EP13 – “Check In” to the Adoption of Mobility Data with Foursquare

In this episode of On Point with Korem, I spoke with Dennis Crowley, the founder and former CEO of Foursquare. Dennis discussed the company’s evolution from the days when Foursquare was known as the “check-in” app until today as one of the leading providers of hyperlocal mobile movement and points of interest data. We also discussed the direction of Foursquare and the consolidation of the mobile data industry and perhaps where it’s headed next. Stay tuned for another episode of On Point.


Joe Francica: Yeah, Dennis, thanks so much for agreeing to do the podcast. Let me take you back a few years, to the beginning of Foursquare. And now that you’ve kind of stepped away from more of the day-to-day activity and maybe tell me if you had a vision of the data that you were collecting way at the beginning and from the check-ins for a score concept. Did you ever think that the data was eventually going to be used in the way it perhaps is used today?

Dennis Crowley: Not the way that it’s used today as part of location intelligence and geospatial analytics. I was a little. Bigger than what we were able to see back then. But remember I had another company before Foursquare’s called Dodgeball and it was a friend finder that worked via text messaging, SMS, and we had sold it to Google, and we were at Google building these services out. When we had this epiphany while we were at Google, we were going to dodgeball.

That, you know, if you could get people to check in everywhere they went all the time, which is like crazy at the time. But just imagining that then you could make a living, breathing map of the world. And that was a big, big vision for us. So, when Dodgeball went away, I could go and decided they weren’t going to support the project. And we ended up leaving Google. We got to make another one of these ones that’s much better. Not just helping people go to bars and meet up with their friends and to nightlife venues, but we would gather information about all the places that people went to all throughout their day.

JF: Yeah. Yeah. And that just seemed to be hugely popular at the time, but so let me take you back maybe to those… there are other things that happened during that time, which was a construction at my house. Those first few years at Foursquare, you were kind of recognized, the company was recognized as one of these NeoGeo startups, and I wondered if that was kind of a misrepresentation of the kind of business you want to create.

DC: If anything, people thought we were a social media company and I was like, we’re not a social media company. You know, from the beginning, we knew that we’re collecting information about the types of places that people go to and we’re going to make these amazing recommendation engines that will tell you where you want to go. Even though you’ve never heard of these places before. That was always kind of the point of it. So, being NeoGeo, I hadn’t heard that term, but like I always thought of it as like, we are a data-driven location-based services company, as opposed to a social media company or a location-based game, which a lot of people thought, right.

I think one of both fortunate and tragic things from the early days of Foursquare is that the success of the game, the badges, the points, the leaderboard, and mayorship… The success of that kind of took us off strategy. Like people were so in love with the game that it took us longer to focus on all the other things that we wanted to do. And the success of the game also, I think kind of clouded the vision of what does company exists to solve. You know, people just wanted more and more badges and we gave them more and more badges. And that’s what made Foursquare what it was, but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly what we wanted it to be.

JF: So, it was that the rationale for separating Foursquare, the Foursquare city guide from the swarm. Is that kind of why you wanted to take it?

DC: Yeah, but part of it is that the word Foursquare to us, if the founding team of the company, it was like: ”Hey, we’re a company that helps you show you where amazing places around the world.” That’s what we do. And I think we’re becoming synonymous with check-in. But the real catalyst for the apps was, we had like 50 million, 60 million people download the apps. And when you were talking to user number 55 million, 265, why did you even download this app? And they’re like: ”Well, I downloaded it for the deals and discounts. I heard Oprah talking about how it will save me money at Dunkin Donuts.” And I was like: ”That’s not what this app does. Maybe that’s one of 20 things that it does.”

But we had hit a point where there was this kind of this brand confusion and we thought, okay, well, what if we simplify the products, make one product about checking in, make one product about discovering places? You know, we would meet people that say: ”I love the city guide, but I don’t check into places. I feel like I’m doing it wrong. So, I stopped using the app.” Which, you know, that was fine. And then I’d meet people that were like: ”I check it everywhere I go, but I never knew you could even search for places.” And I was like: ”I have 50 people working on a search engine. I actually did not find the search tools.” And so we just decided the product is bloated and complicated.

JF: So you’re getting data from, I guess, both applications, both swarms, and now city guide. So, how do you rationalize the competitive landscape? Like, I mean, you put the city guides up against Yelp and try to compete with that, or is it something…

DC: Well, we certainly used to, you know, like I used to be a rallying cry within the company about building the best local search products. But it was probably around 2000, 2015, 2016, where we… We’re never going to be as big as Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, right? You know, we had tens of millions of users in the U.S., maybe a little less than that. And you just really couldn’t make an advertising business off of that, at the time we had to figure out what are the other ways that we’re going to monetize this product?

