Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley was at NYU when he began working on his first location-based social networking software. A graduate in the university’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, he released Dodgeball — an SMS-based service that enabled users to text their location and receive notifications about nearby friends or interesting venues. Dodgeball was acquired in 2005 by Google, where Dennis spent a couple of years before turning to work on his next endeavor.
In 2009, Foursquare launched at SXSW, pioneering a digitally-driven consumer experience that facilitated person-to-person interaction through check-ins at different businesses. In the eight years since, Foursquare has accumulated more than 11 billion check-ins — a goldmine of first-party location data, which the brand has used to create a series of products for businesses to measure foot traffic and send targeted advertisements to customers.
“We already use our technology to understand societal shifts and trends on an anonymized and aggregate level,” Dennis said in an exclusive interview with IVY Magazine. “We’ve used our understanding of how people move through the world to accurately predict Chipotle’s 2016 Q1 sales, understand how store closures impact Americans’ shopping habits, know when Filipino food is trending in the U.S., and most recently, take a look at how international leisure tourism to the U.S. has changed since October 2016.”
Though the names of the products may have changed, the crux of the idea has remained steady throughout Dennis’ career: figuring out a way to make the world easier to navigate with the power of location-based software. In this interview, Dennis talks about the evolution of Foursquare, speaks to the potential of location-based data to transform our world, and shares a decade’s worth of insights on entrepreneurship.
The Evolution of Foursquare
How has the Foursquare experience changed over the years?
Well, as a company, we have expanded far beyond the “check-in.” Today, Foursquare is an industry-leading location intelligence company, meaning that we build contextually-relevant products based on our proprietary location data and technology. While our two consumer apps, Foursquare City Guide and Foursquare Swarm, are the core of our business, we have also created a suite of products for businesses, which leverage consumer insights and real-world consumer behavior for advertising and enterprise solutions.
For example, we power location for brands like Apple, Twitter, Reddit and 100k other developers. We were also able to use our treasure trove of location data to predict Apple and Chipotle store sales based on our understanding of how consumers move through the physical world.
Can you explain how Foursquare uses the Pilgrim technology to power its consumer apps?
Pilgrim is the proprietary location technology that we first started building years ago so our apps could proactively engage with users with contextual notifications—without them ever needing to open an app or check-in. It was designed to deliver the right content, at the right place, at the right time.
When a coffee-lover visits a new neighborhood, it’s Pilgrim that recognizes the change in environment and triggers a Foursquare City Guide app notification to recommend a great local coffee shop nearby.
For Foursquare Swarm, Pilgrim triggers users to remind them to check into the precise restaurant, bar or diner they’re standing in so they can remember everywhere. Pilgrim powers the contextually relevant computing that runs in the background of our apps.
When we first launched Foursquare and people would ask what I wanted the app to look like when it grew up, I would tell them that we wanted to make a “hipster version of clippy” (remember the Microsoft Office assistant?).
You recently announced the launch of Pilgrim SDK, which opens up the Pilgrim capability in the form of a software development kit that businesses can apply to use in their own apps. What was the impetus for Foursquare to extend this data to outside companies?
Our goal has always been to build technology that makes cities easier to use, and our Pilgrim technology, which we have long thought of as our superpower, is what has allowed us to create that experience within our own apps.
Way back, when we were thinking about this problem, we thought someone (likely Apple) would one day release something that would allow developers to gain a deeper, contextual understanding of location, beyond just latitude and longitude. Around the time of the launch of the iPhone 4S and iOS5, when it just didn’t happen, we realized that no one was going to make this, and if we wanted this type of technology to exist, we were going to have to build it ourselves.
Releasing the first version of our Pilgrim SDK to the world is the realization of the vision and dream we had more than a decade ago when we explored the idea of how location based services and social software could work together. Allowing other developers to access this technology, similar to how we allow developers to utilize our API, is the culmination of so many of our efforts.
Can you give an example of how a company successfully uses Pilgrim SDK?
Some of our beta partners include the Capital One Wallet app, gift-card marketplace Raise, TouchTunes, the largest in-venue interactive music platform, and SnipSnap, one of the leading mobile coupons apps.
For SnipSnap, Pilgrim SDK is allowing the company to accurately remind users of the coupons available to them when they are in a store. Our technology allows SnipSnap to understand when a user has entered a specific location, and provide the right coupon notification at the right moment.
According to Ted Mann, founder of SnipSnap, they have seen a 4x higher open rate on Pilgrim-triggered notifications compared to generic notifications.
Are there any other Foursquare products that you are particularly excited about?
When we first launched Foursquare and people would ask what I wanted the app to look like when it grew up, I would tell them that we wanted to make a “hipster version of clippy” (remember the Microsoft Office assistant?). An assistant that knows all about the places that you and your friends like to go, and proactively points you towards experiences and venues that it knows you will love.
