On a recent episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck and the company co-founder and Executive Chairman Dennis Crowley spent some time in the red chairs. The wide-ranging conversation covered how a check-in app became a data gold mine and what role Foursquare could play in an augmented reality future.
You can read some of the highlights from Kara’s interview with Dennis and Jeff at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Today in the red chairs are Dennis Crowley, the executive chairman of Foursquare, someone I’ve known for a very long time, and Jeff Glueck, the CEO of Foursquare, who recently got the job. Dennis co-founded the local discovery app in 2009 and Jeff joined the company in 2014 as its COO. He became CEO in January of this year. Dennis and Jeff, welcome to the show.
Dennis Crowley: Hi, thanks for having us.
How you doing?
DC: Good to see you.
Dennis, I’m going to start with you. We go back a long ways, when you were at Dodgeball. A long time ago.
DC: That’s right, back in 2005.
So explain for the people who may not know of your internet fame, which I do, what that was.
DC: Dodgeball was our grad school thesis project out of the ITP program at NYU. And it was — if you remember Friendster — it was kind of like Friendster but for cellphones. And the idea is anytime that you went out with your friends, you would check in via text message and you would send a text message and you’d just say, “I’m @Magician.” Literally at-sign “the Magician.” Or “the library.” Or “this restaurant,” or whatever. And it would broadcast that message to all of your friends that work in that city.
And what would happen a lot of times is people would show up, people would get the message and show up. And you hanging out with one person would turn into five people showing up and they would all check in and then 10 people would be there, then 20 people would show up, and it was a lot of fun back in 2005-2006.
Right, exactly. Then you were at Google for the shortest time ever [laughs].
DC: Two years, that’s a long time.
Okay, all right. It probably seemed like a long time [laughter]. And then you moved on to Foursquare which was a variation on the idea, correct?
DC: Yeah, when we were at Google, I think one of the big things that we realized, one of the eye-opening opportunities was we could run these queries on the Dodgeball data set. I could run queries that would say, “Show me all the places that are in the neighborhood — the East Village — that people check in on Saturday and Sunday between 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock and sort them by popularity and highlight the ones that my friends have been to and remove the ones that I’ve already been to and already checked into. And there would be your list of the best brunch places to go to.
And I was like, this is like this magical, evolving, personalized city guide, someone should make this thing. We tried to convince Google to do it and they weren’t interested at the time and so when we left Google, you know, I took about a year off not really doing much and then we decided, “Actually, let’s go build that thing. The world that needs that thing, let’s build it.” And we called it Foursquare.
And it absolutely blew up. You were one of those — I’m not going to say “shooting stars” because you’ll take exception with that characterization — but you guys really blew up in terms of fame and attention that you got at South By Southwest and then following that.
DC: Yeah, but remember, there wasn’t a lot of stuff going on.
No, there wasn’t.
DC: It was like one app a month, so if you launch an app, like TechCrunch would write about you for a month and it was great. It’s a lot different now. But I also think we made something that was new and novel and clever. But no, people did, they loved it.
What was it about that that created that?
DC: That created that for Foursquare?
DC: Well remember, we had the check-in, but we had the badges. The badges were like fun and snarky.
The mayor image.
DC: The mayor. So no one had ever made a location-based kind of fun, hipster, snarky game about places.
It’s a game. It’s funny that Pokémon Go is sort of a similar ...
DC: Yeah, like 10 years later.
DC: And before that people were doing location-based games, and I’m hoping there’s going to be a lot more of them now. Actually, it’s fun to talk about how Foursquare gets to power that stuff. But yeah, it’s funny that we put the check-in in Foursquare because we wanted the signal of where people were going so we could give them personalized recommendations and tell them about the places they should go to. The thing that was unexpected was that that part of the story got lost and all people cared about was the game. And I was like, “Well, we didn’t really want to make a game, we have this game, people love playing it, but it’s all about the data.” And then I think what happened as people started [getting bored] — a game can only be fun for so long ...
That’s absolutely true.
DC: … as you see with Pokémon Go and others. We had to find a way to say, “Okay listen, it is now about discovery. It’s about finding amazing places in the world,” which we still do. One of the things that we’ve done over the last couple of years is make sure that the business reflects all the amazing things that we can do with our data. And all the things that we’re doing now with location intelligence and advertising products and analytics.
You’re using that term “location intelligence.” I’m going to bring Jeff in here in a minute, but you sort of change from this hot hot hot internet company, which happens to a lot of people. I’m thinking there’s tons and tons of companies like this, and most of them get sold. Most of them get sold right when they’re hot. A hot one right now is Slack, for example, which may or may not get sold, but it certainly is in the ethos of hot companies. It’s the thing that happens in the internet space. Snapchat’s been holding on for a while, which is a communication service, essentially. Why are you using these terms, because you’re right, it started off as a game and then people were like, “Ah,” like that kind of thing. So what is, each of you I’d love you to say, first Dennis and then you, Jeff, what is Foursquare now? What do you see it as now?
DC: I think our answers are going to be similar, which is great! [laughter] No, we talk about we’re a location intelligence company. We have these two consumer apps that generate lots of data.
DC: The Swarm app and the Foursquare app, Foursquare the city guide and Swarm the check-in game. They both generate a tremendous amount of data about what’s happening in the real world, where are people going in the real world.
