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So What Do You Do, Dennis Crowley, Co-Founder and CEO of Foursquare?

From coding in a kitchen to collaborating in an office, Crowley discusses the location-based startup's latest partnerships, projects, and goals

- July 7, 2010
Just over a year ago, you might not have had the slightest idea what "I just unlocked the 'Superstar' badge on @foursquare!" meant. But since its launch in 2009, social media startup Foursquare has grown to nearly 1.8 million users, rolling out new products and accumulating serious cash (the company secured an additional $20 million in funding in June) along the way.

Dennis Crowley, along with Naveen Selvadurai, started the company around his kitchen table after shuttering a similar service called Dodgeball. "One of the reasons I think that Dodgeball suffered is because it wasn't really a fun one-player experience. If you didn't have 10 friends on it, you really weren't getting much value out of it," said Crowley. "So a lot of stuff we tried to build into Foursquare from the very beginning was about [exploring] the city by yourself. There's a reason to check in beyond just sharing it with your friends." Eventually the pair got out of the kitchen and made their first hire, and today they have a team of 27 that barely fits into the office. "We've been waiting for years and years to be able to do interesting things with mobile phones in the location space, and it feels like all the pieces are finally lined up to make those things happen."

WebNewser editor Alex Weprin caught up with Crowley to talk about how he's grown Foursquare and what's next for the company.


Name: Dennis Crowley
Position: Co-founder and CEO of Foursquare
Resume: Started out as a researcher for Jupiter Communications before joining mobile app provider Vindigo as a product developer in 2000. In 2003, worked on MTV's wireless product development side, and held stints at PacManhattan and ConQwest 2004. In 2004, he founded Dodgeball.com, one of the first mobile location-based services. It was acquired by Google in May 2005; Crowley left in 2007 and Google shuttered Dodgeball in 2009. Crowley founded Foursquare in January of that year.
Birthdate: June 19
Hometown: Medway, Massachusetts
Education: Bachelor's degree, Newhouse School at Syracuse University; master's degree, New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Sunday Styles
Favorite TV show: The Neistat Brothers
Guilty pleasure: Peanut M&Ms, Adidas ZX sneakers
Last book(s) read: The Facebook Effect, by David Kirkpatrick, and Boo Hoo: A Dot.com Story from Concept to Catastrophe, by Ernst Malmsten, Erik Portanger, and Charles Drazin.
Twitter handle: @dens

[Foursquare] struck a couple of deals with television networks, Bravo and C-SPAN -- is that a mutually promotional partnership that benefits each of you, or do you think it can actually drive revenue at some point?
We don't disclose the terms of the deal. Some of them are generating revenue, and some of them are just interesting and exploratory. A lot of it is an experimentation to see if we get media properties and different media brands on Foursquare, are they seeing some benefit in terms of leaving different pieces of content around [the] real world for other users to discover? So every deal that we do is a little bit different. We're inching towards a strategy that works for everyone.

How do you handle suggestions from users, like if someone has an idea for a badge?
We built a forum a while ago, almost like a year ago. We still go through it pretty regularly, maybe once or twice a month. And now we're structured to the point that we have these badge meetings that go on twice every week, and occasionally we'll go through the queue and pull out four or five good ideas and try to push those out.

"We're doing a lot of things to explore and experiment in [the location-based] space to try to tease out the things that are going to be most interesting to venues, but a lot of value to users, too."

Do you think Silicon Valley has more people willing to fund ventures compared to New York?
Yeah, I think that might have been the case before. I know when Alex [Rainert] and I were trying to raise financing for Dodgeball back in 2004, we had a really tough time because there really wasn't a strong angel network here in New York, especially for tech startups. And even when Naveen and I were trying to raise financing really just last year, it was a little bit more difficult. But I think even since that process, a lot of other firms have opened up shops in New York. There's definitely a resurgence of the New York tech scene, and I think you're seeing that and also in the presence of other investors here, too.