In the time since Foursquare launched, we’ve seen a rise in AI assistants like Siri, Alexa, Bixby, Cortana, Google Assistant and others. They are all great innovations, and the potential here is endless, but the one commonality between all of them is that the user has to initiate conversation. At Foursquare we thought, “what if we could do the opposite? What if we could create a bot that summons YOU?” So we created Marsbot.
We didn’t want to create another Chat Bot. We wanted to create a Context Bot – one that can understand where you’re standing, learn from the places you’ve been, and predict what you may want to do next.
Marsbot is an app that quietly pays attention to the places you bring your phone, learns about the types of places you like to go, and then texts you with suggestions about great places to eat and drink nearby, via SMS notification.
I can imagine a future where Foursquare City Guide is able to whisper in your ear about local places for you to discover (think Scarlett Johansson in the Spike Jonze movie Her).
Data and Technology
Data has undoubtedly become one of the world’s most valuable resources. How does Foursquare differentiate itself from other giants of the data economy (such as Google, Facebook, or Amazon)?
One key differentiator, and there are many, is that we are laser-focused on location intelligence. We are not diversified like Google and Facebook, which are focused on everything from search to virtual reality. Understanding location, and the way people move through the world is our first priority. We have more than 11 billion first-party check-ins, which makes us the best in the world at understanding how to turn signals from a device into a point of interest, which has proven to be invaluable.
When it comes location-based advertising, Foursquare is platform agnostic, meaning we are not a closed ecosystem or walled garden. This means that we can reach the right consumers wherever they are, and we can work with partners who might want to remain independent from Google and Facebook.
Issues surrounding cybersecurity and the vulnerability of people’s digital privacy have been making headlines of late. Do you find that people are more, or less, willing to “check-in” and leave a digital trace through Foursquare given this environment?
We’re actually seeing the opposite. Check-ins on Foursquare Swarm are at an all time high! The number of check-ins per user is up 33% since we split the apps, and we recently hit 11 billion check-ins overall.
I think part of the reason that check-ins continue to rise is because we are always forthcoming with our user base about what information they grant us access to. As a location intelligence company, privacy is of the utmost importance to us and it is something we take very seriously, so it is important that our users understand that we always analyze our data in an anonymized, aggregated way.
People opt in to using our apps, and they opt in or out of sharing out data. They have that choice and we make sure it’s clear. We know that users get such great value from our services and they trust us, so they’re happy to share their background location data with us.
What are some of the big new trends in technology you’re looking at?
As of right now, our Pilgrim technology allows the Foursquare City Guide app to use location as an impetus to send contextually aware notifications directly to your phone. The goal of this is to mimic the experience of having a friend by your side, guiding to the best experiences nearby that they know you’ll love.
I would love to find a way to take this a step further. With the advent of virtual assistants, and the increasing prevalence of Air Pods and other wireless headphones, I can imagine a future where Foursquare City Guide is able to whisper in your ear about local places for you to discover (think Scarlett Johansson in the Spike Jonze movie Her). I think having a virtual assistant that really knows you and comes with you everywhere you go is not too far off.
Tenacity is key – the ability to keep forging ahead no matter what gets thrown in your way and who or what tries to stop you from building the thing that’s stuck in your head.
What is something you believe to be true, that few other people believe?
I believe that location is not a solved problem. People think that location is solved because navigation works so well, but for several reasons (most notably because navigation relies heavily on battery usage/drain and GPS) it’s not.
Figuring out where a phone is located in the real world beyond latitude and longitude is very complicated and hard. Knowing that someone is at Foursquare HQ as opposed to standing on the corner of Prince and Broadway, is a huge difference. We’re continuing to make improvements to our technology to get closer and closer to the right answer.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
From my Mom: “Do what you love and the rest will come.” This didn’t make any sense in real time, however, it makes total sense in hindsight. I never gave up on working on the problems I liked solving. Eventually, things started to work themselves out.
From my Dad: “You can’t eat newspapers!” In the early days, Foursquare used to generate tons and tons and tons of press…all before we were generating any significant revenue. My dad used to tease me with this line, but it’s a good reminder that there’s more to making a business work than just getting the name of the company in lights.
What key characteristic do you think makes for a great entrepreneur?
I think tenacity is key – the ability to keep forging ahead no matter what gets thrown in your way and who or what tries to stop you from building the thing that’s stuck in your head. I think you also need to be ready to sign up for the long haul and the nights and weekends of just plugging away trying to make it work. The legend of “the overnight success that took 8 years to build” is real… and we’re living it now.
What are ways that businesses can harness the power of data to pivot, iterate, and remain flexible?
In most industries, and in tech in particular, there is a trend towards commoditization. Just because you built something today, does not mean that someone else won’t build it tomorrow. As a startup, it’s important that you are able to move faster than everyone else is moving, in order to stay relevant and ahead of the curve.
One way that we’ve done this has been by learning to leverage our data to find the pivot point where we could transition from descriptive data to predictive data. This ability to extract insights from our data set and look into the future is what has allowed us to stay ahead.