We also have a developer ecosystem, about 100,000 people building on top of our platform — this is Uber and Twitter and Apple and Pinterest and Microsoft and others. We’re getting signals back from them as well, which allows us to make this amazing map of the world. And so what do we do with all this data and map of the world? Well, we use it to make advertising products, we use it to do analytics about the types of people that are going to certain places, we use that for marketing purposes, we’re able to sell that to folks who are interested in those types of analytics.
And then also we’re doing lots with data licensing. With this amazing map of the world and information of more than 100 million places in the world, we’re able to license that data to developers and analysts and to all sorts of other enterprises.
All right, Jeff. This is Jeff Glueck who’s now the CEO, he took over from Dennis recently.
Jeff Glueck: Well, I would give the exact same answer. I thought that was perfect.
Don’t be a yes-man, Jeff.
JG: [laughs] I think being a location intelligence company is an even bigger ambition than the company’s ever had before, in that we built this technology that understands the real world. When you walk around with the phone in your pocket, it can enable this connection between digital experiences and the real-world experiences.
You mentioned Pokémon Go, but we’ve been doing this for a while. We now understand if the phone in your purse or in your back pocket moves through an organic juice place in the morning and on to the gym, or through Burger King and on to the doughnut store. We get to know people and we want technology to be smart about the things that you care about, and that connecting the best experiences in the world, that happen in the real world, and then 90 percent of the economy that happens not in e-commerce but in the real world, with digital. And so that’s why we’re powering better pickup locations for Uber, why we’re making Apple Maps smarter, why we’re helping Tencent build better experiences in WeChat. All these things are powered … you know, Pinterest tagging, Twitter tagging, all of that is our location intelligence platform, but we’re also helping hedge funds understand how foot traffic is changing.
All right, but is this a pivot, Jeff? I mean, because it’s a different story than ... you’ve had a couple stories, you’ve had a couple different things over the years. But is it a different kind of business? I mean it sounds like a business-to-business enterprise essentially.
JG: You know, I think when Dennis started the company, he talked about the location layer of the internet.
Which he did.
JG: And that’s back in 2009. And I think we’ve taken that and we’re still doing that. But now a lot of the revenue is coming from using our technology on our platform to do that through much bigger brands …
JG: … and partners and enabling them to use the location intelligence. So understanding how the phones see the world for 106 million businesses so that, you know, your iPhone or your Android can understand that you moved in and out of something and build a personalized experience for you, whether it’s advertising or content or analytics. And so I think it’s an evolution growing up, that what we built, the technology to understand how phones see the world, may be more valuable in an economic sense than just the apps themselves.
Right. So are you a consumer app, Dennis, anymore? You have consumer apps, but it’s not really ... I think it’s open. My Foursquare app is open, but I don’t use it the way ... I’m trying to ... we use very few apps now.
DC: Yeah, well, we actually have two consumer apps that everyone knows about ...
Right, right, but do you see it as a consumer business anymore?
DC: Well, at company meetings a lot, what we’ll do is we have this image that we show and it’s like a pyramid. And at the bottom of the pyramid it’s the consumer apps. The Foursquare app and the Swarm app. And both of those apps are generating signals about where people go and what’s interesting and whether they’re actually open, you’re using it, checking in, or whether it’s in the background and you’re just carrying the phone around with you. And the middle layer of that is all the things we can end up doing with that data. All the enterprise products and advertising products that we built on top of it. And then the top is like, okay, if we’re generating revenue from all the amazing things that we’ve done off of this foundation of the consumer apps, how do we reinvest that to build other amazing consumer experiences or other amazing enterprise experiences?
And so that’s kind of the way we think about it. The consumer apps are driving all the data that is performing so well for the company, but it’s those enterprise products that allow us to continue to innovate and build these things.
So, Jeff, why not just be an enterprise company? Because Uber’s gotta be one of your biggest partners, correct?
So is that now enough? Or is that not …
JG: You know, the engagement of Swarm users, in particular, as well as Foursquare users, is what builds our map. So two million people last year helped edit our database of those 100 million businesses. This place closed, this place moved, the phone number changed ... We’re a 200-person company, and so to have two million editors exploring the world the way Google bots explore the web, that’s a really powerful thing and that comes from our community. An analogy would be more like a LinkedIn, where it’s the users creating this sort of graph of their backgrounds and their interests and then a lot of the revenue is enterprise customers who want access to that kind of data or that recruiting tool ...
So you need this front end.
JG: So the consumer acts as a foundation of everything. We’re sort of a crowdsourced community, the way Wikipedia or Waze or Dark Sky might be. You know, we depend on our users, and we deliver great value back to them by constantly working hard to find the great place they haven’t tried that’s authentic and different wherever they are around the world. And that’s an exchange, and in return at the aggregate anonymous level, we’re learning what are the most popular places in any category and in 200 countries, in any neighborhood. And so I think like LinkedIn or these other crowdsourced plays, it’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between the consumer and the enterprise. It’s almost a Robin Hood thing in that, unlike Yelp …
Which you could compare it to.
