Foursquare, the New York based location app, had its first public showing 4 years ago this week at the New York Tech meetup. To celebrate the occasion, the company’s founder, Dennis Crowley, went back to the New York Tech Meetup to talk about what the company is doing and where it intends to go. In a talk that was at times nostalgic, Crowley showed how Foursquare had evolved over the last 4 years from an app that looked to gamify check-in into a location layer that could allow the company to build predictive searches.
“We wanted to throw the idea out and see if people liked it or not before going to South by Southwest because we were literally afraid that people would laugh us off the stage,” he said of the presentation he made in March 2005, “for resurrecting the check-in stuff, for tying game mechanics to it.” His previous company, Dodgeball, had served as a prototype version of foursquare a few years earlier and was acquired by Google but failed to achieve traction with a large customer base.
In a shift from the initial mission, he added that “it’s not just about game mechanics now. It’s more about helping people discover things they wouldn’t have known were nearby and making them feel awesome for finding these things.” Showing off some impressive data visualization, the foursquare co-founder put up a strong defense of the value of check-in data, which still sits at the core of what the company is about. “Every single day, every single city around the world lights up for us […] and you can see what foot traffic moves like throughout the day. Whenever people poo-poo the check-in, I show them that I can predict where people are going to be 15 minutes from now. You tell me 5 things you like to do in New York and I can predict 20 things you’ll like in Chicago or San Francisco. This is the kind of things we can do with this data and people are just starting to get hip to it.”
Updating the audience on basic company stats (3 billion check-ins, 30 million users, and 40,000 developers (including companies like Twitter, Instagram, Path, Uber, and others)), he then went on to describe how the company is now getting more focused on search as the problem it is trying to address. “Mobile search is just broken. Everyone in this goes to yelp and searches and each of us get the same result. That’s clearly a broken model because every one of us is going to do different things or have different favorites” he said, highlighting that Foursquare’s focus is on personalized search, with result tailored to the user based on their previous information. Using the new Android client, he talked about what happens when the application is in the off-state and what kind of notifications to send to user when they are not in the application.
With the shift to discovery, Foursquare is entering a crowded market around mobile search, where companies like Google, Facebook, Yelp, and others are already playing. The pivot is a smart one because mobile location data is one of the hot growth area, with users increasingly using their mobile devices to search for products and services. Succeeding in that space would help Foursquare achieve the value that is implied in its $600 million+ valuation.