The evolution of Foursquare: Memeburn talks to Dennis Crowley

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Foursquare checked into our lives in 2009 and has rapidly grown its user base to 15-million, tripling in just over a year. And now the US-based service reports that just over half of its users reside overseas, largely in emerging market countries.

The social network is a piece of innovation that has won the hearts and minds of the fickle early-adopter crowd. It’s an online tool that plays in the rather hot and bubbly SoLoMo space. It’s a mobile-social network designed to give users information and recommendations about their immediate surroundings, allowing them to check in at venues.

To say there is hype in this sector of the online world is an understatement, with start-ups proliferating in this space. SoLoMo is such a buzzword at the moment that it even prompted the respected Forrester Research CEO, George Colony, to say that these services will be “swept away” in a new “post-social era”. Late last year, Colony shocked everyone at a Le Web conference by outrightly dismissing Foursquare as “nonsense”.

Foursquare’s competitors are formidable. Look no further than Facebook, which sports its own check-in services in Facebook Places.

But Foursquare founder and CEO, Dennis Crowley, isn’t perturbed. This is a service that has “carved out a space”, and is showing no sign of slowing down.

Memeburn caught up with Crowley to talk about the company’s future, plans for emerging markets, and the beauty and future promise of Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

An early adopters’s game

Memeburn: You seem to have quite a following with early adopters, whereas when we look at Facebook, it has a much broader audience. Is that an intentional target market?

Dennis Crowley: It’s not intentional. I think it’s just how this stuff grows. Facebook started off with college campuses, Twitter was the early adopter tech crowd. A lot of people thought Foursquare would become half a million users and not go beyond that. There was a million and two million and five million and 10 million… I think it’s just a way that these things grow. If you think about it, Facebook is eight years old, Twitter’s five years old, whereas Foursquare is two years old, so we have a long way to go to get to those numbers. I feel pretty satisfied with the way we’ve been growing so far.

MB: Is there a strategy to grow beyond the early adopters?

DC: Yes, you know we have a lot of partnerships. We have a partnership with Orange, we do a lot of stuff with the New York Times and stuff for TV shows back in the States. One of the reasons we have a development guy in Europe now is to take advantage of all the opportunities there because it’s those things that will bring Foursquare to the masses.

MB: Looking at Foursquare fundamentally… what would motivate a user to check in on a regular basis?

DC: …it’s being able to see what our friends have been doing. A lot of people are using Foursquare just for its recommendation engine… [they would ask] like hey what should I do when I’m in this neighbourhood? You’ve got recommendations, you’ve got specials… you’ve got all those tips on the services as well, so people are motivated in different ways.

MB: Do you find that the novelty of wearing badges wears off after a while?

DC: Yes, badges are the thing that keeps people interested long enough to understand everything else that’s going on within the app, and you know they were designed that way and they’re very effective that way, so we’ll keep making changes because we want all users to be excited about badges. But I’m not surprised at all that people only use the badges for two months, but then they’re already hooked on the recommendation.

MB: You mentioned recently that you’re cutting down on badges — what does that mean exactly?

DC: So every single event should possibly have a badge, but that doesn’t make them special any more, so we like to think of badges as a thing you earn for interesting achievements, and not badges just for showing up. So when I say we’re cutting down, it’s more like we don’t do event badges but you do get the coffee badge for going to a lot of different coffee shops.

MB: Have you ever thought about expanding the game beyond just checking into places?

DC: Yes we thought about including a way to check-in to books, TV and music. But there are a whole lot of other start-ups doing that and I’d rather we just focus on location because it gives us a really good, strong focus. I think it’s very easy to get distracted by checking into everything… which is not what we want to do.

Emerging markets and beyond

MB: So what’s your emerging market plan? Not just for South America, but China and Indonesia?

DC: We’ve been thinking about our international plans a lot. About 50% of our users are outside the US and you know we have to be strategic about it because we’re still a relatively small company, we’re about a hundred people.