JG: Yeah, I mean the city guide is very much occupying the same space as Yelp, although that’s only one of our products, but, you know, they have several thousand people who dial the pizzeria and the bar and try to get them to pay each month. Our ratings are really neutral. We recommend the great banh mi sandwich shop or the great ramen place. We’re not biased in any way. But at the aggregate, that data is now powering Apple Maps or Uber pickups or better widgets in Samsung phones around the world. Or Microsoft is using it to make Cortana smarter. So we’re kind of helping the little guys, but we’re charging the big Fortune 500 companies.
I see, interesting. So talk a little bit about what you’ve done recently. You’ve had some new things you’ve been doing to the apps. What are the new things you’ve done just this week?
DC: Well, we can talk about it on the consumer side, we can talk about it on the enterprise side. On the consumer side, this is a big week. We just hit 10 billion check-ins, which is amazing. That’s a ton of data. It’s powering all the stuff that we’re talking about that we can do, which is a lot of fun.
In addition, iOS 10 just came out, so we launched a new version of the Foursquare city guide app, which is, coincidentally, Foursquare 10.0. Just continuing to make it simpler and prettier and faster and sleeker. And then we just launched a new version of the Swarm check-in app that enables people to get discounts on things in the real world. When you check into a place on Swarm, you earn these virtual coins, and now we’re allowing people to spend those coins to get real things, like a free cup of coffee, a discount on a shirt at Uniqlo, for example. And so I’d like to see us continuing to do that and get more merchants involved in that program.
Where people get deals.
DC: Yeah, I mean people love getting deals, and it’s like a payoff for checking in.
So you’re glomming Groupon onto there.
DC: Well, it’s not Groupon, right, but in Foursquare’s DNA — like how do we help people save money? How do you make free stuff rain from the sky for people that are checking into these places? And now we’re getting better at that.
And the enterprise face, Jeff?
JG: Well, we’re working with a lot of companies to make their experiences better through location intelligence. So we might help a Groupon competitor, like a SnipSnap …
I’ve never heard of it, but all right.
JG: Well, you know, just an example, of reminding you as you walk into a store that you’ve saved a coupon at, and things like that. Enabling these experiences that are smart-based on where you’re going in the real world. So that’s where a lot of the …
Who’s now your most important partner? Would it be Uber or Pinterest? Biggest?
JG: You know, we’re lucky that we have a ton of them. I mean, among the bigger ones would be Microsoft and Twitter, where we power the global location platform. But Pinterest and Samsung are big customers, Apple, Uber certainly.
Explain what you do for Twitter for listeners who don’t understand.
JG: Sure. When you tweet, you can add a location — one of our 106 million locations — to your tweet, like, “Hey, I’m finally back on the treadmill here at the gym,” and we’ll tag that photo with the Equinox in Columbus Circle, or whatever it is. But you don’t have to type it. We know that that photo was taken ...
Sometimes you have to type it. Sometimes.
JG: We’re over 90 percent accurate that one of the first three options will be ... that’s what we’re known for because we’re looking at the Bluetooth beacons and we’re looking at the Wi-Fi.
I was just in Australia, you need more in Australia [laughter]. I was noticing that when I was on Twitter, I was noticing that different places I go, which is fascinating. All right, when we get back we’re going to talk more about check-ins and Foursquare and where it’s going, and where the whole sort of check-in, location-based economy is going. Because there’s all kinds of changes going on. We’re here with Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare, and the CEO Jeff Glueck.
We’re here with Dennis Crowley and Jeff Glueck. Jeff is the CEO of Foursquare and Dennis is the famous founder of Foursquare. So let’s talk a little bit about the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur, Dennis, because you have had them in the same company, which is really interesting. So you got new funding ... explain where Foursquare is and why you stepped down as CEO.
DC: To be honest, it’s just an exhausting job, and it got to the point where the business had matured to a certain point. We were entering this world of, “Hey, these enterprise and advertising products are really taking off and we should make some organizational changes and make sure that the company has a CEO that knows that space inside and out. And that is in the right spot to take the company to where it needs to be.” And so I brought Jeff in in 2014 as our COO and we worked together for, gosh, probably a year and change, before I was like, “Listen, I’m thinking about making a change here and I think you’re the guy that should lead the business going forward.”
And you know, I’d be lying if I said when I interviewed you back in the day, I don’t know if we had this conversation, when we interviewed back in the day I was thinking, “Could this guy be in this role if I ever didn’t want it in the future?” That was one of the things that I was thinking about. And so we talked a lot and we found a way to make it work and I think the business is in a great position. I think Jeff’s done a great job.
And you got refunded or refinanced so there was a lower valuation, correct?
DC: Well, we made some changes to the way that we think about the company in general. I think in the past it had been valued as a runaway rocketship consumer internet brand that has a native advertising business. As the business started to mature and we saw how we were going to make money ...
Actually make money.
DC: Yeah, through data licensing and some advertising technology and a lot through the place analytics and the foot traffic stuff that we’ve been talking about, we realized that we needed to make some changes to the way we thought about the company and the way that we had structured some things.
Right, right, and was that hard? I mean because you do get on this rocket ship, this kind of thing, which you were one of the people who did. Is that difficult to shift that from a mental point of view as an entrepreneur?
DC: Well, when you look at the alternative, the alternative for a lot of companies is you just don’t get to fight another day.
Right, you just close.
