If you've used a smartphone with any regularity during the past five years, you very possibly could be one of the many people addicted to Foursquare, an app that lets you "check in" when you arrive at a particular location -- a restaurant or a store, for example -- to tell your friends where you are, or helps you find a nearby store to shop in wherever you are that is a favorite of people you know. You may even have heard one of your friends boasting about becoming "the mayor" of your college dormitory or local movie theater -- which means that they've checked in at these places a lot.
Dennis Crowley, CEO and Co-Founder of Foursquare, revolutionized mobile social media with his app, one of the most widely used products in the smartphone environment. Working with co-founder Naveen Selvadurai, the 36-year-old Crowley began building the app in late 2008 and launched it the next year, just as the modern mobile environment began to take shape. Since then, Foursquare has signed up 20 million users. Once Foursquare created the idea of location-centric social media, tech giants Facebook and Google mimicked these features in their services.
Which just reminds Crowley, he says, that social apps must adapt and thrive to maintain a strong position in the mobile social media industry. In an interview with International Business Times, Crowley discussed the most recent iteration of Foursquare, rolled out in early June; how and why it was developed; and how Foursquare continues to evolve, maintaining its roots while enhancing its capabilities and opening up new revenue streams.
You just rolled out a new version of Foursquare that focuses on places connecting with people rather than simply people connecting with places. In other words, in the new iteration, a retailer could, for example, proactively send a note with a personal offer to purchase something to someone who has checked in to a particular store. What is the thinking behind the new version of Foursquare?
For a while we've known that there are things in the (older version of the) app that we wanted to change. We launched it in 2009, and kept adding, and adding, and adding stuff to it until there was really no more room to add stuff.
And the people that use the app today are way different than the people that used the app in 2009. The way that they use the app is a lot different, so we took the whole app apart and put it back together. That was the exercise behind the redesign: how do you simplify it but still call attention to all the things that we think are the most important for Foursquare in 2012?
How do you think this different approach is going to affect the fan base you've already built?
I think we've moved a lot of the furniture around in terms of the redesign. We've made a lot of the things that are hard to find easy to find. And we've taken things that people aren't using that often and put them in different places so that they're not as distracting. But the spirit of the original service is still there.
We've changed the way that it looks and we've changed the way that it acts, but you can still do all of the things that you were able to do before. There are a couple of things that we left out and we were trying to see how users reacted to some of those changes.
It's not like we launched 5.0 and then we wiped our hands of re-modification; we launched 5.1 and 5.2 already, and 5.3 and 5.4 is in the works right now. With every one of those iterations, we listen to the feedback we get from users.
One new thing is that you are striking deals with merchants, who pay 10 dollars to verify their business on Foursquare. How has that had an impact on the app's business model?
Paying to verify isn't really like a revenue boosting thing. It's more to set the quality bar. Venues that are serious will pay the 10 dollars; it just helps us clean up the process. We're starting to do a whole bunch of interesting experiments with building new tools for merchants. We've always had a tool that allows them to create specials, but now we're launching these new tools, these better tools which we're not talking about just yet but should launch in the next couple of months or so.
Everything Foursquare has done has been about connecting people with places, helping people find the places that they like and the places that their friends go to. But now we're getting really good at helping places find people. So that's gonna be a really interesting service for merchants to play with.
So this is somewhat of a different audience that you're targeting now. It's not just the people that want to see where their friends are; it's the owners behind those restaurants and venues.
In the same way that 5.0 is a bunch of new tools and toys for users, the new version is starting to allow us to build a whole new set of tools for merchants as well. So the big question is, 'When do we start letting merchants use those tools?' We're going to be starting to experiment with how we might charge certain merchants certain amounts for different things, and we might start doing that by the end of the year.
When Foursquare initially launched there seemed to be an emphasis on gamification, like how it let you become mayor of a specific location, for example. Now, there is a greater focus on making it a travel app, it seems.
It's all really a playful utility; we never really meant it to be a game. If you're using these tools to navigate the world, that physical space, they should be fun to use and they should have a personality to them. And that's one of the things that we tried to build into Foursquare.
Also, it's funny that you say travel, because one of the inspirations for travel in general was being in New York and looking through a travel guide for New York City and being like, "Really? This isn't what my view of NY looks like at all. But it would be really cool to have a version of this travel guide that my friends could take created by me."
We could do that with data. We could do that with check-in data. So the app should always behave like a travel guide that's customized for you. We're trying to capture that feeling of what it is like to be a traveller within your own city.
Foursquare started to get big around 2009-2010. Then services like Facebook started adding social tags to different places. How did you feel about other services essentially taking your idea?
Well I think other companies are inspired by the things that we're finding to be successful. We saw that Facebook has done it, Google has done it, but I still think that we're very much associated with the idea of checking in.
One of the benefits that Foursquare has is that we're all about location. It's all about place. It's all about what people are doing nearby and how can you figure out what to do in the real world.
You know, you see other people do it and you can say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It's also interesting when you start to see others co-opting of some of the stuff that you've done, because the tendency is to get really defensive about that. And really, we've never thought about it that way. We've thought about it as let's keep doing it, let's not get distracted. Let's keep doing the things that we want to do, which I think is different from what everyone else is trying to do.
Because if we excel at that thing that is really unique then by the time we get there it will be very clear how Foursquare is different than Twitter, Google or Facebook. And I think that's proven true. People share everything on Facebook. That can be a very good thing or a very noisy thing. With Foursquare, people know that they're getting information specifically about a place, advice about where they are and what they could be doing.
It's a very filtered view of the world.
Looking back, what would you have done differently with Foursquare as a business or a product?
I don't know if I would have done too much differently, to be honest. I think we did a couple of things right, not by design but accidentally.
We went five months before we raised financing, which was great, because it allowed us to build a prototype to test a bunch of things and build up a little bit of a user base. We showed that this thing could be successful.
As soon as we were able to get some financing we hired a bunch of folks that we had already known wanted to work with us. And so it's not like we designed it perfectly, but things played out pretty well for us. There are always some things in the product that I wish would have made it into the very first version. But you can never get it perfect the first time.