We kind of slowly started pivoting the ship towards the enterprise. The first thing was charging companies that were using our API, like Yahoo, Microsoft, and Instagram before they were part of Facebook and Twitter. We had all these companies that were using our API for free, and we started charging them. That was some of our first enterprise-style revenue. After that, we started making ad advertising products that both worked within the Foursquare apps, then also off-network. So, you could display ads to people that had been to car dealerships elsewhere on the web.

We started getting more into advertising attributes. You know, ”Hey, there’s a campaign that’s run. Can you prove whether it’s the people that saw the ad who actually went to those places or not?” And then there was really interesting work that we were doing around predictive analytics, you know, ”Hey, based on how many people went into an apple store, depending, around the weekend of the launch of the new iPhone, how many phones do you think they sold?”

We did all kinds of one-off research. Projects basically did it to predict what was going to happen in the stock market off of a foot traffic trends in and out of place. And I think that really opened our eyes towards geospatial analytics and how the data set could be used by brands and chains and retailers to do everything from campaigns to doing site selection. Okay. ”Where should I put my new restaurant? Where should I put my new J crew?” You know, to helping people understand the competitive landscape. ”How’s my store doing against the 200 other stores within five miles from here.” And so, you know, our company’s focus was around that period, 2000, 2015, 2016, we started pivoting away from the consumer business and more into the enterprise or B2B space.

JF: So that part of the business has really taken off. I mean, you’ve got a lot of competitors now selling mobility. Do you think it’s being overcrowded now? Do you think there’s consolidation coming in that space?

DC: I think consolidations already happened. You know, if you look at the last 24, 36 months, Foursquare has gone out and acquired Places, one of the leading attribution companies, factual or the leading enterprise data companies in the space. Unfolding a company that was a small company, it was just getting… Would geospatial analytics, you know, we used to sit back and think about what is it going to look like when the space starts to consolidate?

This is 2016, 2017, and strategize on a whiteboard. And I don’t think we realized it at the time, but like at Foursquare, we are the ones that did the consolidation, one of the ones that did the roll-up, we were the ones that brought the companies together. And so yeah, that space is a little bit smaller. Foursquare’s much more dominant in that space. But in general, I think we’ve heard positive feedback from folks in the industry about what we’ve been able to accomplish by bringing all these companies together.

JF: Yeah. So the data now, like you said, it’s being used by the ad space and trying to do things like site selection and mobile ad placements. And that really has just exploded and it’s made the traditional GIS people and the geospatial business go: ”You know what? The traditional demographic data just doesn’t work anymore. It’s just not accurate enough. And it’s gotta be replenished, refreshed, and on a more regular basis.” Do you see Foursquare moving more into the analytics space rather than just more of a commoditized mobility data?

DC: Yeah. I don’t know if we’re responsible for commoditizing some of the space. I think that our POI database has turned out to be one of the more dominant ones. We’ve built all sorts of services that hang on top of that, you know, our Pilgrim, the SDK, and the Foursquare APIs. What was your question? I totally blanked on.

JF: It’s about location analytics. I mean, it’s moving away just.

DC: Yeah. We see this space going in that direction, I think that’s one of the things that fueled the acquisition of the team and unfolded, like getting started with geospatial analysts. I mean, we have a lot of tools and technology. It’s not a space that we have focused on in the past. And Foursquare has reached that size and scale that we can then go and start bringing other teams to help us have a greater focus there. But that’s certainly been in the company’s DNA for a long time.

JF: And you seem to have navigated the privacy issue, which I know is a kind of a big thing maybe at the start of location-based apps. Did it go away or is it just under the covers waiting to come out again?

DC: No, I mean, I think that the entire location-based space, you know, the privacy issue is kind of applied to the entire space and I think different companies, some companies are better than others at dealing with it and being articulate and transparent and honest about what’s going on. I think Foursquare has always been a leader in this space, I think it has been in our DNA since our days at Google. When we were at Google doing Dodgeballs during the ”Don’t be evil” day and it’s like, listen, this is people checking in. This is their day. It belongs to them.

They want to delete it and want to get out. They want to opt out and delete a little bit and delete all of it and be done with it forever. We’ve kind of, you know, Foursquare inherited that philosophy. And in general, I think we’ve always been very, I guess, upfront and kind of honest and transparent with users about what we’re doing with data. This is how we collect it. This is how to get out of it. This is how you opt out of everything. And so I think we’ve been very, very thoughtful in that approach. I know there are other companies that maybe have less brand recognition then than we do, that have not been as transparent.

And I think there’s a bunch of folks that are, there are bad actors in the space. They’re given a space in general, a bad name, but our philosophy has always been: we are using our products and we’re collecting data. You know, through those products, our products are designed to give benefit back to the consumer. Like, we want to understand where you are during the day, so that the consumer apps can offer you richer experiences, whether that’s the swarm app, whether it’s the Foursquare app, whether it’s some of the R&D apps, and even the panel app that’s trying to give people deals and discounts and coupons.

JF: Yeah. So even though I know you just stepped away from kind of day-to-day operations, I mean, what’s next for Foursquare? Is there any particular vision you see the company or any direction you think you want to take the company?