DC: You don’t get financing, the investors don’t believe in you, there’s no business, there’s no market for your product. And those companies go away and then no one ever hears about them again. We’re so fortunate that we have an amazing team, we have amazing people, we have amazing investors, and we’re actually clever and we’re smart and we’re scrappy. And we keep finding ways to take the assets that we have and to build on top of them.
It is difficult to figure out how to put those puzzle pieces together in the moment. It really drives you nuts. When I was a CEO I was at my wits’ end. Like, “Man, this is driving me kind of bananas.” But we were able to get it done. And the company is in a much stronger position now than it’s been in the past and I’m really excited and proud of it.
Now when you do that, I mean Slack was a game company and it used an internal system. I mean, there’s lots of stories. Twitter was something else, Odeo, and then was this and now who knows what it’s going to be [laughter], and we’ll talk about that in a little bit. But ...
DC: The name of the game is survival, you know? You’ve got to be around long enough to figure out what works for you. And so people throw the terms like, “Oh, you’re pivoting,” it’s like ... you find a way to make things work.
Do you hate that word? Pivot?
DC: I don’t think that it applies to us, to be honest. Because when we started the company we knew, hey, we can make these apps that will generate a ton of data, we can do magical things with the data. And we found magical things to do with the data. It’s not like we’re selling socks on the internet, like that’s a pivot. We are really doing amazing stuff with data.
Are you going to sell socks on the internet?
DC: That’s the thing I want to talk about next [laughter].
Okay, good. Okay Jeff, talk about your background. You came from where?
JG: So back in 1999 I co-founded a company that I’m sure you have not heard of called Site59.
JG: Site59, last-minute travel. 59th-minute procrastination travel.
DC: That’s what the 59 is! I never heard of that, that’s great.
It’s a little too esoteric, I got to tell you. It should be cheap tickets dot com. Anyway.
JG: Well, it’s funny because we built our own brand but what we really did is we made it possible to get up in the morning on Friday and for $200 go off to Miami, flight, hotel, car rental, because there were empty seats and empty hotel rooms. And so it became about a $125 million business in two years because we figured out that we could power AOL Travel and Orbitz and Travelocity and American Airlines last-minute deals and all of that stuff. And we built it up. And again, the technology that we built for our own Site59 brand had a bigger impact when we put it on the homepage of Yahoo and we ran Yahoo travel deals and things. And so we built it up and then Travelocity acquired it, so I ran marketing for a bunch of years for Travelocity.
Right, so how’d you get to Foursquare?
JG: I moved out to Palo Alto and became CEO of a company called Skyfire that did mobile technology, made mobile video work on phones around the world.
JG: And grew that up. We had tens of millions of users. We made Flash work on the iPhone and the iPad and things like that.
Until Steve Jobs decided that was not the case.
JG: Well, because Steve Jobs wouldn’t allow Flash, we converted it to Apple native formats on the fly and in the cloud. And then we started making the Verizon network more efficient for video and things like that. And then that company became part of Opera, I sold that. And I met this guy named Ben Horowitz.
He was wandering around Palo Alto as he’s wont to do.
JG: Yeah, there he was at Kuba Cafe.
Looked like a homeless guy just standing there [laughter].
JG: Yeah, there he was. And he said, “Hey, I heard you want to move to New York,” because my wife’s a New Yorker, “and you should meet Dennis Crowley.” And we hit it off. And that’s the story.
And Andreessen Horowitz is an investor.
JG: Andreessen Horowitz is our biggest investor.
And what did you see Foursquare as?
JG: I joined because I was inspired by what Dennis had as this vision of connecting the real world and the digital world, and all the things it invented. And I definitely saw that the technology was amazing and it had all these uses and it could be a real business, and that got me excited.
And I feel like it’s a sacred trust because everyone who works at Foursquare loves the products. I’m addicted to the Swarm game and I find amazing places that I would never find, whereas I travel with Foursquare as a city guide. But it’s a sacred trust that we want to keep innovating, keep inventing things, and that means we have to make this a sustainable, profitable, real valuable business.
With these other businesses, which are ...
JG: With these enterprise and media and developer tools, businesses which are growing over a hundred percent year over year. And now they’re over 80 percent of the revenue of the business. And so we’re building a real business and that’s why raising $45 million was a real testament to this is working. It was a question when I joined. We have a hundred thousand apps powered by the technology but we didn’t charge anyone.
I remember having an argument with Dennis, like, “Hey, you know, they’re calling us billions of times a year, maybe they can contribute something to our server bills?” And there’s a lot of, “Wait, we can’t charge for this,” and we went out and started signing them up.
Oh you can charge, Dennis [laughter]. You know, it’s interesting how you do that. Now it begs the question, given you’ve sold so many companies, did you all think of selling Foursquare? Because a lot of people do talk about the value of the data of Foursquare. And you know how companies get trashed in the typical internet gossip. Everyone always comes back to, "Well, Foursquare has all this data." It’s valuable to someone like a Google or a Facebook or something like that. Or an Uber, even. Lots of different kinds of things, if they’re moving into other businesses. Have you thought about that, like the idea of building this and selling it? Or is it an independent business?
DC: Well, it’s come up. I mean we’ve been around eight years and so we’ve had our share of people that have been interested in acquiring the business at one time or another. We did a round, when was it? This year, earlier this year. God, it feels like forever ago.