What's the best business advice that you've ever received?
Well I think it goes back to what my mom used to say, way back in the day, because I never believed it. She was like, "If you keep working on the stuff that you really love and you're really passionate about, then everything else will just kind of work out." When I was like 20 and 22, it didn't really make much sense, but with these projects, even Foursquare -- I've been hammering on some of these issues or some of these questions for about 10 years, and it seems like her advice is generally pretty good now.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur?
I think it's being persistent with what you're trying to do. I always encourage people to try and go out and team up with folks who can help them build a prototype. It's funny, I go to these parties or conferences, and people will pitch me these ideas that they have: "What do you think? Isn't this great? Can I raise financing on this?" And you know, I think all those are good and interesting ideas and stories, but it's really difficult to take an idea and execute on top of it. So I really encourage people to team up with different groups of people or different groups of skill sets and really try to get something off the ground.

Where do you think the biggest revenue opportunities are in the location-based social space?
Location's pretty broad, so I guess it depends on what you're tackling. For the stuff we're looking at ,I think there's really good opportunities in connecting users with local businesses. We're doing a lot of things to explore and experiment in that space to try to tease out the things that are going to be most interesting to venues, but a lot of value to users, too.

Is there any concern at Foursquare about Facebook launching its own location-based service?
We've spawned a lot of different competitors, and we definitely look at what Twitter and Facebook are doing. We're really interested in the way that they're approaching location, too. I don't really have a lot of insight into what those guys are launching, but we look forward to seeing what it looks like when it does come out, and if there's ways that we can work together with them.

"We've been waiting for years and years to be able to do interesting things with mobile phones in the location space, and it feels like all the pieces are finally lined up to make those things happen."

What do you think Foursquare will look like in, say, five years?
I don't know. It's funny because we have a road map that could take us a couple of years. But again, you look at even four years ago the iPhone wasn't out, and look at how much things are even going to change just with iPhone 4 coming out and all these background location tasks suddenly being available. It's hard to really gauge, but we've been waiting for years and years to be able to interesting things with mobile phones in the location space, and it feels like all the pieces are finally lined up to make those things happen.

What's a typical day at Foursquare like?
We've got this one floor in the Village Voice building, and there's three different companies there, and there's just no more room. Like, you walk in and there's absolutely no more room. That's after we moved about 10 people downstairs. There's a lot of shuffling back and forth, people moving around trying to find a conference room, trying to find a place to sit, trying to find a place to work. It's pretty hustling and bustling. A lot of people come in for their first time and take a look, and they're like, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe you guys actually work here."

I probably get in around 9:00 or 9:30, and it's really running from meeting to meeting and trying to catch up with as many people in our office as possible so I have a general idea of what's going on. And then usually speaking to some brands and speaking to some potential partners that we're doing, either media companies or mobile companies. It's not a lot of coding these days. It's a lot of coordinating and just communicating with people.

How do you and Naveen [Selvadurai, co-founder] work together?
We sit next to each other. He's managing the client team, and I'm running around to get a bird's eye view of everything that's going on. A lot of what I'm doing is helping Alex [Rainert, chief product officer] out on trying to organize and get a lot of the product stuff up and running. And a lot of that touches what Naveen is doing on the client team. So we work pretty closely but not every single day together.

What mobile devices do you use?
I have an iPhone -- not the new one, the old one.

There's a bunch of them laying about in the office. We occasionally do this thing where someone will trade in their preferred phone and take out a Blackberry for a couple of days or take out the Android for a couple of days just so we can get a feel what it's like to exist in one of these other apps.

What places are you mayor of?
I think I'm only mayor of one. It's Scratcher, which is the bar across the street from our office. I'm pretty proud of that one because there's a lot of people checking in there all of the time, and I'm still holding down the fort. I used to have a ton of them, including the Chinese food restaurant in my suburban Boston town, and someone took that away from me a couple of months ago. I don't know who it was, but that's a sign that the service is growing.

Tune in to our Media Beat video interview with Dennis Crowley airing next week on WebNewser to hear his take on Silicon Valley startup culture vs. New York's, how Foursquare handles celebrity users, and his tips for media entrepreneurs.


Blake Gernstetter is mediabistro.com's associate editor.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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