buttons, and we were seeing some signals that people didn’t care so much about the worldwide and nearby view.

…[But] to be honest that was one of the things I really like the app for, just knowing what’s going on in New York right now. And, you know, we had a whole bunch of arguments in the office, do we keep it, do we leave it, do we try it without it and then launch it right after.

I think we’ve gotten enough feedback from the community that it’s really important to folks. So we’ll find a way to reintroduce some of those elements or some aspect of those elements in the app.”

Building 5.0 Was A Big Deal

Foursquare 5.0 was originally targeted to launch several months ago, on or around the South By Southwest conference in mid-March, Crowley revealed. But the project turned out to be a much more all-encompassing and time-consuming effort than anyone at Foursquare had originally thought. The whole endeavor was really difficult, he said, but it also brought the team closer together:

“This is probably one of the hardest things we’ve done as a company. Because we’re pretty big now — we’re over 100 people, we’ve got people in a couple different offices — we’ve got a lot of different opinions. We took the whole thing apart and put it back together, and that’s a daunting task for an engineering and product organization of this size, and it’s tough.

…I think one of the great things that’s happened over the past couple months or so is that we’ve all rallied around, we’ve answered all the questions, we’ve nailed down all the design specifics. And even though we might not be in agreement on everything, we’ve decided that this is what we’re going to do, hustled like holy hell to get it out, and launched it. The feedback’s been great, and now we can break into smaller teams and go back and polish all those parts of the app that we’re still not 100 percent satisfied with.”

Making Money May Be Coming Soon

Foursquare is still not making any significant revenues as of yet, and while Crowley says the company is well supported by its venture capital investors at the moment, it is now closer than ever to making its own money — most importantly, in a way that does not turn off its user base:

“We don’t want to be that company that tacks on monetization at the end, like ‘Hey we’ve built some cool stuff, now here’s some ads.’ That’s never been our thing.

…Later this summer you’ll probably see a lot more experiments that we’ll be doing with trying to connect people to places, and places with people, and I think a lot of those things will probably be revenue-generating for us. i don’t know when we’re going to flip the switch on monetization, but we’re already well on our way to doing experiments and finding what works and what doesn’t work, what users like and what they don’t like.”