We have the strongest leadership team in place now than we’ve ever had in the past. Like we have these products that are working. We have our sights set on making that work. You want to talk about what the goals are?
He stumbles [laughs]. What are the goals? Because you sell things, it sounds like, but go ahead.
JG: I spent seven years building up those businesses too, even after we joined. The thing about it is, our goal right now, we set an internal goal, that we want to be a hundred million dollar profitable business in revenue and we want to make as big an independent company after that that we can. And we’ve got a plan, it’s working. So that’s the plan, to stick with it.
Are you close to that number? Those numbers?
JG: We are in planning horizon of that number, exactly, exactly.
I see. Using these data services?
JG: Yeah, the developer tools, the mapping technology that folks like Apple and Twitter and Uber and Samsung and Microsoft are using. The media products that help advertisers understand if their ads are working and with what kinds of consumers and who likes their business and how you can find more of them. And then the analytics tools to understand what businesses are surging and which are falling in the real world.
That’s interesting. So Dennis, we’re going to finish off this section talking about the check-in. What’s happened to the check-in? Where’s it going, the idea of it?
DC: Well, the check-in is just …
Because it was initially faddish, although it’s still ... people do it all the time in different ways.
DC: It’s not faddish, it’s ...
No, but you know what I mean. It was a thing. It was the thing about it. And now sort of everyone does it.
DC: Yeah, before, it was the thing to do on the internet for a while, as was you filter your photos, you put a puppy dog face on yourself with Snapchat. We kind of go through these phases where things are ... but the check-in is still alive and well. And the thing is, it exists in a whole bunch of different apps now.
That’s what I mean, yeah.
DC: Yeah, and people like to state, “Hey, this is what I’m doing right now.” They used to just do that with the check-in, people might do it with a Tweet, people might do it on Facebook, people do it with Snapchat posts, Instagram posts.
But the explicit statement of, “This is what I’m doing.” I think what’s been fortunate about the check-in is it just contains so much structure. It contains the place name, it contains the date stamp. And from that we can derive a history, “Have you been here before? Do you know a lot about this place? Should we tell you somewhere to go afterwards? Is it interesting that you’re at a place before this?”
In our whole infrastructure, everything we’ve done, is based off of people just give us these little bread crumbs about where they go in the real world, and we piece that puzzle together to make this amazing map of, “All right, what’s happening, where should people go?” So I think it’s alive and well.
The thing that’s super interesting — and this is what we’ve been chasing since 2011 — is what does the check-in look like that doesn’t require you to do anything? The point of Foursquare was not to make it a check-in button, the point of Foursquare was to build this engine that can tell you amazing things about the real world. And the best way to do that is to just have the phones understand where they are as they move in and out of places.
I entered a Starbucks, I left a Starbucks, I was there for 14 minutes. I’m now inside of a butcher, I’ve never been in this butcher shop before, what should I do? Once you get that stream of data from all of these devices, that’s when really magical things can happen.
When it starts talking to you, really.
DC: It does talk to you, right?
Kind of. I think you have to pull a lot.
DC: Foursquare will send you push notifications now.
DC: And it’s not talking like a robot would talk to you. Do robots talk to you? I don’t know.
They’re going to [laughter].
DC: But it sends you a message that you read, right? Eventually, we were playing with — what? the Apple earpods? What are they called? AirPods?
DC: Not earbuds, AirPods.
Earrings, Apple earrings.
DC: The Apple earrings, and at some point we will have a version of Foursquare that enables us to push an audio cue into someone’s earpod, Apple earrings, that says, “Hey Dennis, look left and go inside this coffee shop because it’s the best one inside this neighborhood and you’ve never been inside this neighborhood before.”
Right, that is the goal. We are going to talk about that in our next section.
DC: That’s magical.
Magical. Did you use the word magical?
DC: All the stuff we do is magical!
All right, okay, you know at the Apple event they used the word magical just once, so I thought that was a good day.
DC: And courageous. It is courageous.
No, courage, courage.
DC: Oh, courage.
It’s not courage, you know what’s courage? Like living in Syria. It’s not courage to remove the jack. It’s just a thing, but it’s not that.
We’re talking to Dennis Crowley and Jeff Glueck of Foursquare and when we get back we’re going to talk about the future and where this all goes. Where location-based information, location intelligence, I kind of like that phrase even though I mock most phrases, it’s a good phrase.
JG: It kind of grows on you.
It does. I like it. It makes sense.
DC: That’s great, that makes me feel great.
But other phrases I don’t like as much [laughter]. Anyway, we’ll be back soon.
We’re here with Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare, and his relatively new CEO Jeff Glueck. We’ve been talking about a lot of issues around Foursquare and how it’s changed and morphed its business, and it’s focused a lot on data. And there’s the expression “location intelligence,” which you’re using a lot, which you trot out a lot, and actually it doesn’t irritate me as most phrases from internet entrepreneurs do.
The idea of where we are is really interesting. And it’s morphed and changed over the years but it still hasn’t quite gotten to that sort of, not AI point, but the AR point, where it’s really helpful. People think about it visually but I think about it in hearing and different ways. So let’s talk about where that location is going. I mean either of you. Where do you imagine it goes? You were just talking about something in your ear that starts talking to you and telling you things.