DC: Yeah. I mean, I’m outside the company these days. I haven’t been at Foursquare HQ and a couple of months ago, I was at the board meeting, it’s usually super, super fun, but it’s an interesting and refreshing change to be able to watch the company from the outside, as opposed to being there day in, day out, the mission and the vision, it’s the same about understanding where phones go so that we can help people build amazing applications on top of that. And deliver enriching experiences back to the consumers who are either using our apps or using apps that are built, built on Foursquare technology.

And it, you know, in a lot of ways, even though Foursquare is 12, 13 years old, the space is still in its infancy. There’s, you know, you can talk about location-based services and POI and somebody’s problems feel like they’re solved, but this whole thing around ambient computing software that changes depending upon where you are. You know, contextual awareness from mobile devices, a lot of this stuff is new, right? Even the, one of the Foursquare superpowers is that there’s a piece of technology called Pilgrim that took us years and years to develop this idea that you can take your phone into any place.

And the phone will understand where it’s at. Oh, I’m in a butcher shop called Denny’s Butcher, right? I mean, a coffee shop called Think Coffee, right? That is like that. That’s a killer piece of technology. It’s totally understandable. I don’t think we’ve seen the big breakthrough innovations and a lot of the geospatial computing and a lot of the ambient computing stuff or pervasive computing. I just feel like there’s so much more innovation to be done in this space, and I’m very optimistic that Foursquare tools and technology will end up powering a lot of it.

JF: Yeah. I liked that concept. I like the contextual concept. I sometimes refer to it as ambient geography, which is: ”I want to know where I am and what’s around me.”

DC: Yeah.

JF: But it’s interesting. And I’ll ask you just one more question because I get the feeling that, I believe you that we’re really at the beginning. And yet it seems for 30 years when geospatial was used by retailers, they’re still doing the same old things. Is your perception that eventually, the retailers will become a little bit more sophisticated and wake up to the fact that there’s a lot more data that could help them in different ways.

DC: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I would see this from the inside of Foursquare a lot. Not every retailer would ask super interesting questions, but there were always interesting enough questions to be answered, like, I would always find that when we would try to make dashboards that anticipated what retailers want. They would work, but they wouldn’t really get to the core insight. But occasionally you’d sit down with someone it’s like: ”What are you trying to do? What is the one question that you just can’t answer with the data that you have in hand that you wish you knew the answer to?” And they pitched us to something crazy. It was like: ”I bet we could solve that.”

I remember, this is an old, old example, but I remember there was a team that was pitching one of these fast-casual restaurants. I can’t remember. It was like Applebee’s Olive Garden or something like, whatever it was. ”Could you tell us what type of menu items we should add based off of where people that go to this restaurant have been previously at.” I don’t know. I mean, ”Take a look at that, and then you can say the people that have been to this go-to chain type of chain restaurant, they go to these other places. And what are the nouns that are really popular at those places because forced his whole life tastes crap?” We would not just know about the places where we knew about the objects, the nouns of things in the places that were the reason that people came to those places.

And so, you know, you’re able to come up with a stack rank list of those things and say: ”Of all the places that these people also go, these are the overlapping trends.” And it’s like: ”Okay, let’s add some of these things to our menu and see what happens.” And I mean, this is a couple of years ago. And I don’t know, I wish I remembered the specific examples, but it worked out! They made these menu changes and added items that were a hit and it was one of these… like the data is so rich.

You just really have to be creative about how you use it in sometimes the most creative use cases, they don’t come from us. The people with the data, they come from the people that have the questions that they can’t find answers to. And so, you know, you’d have to have a pretty tight relationship with these folks to get them to articulate those types of problems that the company can then go on and try to.

JF: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think you don’t know the pain points they have, but you hope that some of the data is unique enough that you would solve those questions.

DC: Yeah. I mean, here’s another like side thing, but like tech companies can be really arrogant sometimes. Like: ”Oh, we’ve been in this space forever. We know we’re going to make these dashboards of these dashboards.” And there’s, like when you really just open up and you start to listen, you just… it’s good. You’re humbled by it. Like I said, we don’t have all the answers. This has always been an unfortunate thing. We’ve been really good at this. We don’t have all the answers. We have a bunch of stuff. It’s pretty cool. I can show you some stuff that you’re really gonna… like why don’t you just tell me how we can help you? And I bet we can get to work and that that’s always worked out pretty well for us.

JF: Well, great, let’s leave it there. I really appreciate your time. Thanks for your insights. I think it was great to look back on the history of Foursquare and maybe where it’s going. So I really appreciate your time.

DC: Yeah, we can do another one of these in 13 years.

JF: Okay. Sounds good. Thanks Dennis.

Thanks again for joining us on another On Point with Korem. And if you like today’s podcast, please leave a comment in the comment box where this podcast is posted, which could be Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube. I hope you’ll join us next time for another On Point with Korem, where we’ll get on point.