'Checking in' with Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley

Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley speaks during the 2011 Web 2.0 Summit on Oct. 18, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: In the timeline of meaningful -- by which I mean successful -- social media companies, first there was Facebook. Then Twitter. Then, three or so years ago, something called Foursquare. It's an app for your smartphone that you use to check in someplace and let other users know where you are, be it a coffee shop or a cool new restaurant. Foursquare went pretty quickly from startup to actual business. It's got more than 20 million users right now.

But it's also got a problem. Because some of the buzz has worn off. It went from hot new thing to just...thing. So the company launched a new and improved version this month that -- besides all the location-sharing stuff -- also makes recommendations for where to go and what to do.

Today then, another Conversation from the Corner Office, this one with FourSquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley. Welcome to the program.

Dennis Crowley: Hey, thanks for having us.

Ryssdal: I wanted to start with the revamp that you guys rolled out a couple of weeks ago. You had an amazing 2009, 2010, it was great -- and then it got slow, right?

Crowley: I wouldn't say it got slow. I mean, the growth has been great for us -- every Friday is bigger than the Friday before.

Ryssdal: So why the new paradigm? Maybe that's a better question.

Crowley: Oh, when we built the app, we built it in 2009. And then, you start hiring people, you get 10, you get 20 people. And we're still building on top of that same thing that we built in 2009. And after a while, the app starts to get a little bit crowded. And you know, it came to the point where it's like listen, there's so many things that we want to do. We're going to have to start simplifying and taking this apart, and then figuring out what is the best way to put them back together so it tells the story of Foursquare in 2012.

Ryssdal: How do you make money, though, man? You've got to turn a profit.

Crowley: People ask us all the time, and the story's getting a lot easier to tell as people start to see the things that we're doing within the app. What we're finding is that as good as we are at helping people connect to places, we're also starting to be really good at helping places connect to people. So 'Hey, you just opened this type of restaurant in this particular area? Well here's some folks you might want to reach out to because there's a good chance they could be really valuable customers someday.'

Ryssdal: So it seems to me that there's an origins question here, right?

Crowley: Yep.

Ryssdal: What was the insight? Were you sitting in your dorm room one day in Syracuse and you said, 'You know what? I want to do this thing on a phone where people tell me where they are'?

Crowley: It started off probably in early 2000, when I worked at a dot-com company, and like a lot of my friends, we lost our jobs and the whole Internet space kind of went away in 2000, 2001. And I found that when I wasn't going to work, I generally wasn't going out after work, and I certainly wasn't going out to work with my coworkers because they were no longer my coworkers.

Ryssdal: You didn't have any, yeah.

Crowley: Yeah, exactly. So the original idea for a lot of this stuff just came from, 'Hey, why don't we just -- we're all out doing our individual thing. We should build a piece of software that lets you know where anyone is at any given time so if you want to, you can go meet up with them.' And then as we started continuing to play with these ideas, we started to realize when people give us a little bit of information every day about the places that they go to -- where they get sandwiches, where they get coffee, where they get their fancy dinners, where they go for brunch -- we can use all those data points to really make these amazing recommendation engines that people can use even without checking in.

Ryssdal: You guys went to South by Southwest in 2009, and that's where you really exploded. That's where people said, 'Whoa, what is this thing?' And 'I want to check it out,' and you got really the big boost -- which is a great phenomenon and that's all fun. But what I want to know is: What's it like to be the new new thing? What happened when that happened?

Crowley: I don't know. I think it's really easy to get caught up in people being really excited about what you're doing. But at the end of the day, you really have to pay attention to the way that people are interacting with the product. Even though the numbers are going up -- are people sticking around? Are people staying with the product for a while? And you know, in 2009, we just didn't really have the energy -- well not energy, but we just didn't have the time or resources to really pay attention to a lot of that stuff. Now that the company's matured, now that we're about 120 people, we have people specifically tasked to looking at the metrics and tweaking all the different things that we're doing in the product.