DC: Yeah, I’m a big fan of this idea of software telling you what to do. Right now, as you mentioned, everything’s a pull model. Like, “Where should we go to dinner? Hold on, let me take my phone out of my pocket, let me choose which app I’m going to …”
Look up Yelp or open ...
DC: Yeah, or Foursquare. “Let me open the app of my choice and let me go through all the UX and figure out where we should go.” When really these things are going to be smart enough, you can argue they’re smart enough now, and so, you know, “Hey, I need someplace to go, where should I go? Just give me the recommendation.” That will be the thing that you will end up [doing], the verbal cue that you ask these pieces of software for.
We have a project internally at Foursquare called Marsbot — it’s another app that we launched. The idea is that you install it on your phone and then you never use the app but it just runs in the background.
But you’ve been trying to do in different ways.
DC: Yeah yeah. I mean it’s in Foursquare but I’m like, listen, there’s so much stuff in Foursquare, let’s try this little thing on the side and just make it super simple and see what people think about it. And the idea is that it learns about where you live and where you work and the types of places you go to and what your habits are and where you like to eat and where you like to drink.
And then it will wake up after a couple days of having it and it will send you a text message. And it’s like, “Hey, I’m Marsbot, I’ve got an idea for you. Let’s go here for lunch.” Or, “Let’s go here for dinner.” Or, “Hey, I noticed a new place in your neighborhood, let’s check it out.”
And that’s not paid for by …?
JG: No no, not at all.
DC: This thing is learning and trying to encourage you to do something that you normally wouldn’t have done. And do it before you have that moment of, “Hold on, I got to find a place, let me pull it out of my pocket.”
Which you do now.
JG: But it’s personalized based on — it learns about you from the places you go. You don’t have to tell it. So it knows, “Hey, you really like taquerias because I’ve seen you go to Tacombi and this other place. So you need to try this other taqueria that’s even higher rated that you haven’t been to.” And so it’s learning about you and sort of intelligently suggesting things. I think in general, Marsbot is sort of a research project for what context can do to improve technology.
Why is it called Marsbot?
DC: That’s the little character that’s been inside of Foursquare since early days. Designed by our first designer, Mari.
Right, okay. So the idea is that these are audio or visual cues? Where do you each see it going? I want you to sort of think out further. I mean, you do have these new earpods where they do ... eventually they’ll not be that big, it’ll be like the movie “Her” where it talks to you, where it has a relationship with you. Where do you see it going in the near-term future versus 10 years out?
DC: What’s near-term future? Like tomorrow?
Well, a couple of years. It still seems so antiquated, it just does.
JG: We were talking today about how whether it’s in your glasses or in your earpods or your watch, there’ll be some kind of filtering that will have to happen, because all these apps are pushing notifications at you. We’re going to enable people to be smart about where you’re moving around the world but certain devices are more personal and you’ll have to have a really high standard of whether you want to be interrupted with a ping or ...
I think audio is the way to go. I don’t know why, I just feel like audio ...
DC: How many push notifications do you get on your phone?
DC: Yeah, and you’re going to get them all in your ear? That’s going to be crazy.
Mmm, not if you have a relationship with the thing in your ear.
DC: Yeah, but every app developer thinks that their push notification is the most important one.
I’ll tell you, my relationship, what I talk about a lot with my Amazon Echo, that’s how I see it. I love my Amazon Echo, and I request things from it and it gives me suggestions and it’s not interruptive. I do pull, but I pull in an audio fashion. It’s getting close to a great relationship, it’s one of the best relationships I’ve had with a device.
DC: But it’s still pull.
It is, but it’s pull in a way that makes sense. Like I know the skills I put in there and the things that I ask for, and so it’s pull in a way that I know what I want, it doesn’t know what I want, but then it can start suggesting things to me.
DC: Yeah, at some point Siri will work so well and you’ll have ...
My Siri is like the dumb cousin of the Echo [laughter], I don’t know why. “Huh, what? I didn’t mean to say that.”
DC: But all the other pieces are there. Like you got the phone in your pocket, if people adopt the wireless earrings thing, then that my be in your ear six hours a day, and then those things are there. And then you basically have the scenario ...
It’s interesting, though, that in the home it’s a better device. I ask for recipes, I ask for lots and lots of things. And I don’t ask Siri anything because it never gives me the right answer. It just doesn’t seem to know who I call a lot and I always, you know, it should know like when I call my son, and I do it all the time, and they’re like, “Which Louie?” And I’m like, “There’s one! That I call all the time! Can you just pick that one?” It’s really fascinating that it doesn’t get that way, and it’s the same thing with going out, and this is where a Foursquare app operating in the background would have some knowledge.
DC: You could also think about things like the moment that you leave your house and you start walking east instead of west. It’s like, “Oh, where are you going?” Imagine a friend is walking alongside of you. Can we make a personality like that that talks to you in that sense. And it’s not crazy to think that we could do some of this stuff with audio, and it’s not 30 years out. I mean, we might be playing with this stuff a year from now. “Where are you going? Do you need some help finding a place?” “No, I don’t.” “Okay, I won’t bother you.” Or, “Yes I do.” “Well, what do you want to find? You want something to eat? I know of a great place to go eat.” Like we could write the copy to do that.
Right, which you have the data on, presumably.
DC: Of course we do.
