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Dennis Crowley Pitches a New Foursquare to His Old Users: "The Thing Is, No One Knows We’re Doing This."

A once-buzzy startup tries rebooting -- and taking on Yelp and Google at the same time.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

It’s time for Foursquare, a once-buzzy startup that has struggled to keep and grow its user base, to try something new. Today it is relaunching its core app and promoting itself as a way to find interesting places to visit around you, using your phone and data the company collects about you.

In other words, it is trying to compete with Yelp and Google.

That would be a big order for anyone, but CEO Dennis Crowley is shouldering extra weight, since he has raised piles of money at valuations that now seem much more difficult to achieve.

But Crowley is always happy to explain why he think he’s going to win. Here’s an edited transcript of a phone conversation we had this week.

Peter Kafka: You’ve got a new app to promote, but it’s also your old app. How do you get people who stopped using it to pick it up again?

Dennis Crowley: Our thinking has always been, “If we can make these simple, elegant apps, they’ll find the users they were meant for.” A lot of the stuff that we’ve been doing over the past year has been not only realizing that the Foursquare app was kind of big and clunky — there were two different use cases built in, the “hey I want to share where I am with my friends,” and the “hey I want to find an awesome place to go.” For a lot of reasons it made sense to keep them together, and for a lot of reasons it makes sense now to split them up [into Foursquare and Swarm].

Right. But the important thing for you is to promote Foursquare, the discovery app, because that’s the part that’s going to be your business, right?

That’s the biggest opportunity.

So how do you get people to pick up the app again if they haven’t used it in years, or haven’t used it ever?

I think a lot of it is just reeducating users. There’s a lot of things we can do to teach users, or teach people in general, that Foursquare is this amazing local search tool, and it’s not just about check-ins. We’ve never done any external marketing. That’s something that we’re starting to think about. We’ve been really lax on using email as a tool for reengagement. We’ve been changing the organization a little bit to start thinking about how to reeducate people.

When people find our own search tools, they think they’re great. The thing is that no one knows we’re doing this.

Did you think about just scrapping the old app and starting with something brand-new, so you didn’t have to work to “reeducate” people?

We thought a little bit about that. Ultimately we decided, because we think personalized local search is such a huge opportunity — why would we not give this app the best chance of success, by having it already existing on tens of millions of phones?

I’m one of the people who actually uses Foursquare for discovery, especially when I travel. It just helped me find an awesome sushi place in LA. I liked the system you had, which tells me if my friends have been somewhere, which makes it interesting to me. Are you changing that now?

No. That’s still a big part of it. We want to suggest places to you that your friends have been to in the past, that your friends have left content at in the past. But we have a lot more signals than just check-ins. In addition to having these six billion check-ins, we have 55 million tips. We have people that like places. We have people that share places.

But I don’t care about anyone’s tips except my friends’. If I wanted random tips I’d go to Yelp or Google.

That’s totally right. So one of the things you’ll see in the new app is a section that understands the places that your phone has stopped in. Almost like a check-in without checking in. It’s never shared with anyone — it’s your own personal history that gets built up over time.

And what we’ll do is say, “Hey, we see you visited this place a couple of times — did you like it? Would you recommend it to a friend?” And as people tell us nuggets about different places, we can use that signal to infer a recommendation to that person’s social graph.

Will I be able to see that Dan Frommer has been to this sushi place?

Yeah, that will be there on Day 1.

Earlier this year you guys were reportedly on track to generate $40 million to $50 million in revenue. Does that factor in the new app?

We never comment on specific numbers, but we have seen significant growth this year and this quarter. A lot of those projections are based on the existing app. The new app gives us a lot more opportunities.

Does it make sense for you guys to be an independent company? Or should you be attached to a bigger platform, like Apple, Google or Yahoo?

I think it works either way. We’re still definitely focused on making this work independently. I’m a huge believer in personalized local search. I think we’re doing a better job at that than most companies. Yelp is the big name in the space, and they’re a big, stand-alone, independent company — and they’re doing it on technology that feels really antiquated.

I have all the confidence in the world that our approach is the right one. It’s just a matter of being able to execute on that, and show it to a critical mass of people.

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