I know it seems big but for what we’re trying to do it’s small. We have one guy in Europe now, and we’ll see how that goes. We might expand to the Asia Pacific region, and expand to Latin America. We’re considering those things but we’re not ready to move onto that yet. We’re going to see how we do with one person in Europe almost in the same way that we did in San Francisco, and it turned into a twenty-person office. We’ll see what happens when we get one guy here and go to another couple of countries and see how that turns out.

MB: What’s your Africa traffic like?

DC: It’s not a huge growth area for us. Right now we’re seeing big growth in Indonesia, in Japan, and parts of Europe. We’ve seen a lot of activity in South Africa but we haven’t seen a lot of change across the entire continent, it’s something we’re keeping an eye on.

Mobile, social and the evolving platform

MB: We know that social-local-mobile is the big buzz. Do you think location-based services are the trend for the future or will it eventually pass?

DC: … location-based services are huge. It’s going to be part of everything we do, it’s going to be part of every social service, every recommendation service, services I can take advantage of, about where you’ve been, places you would like to go, all that stuff is valuable, it’s being entered into everything else.

People like Google Maps right? They use Google Maps all the time. If I can take Google Maps and put dots on where all your friends are all the time — I think that would be much more exciting.

MB: Do you foresee a time where Foursquare will be an HTML 5 app only?

DC: It could happen in the future, we have been doing experiments. HTML 5 apps are great but apps in appstores are still key… you’re starting to see more apps that use HTML 5 within the app, you’ll see something like that with Foursquare. A lot of the time you might not even see it, some of the app is HTML 5 and some of it is native control, the user doesn’t know the difference.

MB: As a company are you still betting on native apps?

DC: For now, yeah. Apps are the distribution platform, but whatever is in the app is up for grabs… the native Android controls and iPhone UX doesn’t really matter.

MB: What are your thoughts on the Windows phone?

DC: Yes we have an app for the Windows Phone. We worked with the folks from Microsoft to help build it. We’re starting to see more of that pick-up. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the new Nokia deal with Windows running on a Nokia platform. We hear from our users that the app works pretty well.

MB: And your views on the interface and the way Microsoft has rolled out the new phone?

DC: I think the phone is beautiful, it pushes the interface in really interesting ways. It’s fun to see people build Foursquare apps for that platform because they will be imagining what the UX looks like in a way that is different from what we imagined.

MB: I must say that I find the Blackberry app quite buggy. Is that something that you’d fix?

DC: BlackBerry can be a difficult platform to develop for because there are different handsets, environments, different screen sizes. But I think it’s [the Blackberry App] relatively stable. We have bugs from time-to-time on other devices as well such as Android and iPhone.

MB: And the future for Foursquare?

DC: Just to do a lot more of what we’re doing. One of the things we’re trying to do is get ideas out there for all the different types of products out there. Now we have to go back and make them a lot tighter and cleaner. I think we’ve carved out our space, this is what we want to do as a company and the rest is just to make sure that the rest of the world knows it.

MB: And your business model? Are you happy with revenues?

DC: Yes — we’re still at that phase now where we’re trying to grow as quickly as possible. It’s not about monetising immediately or becoming profitable, it’s building a huge audience and building an amazing product and then all the other stuff will work itself out. We do think a lot about the [business side], like having amazing partnerships with American Express. We’ve got more than 600 000 merchants that use Foursquare platforms.

MB: There seem to be two major routes to go — either a freemium model service or an advertising route. Do you have any preference or is it a case of both?

DC: Yes I think there’s a case for advertising that benefits the user. Peter Kafka from the Wall Street journal wrote a great piece which was: “Thank you Foursquare for this advertisement“, which was a living social deal about places he goes to all the time, and he’s like “this is great, this is exactly what targeted ads are supposed to be”.

I’m getting a deal, it’s targeted because it knows that I like these places, I’ve been there before, and you know that’s the direction we’re going’, it’s suddenly pushing you in the direction of things you like to do.

Image: Matthew Buckland

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