Or Yelp or someone else.
DC: We have the data and we can make it personalized. Like, “Oh, I saw that yesterday.” Or, “Yesterday we got tacos and two days before that we went to a steakhouse, why don’t we go try this new sandwich spot?” We could make something that would talk to you like that because we understand the way that people move through the world.
What about visual? Jeff, how do you look at visual stuff? AR, I guess we’re talking about. Everyone’s all into VR but I think AR is more ...
JG: We think AR is more exciting, because at least it’s not as nausea inducing. But yeah, when you look at a block that you haven’t been at, could just overlay, “This is an amazing place that serves shortribs and you love short ribs,” as you’re walking by. And then you tell it to save it. It’s just as you look around, just augmented information. I think that’s interesting.
But I think for us, a lot of what we want to do is power this. There’s going to be millions of developers and some of them are going to have more creative ideas that we never imagined. But we want to be this location platform that allows developers to build contextually smart things, whether it’s really smart games of the future [or] a better version of Pokémon Go that whispers in your ear, “There’s this really valuable item that’s around the corner, turn around.” Or only is unlocked when you spend five minutes in a place. Or you walk into a coffee place and your character gets extra energy all of a sudden. And the real-world people around you, your friends, are in the game as they move around this sort of real-world chessboard.
And then there’s going to be bad ideas. I always joke that some diet app is, you know, you’re going to commit to a low carb diet and it’s going to whisper, “You went into the Dunkin’ Donuts again, we see you. You promised not to.”
Actually, you want it to say, “Put that down. Right now.”
JG: “Put down the glazed donut, step away.”
Well actually, to me you’ll have something in your body and it knows what you’re doing and it says, “Stop. Put that down and pick up an orange.” Like, “You’re not allowed to touch that. This is this many calories,” and starts to really shame you and horrify you. “This is 599 calories in one bite,” that kind of thing.
That’s where it gets useful. That’s where I find a lot of these ... I think a lot of this information that we have even from Foursquare or from everywhere, is nearly useless because it’s a flood of information that you have to pick through. Which is, it’s sort of like all these library books on the floor.
DC: You’re describing AR stuff. I’m just imagining that scenario and I’m thinking, “How do you do that?” And you could do it with AR, right? The thing is, it’s like two weeks ago if we were talking about the audio cues, it’s like, well, who’s going to be the first to make that? And then Apple goes out and says, “Hey, we’re going to sell this for $150 and we’re going to do it two weeks from now,” so you can actually start playing with that stuff. When you talk about augmented reality, the only thing we have to go off of is Google Glass.
Right, which was as disastrous product and not a disastrous idea.
DC: Yeah, so once someone comes out with one, it’s like, “Actually I could see myself wearing that for a couple hours a day,” then all those ideas I think really start to be like, “Okay, we’re going to do this.”
I think you need an Amazon Echo. You need one.
DC: I have an Echo.
Do you like it?
DC: It’s fine. The only thing I do is like, “Hey Alexa, play some Spotify Discover Weekly.”
You gotta really get a little more creative with it.
DC: “Hey Alexa, what’s the weather?” Well, I don’t do the recipes thing.
Yeah, well you need to do other things. There’s lots of things to do on there. There’s a compliment app, you should try that.
DC: Cat facts: “Hey Alexa, open Cat Facts.” Try that, it’s pretty good.
So let’s finish talking about entrepreneurship, because you’ve both been long-time entrepreneurs, and you jokingly called yourself the old man of the internet, which you kind of are [laughs].
DC: Come onnnn.
No, you’re not, you know what I mean! You’re a long-time entrepreneur. I’m super old. Much older than you. I was around when the internet was created in the 90s. I covered Al Gore doing the legislation for it [laughter].
When you’re looking at this panoply, this amount of time that’s gone by, does it strike you? What period are we in, Dennis? As someone who’s been through several of these.
DC: What period are we in? Oh, interesting.
Yeah, what does it feel like right now?
DC: It feels like all the other ages, to be honest. And when I say ages it makes me feel super old, but like we are 18 months away from doing the thing that we’ve been thinking about doing forever. And if we did this interview 18 months ago, there was another thing that was just 18 months away. And that’s what’s so awesome about doing stuff in this space.
And what’s so awesome — at Foursquare we are inventing the tools that people use to make this magical stuff that will exist in the future — is that it’s always changing, you know? We had a vision for what we wanted to do with Dodgeball and we just couldn’t get it done. And instead of being like, “Oh well, someone else will do it,” we waited a couple of years and we said, “Let’s go build this thing again. There’s iPhones, there’s GPS, there’s apps, people know how to use it, people aren’t afraid of it, let’s go do it.”
And the things that we wanted to work or expected to work two years into Foursquare, they didn’t exist. And we said, “If we want to make this world that changes based upon where you walk around, we have to build this stuff. Apple and Google will not build the geofencing tools we need, we need to build them ourselves.”
But I’m talking about more how do you look at the market right now? Has it gotten less innovative? Do you feel that it’s not? Like when you walked in and you’re like, “Uber now has a self-driving car,” like, here we are.