Ryssdal: A couple of years ago, when Yahoo and Facebook and maybe some others -- I don't know, those are the ones that we know about -- made overtures to come and buy you guys out. You said 'no, we can do it alone.' Any second thoughts?

Crowley: No. I mean, whenever you do a fundraising process, especially at a company that has a lot of attention like ours, there's always people that are interested and like, 'Hey you should be part of this larger company.' And so far, we've actually been doing a good job -- actually a great job. And you know, sometimes in the early days, you have these moments like, 'Wow, will we be able to grow this to be a big, important, standalone Internet company?' And as we're moving forward, and as we're seeing what we're doing, a lot of us feel like, 'Hey, we have a really good chance of being one of those companies.'

Ryssdal: It's worth pointing out though that you have experience being bought and it not working out. You founded a company called Dodgeball, another location/social media company, bought by Google and it turned out to be not a great fit.

Crowley: Yeah, that's right. My grad school thesis project was picked up by Google in 2005 and we spent about two years there. You know, it's been interesting to reflect back on that experience, seeing all the drama that goes through trying to build a company as large as ours. And it gives you a little bit of appreciation for like how Google was able to grow at that scale. You know, some of the issues that they were probably dealing with at the time. But at the same time, we look at that experience and you know, 'Did we sell Dodgeball a little too early?' Well, maybe, maybe not. But it's something that allows us to think about how to look at these opportunities as we go forward.

Ryssdal: It sounds a little bit like this is becoming a more-real business, which leads to the next question, which is: You are clearly a design guy, a data guy, a tinkerer kind of person who likes to get in there and mess around with stuff. What do you know about running a real business?

Crowley: Yeah, well we're starting to learn a lot about it. That's the real fun part of the job. So it's been a really interesting journey for us. We were plugging away at this for about nine months before we raised our first round of financing. And I think we've been really fortunate at hiring great people along the way and picking up great investors along the way. So they've been helping us really learn how to do this on the fly.

Ryssdal: Do you ever talk to guys like Biz Stone who helped start Twitter, and of course Zuckerberg at Facebook -- do you ever talk to them and say: So what you'd learn that I might learn from?

Crowley: Oh yeah, all the time.

Ryssdal: Do you really? I was kind of kidding.

Crowley: Oh really? Well actually I haven't talked to Biz in a while. There's not a ton of people who have gone through this before, and so there's a lot of us that lean on each other to figure out like 'how do you get through certain problems?' Different companies are at different scales, but you look at the companies that are you know, around our size and around our scale, and you know, we get together around New York pretty regularly. We get together in San Francisco pretty regularly, and there's a nice little support group of people that are all trying to figure this out together.

Ryssdal: There's a flipside to that question, right? You are what -- 36, 37, something like that?

Crowley: Thirty-six.

Ryssdal: Thirty-six, OK. Without trying to crush your youthful dreams, you are -- to a 21, 22-year-old kid -- you're like some old guy, right?

Crowley: Yeah, probably.

Ryssdal: What kind of advice do you give to the young people starting up who say, 'I want to do what you're doing'?

Crowley: You know, I didn't really start building my own stuff until I was 24, 25 or so, and even then, I ran into a lot of resistance from like older folks, like my bosses at other companies, or people in the industry that were like, 'Oh that's an interesting idea but it will never work.' And I don't know, I kind of believed everything that they told me. And it wasn't until we started really building our own stuff just because we wanted to -- and you know, we wanted to build it, we wanted to prove to ourselves that it wouldn't work or we had a strong enough hunch that the stuff that we were really passionate about was interesting and we probably could make it work. Once we started doing that, we realized like, 'Hey some of our ideas really are pretty good.' And so that's the advice I always pass on to other folks: Don't listen to people that don't think that your ideas are interesting -- you should go out there and prove it to yourself.

Ryssdal: Dennis Crowley. He's co-founder and CEO of Foursquare. Dennis, thanks a lot.

Crowley: Yeah, thanks for taking time, appreciate it.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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