Dennis Crowley started Foursquare in 2009 from his kitchen in Manhattan with a lofty vision: Amass enough data to map out specific areas, build a location-based recommendation engine, and create navigation software. But when the company introduced gaming dynamics to encourage check-ins, that’s what it became known for. To an extent, Foursquare is still known for introducing “mayorships” of local coffee shops and other neighborhood institutions, although its ambitions and vision extend well beyond the check-in.
“We’ve become this location layer for everything on the internet,” Crowley said in a fireside chat with Digiday editor Brian Morrissey that concluded yesterday’s Street Fight Summit. “That’s an incredibly powerful and defensible position for us to be in as a company.” Alluding to the charge that has dogged Foursquare that the company has neglected revenue, Crowley noted that “the money isn’t in Foursquare or Swarm; it’s in all the data those apps collect.”
Geotagging social media activity has become commonplace, but Foursquare was at the forefront years ago, rewarding users who used the app to track their movement in the physical world. The technology has grown to the point where users don’t even need to check in anymore.
“We’ve built the ability to do passive check-ins; I can have my phone in my pocket just walking around SoHo, go inside the Burton store, and it knows — even if I keep it in my pocket — that I spent seven minutes there,” Crowley said. “We can understand where these devices are moving throughout the world.”
In fact, much of Foursquare’s usage is international. Other countries use the app like we use Google Maps, Crowley said. In the six years since its launch, the company has mapped 65 million places around the world. The company has often used its technology and location data to partner with ad networks, helping them better target audiences.
Foursquare recently made headlines through a different application of location analytics: It accurately predicted the number of iPhones sold on the day the 6S was first available in stores. “It opened people’s eyes,” Crowley said. In the short time since, people across a range of data-heavy industries have become intrigued by Foursquare’s “competitive intelligence” capabilities, he added. “They’re wondering ‘what else can you do with this stuff?!'”
When asked about the challenges Foursquare faces, Crowley was quick to note that the company is still small — 190 people — compared to others that deal with comparable amounts of data. “It’s really, really hard for us to compete against Google, size-wise,” he said. “To compete with Google, Apple, and Facebook for talent, retention, technology — that’s tough. We almost have no business competing with these guys, the best companies in the world, but no one can do the stuff that we can do. It’s really kind of gratifying.”