DC: No, I mean this is like science fiction come to life. Like everything’s moving faster than I think people expected it to. I remember when Uber came out in 2010 and you’re thinking, “Is this service even going to work in New York? I can hail a cab no problem.” And now, this is like five years, six years later and there’s self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. That’s crazy. We can talk here and be like, “Oh, no one will ever make this augmented reality thing, like who’s ever going to make it, it’s impossible.”
Oh, I think they will.
DC: No, but it might be like February that Magic Leap shows something or someone else comes out with another version of glasses that you’re like, “Holy cow, that’s not crazy. I would wear that.”
So you’re still inspired, Dennis.
DC: You’re totally making fun of me right now.
Yes, I am.
DC: But no no no, it’s —
How deft of you to understand my tone [laughter].
DC: I’m inspired because there’s just lots of cool stuff happening and we’re like, it’s cool to be in the thick of it.
Well, what would you do if you weren’t doing this?
DC: Um, I don’t know. I think that’s part of the problem, right? Like this is the thing that I want to do. I want to make that thing, that Scarlett Johanssen that whispers in your ear but it’s all about local places and local discovery. I want to replicate the experience of walking through a city with a friend that knows the city inside and out. And I want to make that for millions of people. And if we’re not going to make it with Foursquare — if the Foursquare app isn’t that thing — then we will make the technology and the data that powers it for someone else. And that will be the legacy of what we’ve built, not just with Foursquare but what we started with Dodgeball. It’s like we had these ideas and we saw them ...
No, it’s the same bright line.
DC: Well, we saw them all the way through to completion. We didn’t give up in the middle when it got really hard, like when Google shut the first one down. When Foursquare got super hard, we just powered through. And eventually this stuff will exist and we’ll sit back and say, “We played a hand in making that vision of the future a reality.”
You’re very persistent, Dennis. What about you? How do you look at this?
JG: This era?
JG: I’m reminded of that — wasn’t it Zhou Enlai who was asked about the French Revolution, what does he think of it and it’s too early to tell? [KS laughs]
Oh that Zhou Enlai was a funny guy. No, he really was.
JG: There’s only a few periods in history where you go though this fervent that young people — and I still consider myself relatively young— can build new things. I mean, for most of human history, whether it’s like the 1840s and the revolution in America, there’s these periods of fervent and we’re in one and I think it’s kind of exciting.
The 1950s life of working your way up the corporate ladder would have been stultifying, and to be twentysomething and have gotten, if someone hands you $16 million, to build this idea about making travel great for procrastinators, or make a game that you can play on your mobile phone that tells you where your friends are and where the best places are around. That’s cool and I’m still excited about that.
So I don’t like to be a skunk at a garden party, though I do, what could stop it? What are you worried about as an entrepreneur? Either of you.
JG: The whole technology industry?
JG: You know, we go through periods of being overheated and impractical. I think what’s nice about coming into Foursquare now is we built all this technology and this data, but we had to go through this growing-up period where we are a real business. And that earns us the right to be investing and inventing the future, and so there were periods of baloney, well, free dog food delivery, 50 pound bags, and just this craziness.
Which I got the other day, by the way. They still do it. And I don’t pay anything for it. And Amazon is happy to pay for it. What about you, Dennis?
DC: What, the stuff that scares us?
DC: People on the internet joke about like, “If these are the problems that we’re solving, like how hard our lives must be,” you know? But are there things in the world that will bring all of the world’s big problems into perspective? And then make the hard problems that we’re solving every day about geolocation and finding stuff, make those things seem trivial.
JG: I’m not worried that technology will keep innovating in a way that’s exciting; I do think there’s sort of the political implications of technology I do think about. This is a day where Uber launched the self-driving car and there’s several thousand Uber drivers and so ...
Yup, we talked about that earlier, yeah.
JG: What happens to employment? I’m optimistic, ultimately.
JG: Will there be jobs in the future? And I always say, you go back to the mid 1800s and 80 percent of the population was in agriculture and now 2 percent is in agriculture or less.
There was much pain in that shift, though. We forget that.
JG: It was a lot of pain but ultimately new jobs are created. But the inequality of effects of change are real and I think the political ramification ...
Especially in this election.
JG: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t think that’s easy. There’s that book from your old professor, "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus." Because we haven’t figured out how to make everyone feel an equal stake in all this change.
And that feels kind of good for some people. I did not do any rock-throwing. Let me be clear. Let me ask the last question for each of you. I ask everybody as entrepreneurs, what’s a mistake you made that you learned from or perhaps you didn’t learn from or something that you keep in mind that you shouldn’t do anymore?
DC: I’m much better now at knowing what I’m good at and knowing what I’m not good at. I think in my journey of trying to figure out how to go from Johnny Startup CEO with two people to, hey, there’s 200 people at this company, there’s a bunch of things I got wrong about delegating things that I was good at, or maybe holding onto things that I was bad at.
And so whenever I give advice to entrepreneurs now it’s like, “No, you’ve got to know what you’re good at and you’ve got to own those things at the business.” I feel like I’m good at product stuff, I feel like I’m good at some of the vision and strategy stuff, but hands-on operational stuff, it’s not the thing that I’m passionate about. And I think now I’m in a good spot where I have a great team in place that does those things and it frees me up to do some of the things that I feel as if I’m good at.
JG: I think whenever I go wrong it’s when you have a vision of how things should be and you don’t take the time to get the buy-in from folks. It’s just like, “Go do this,” instead of really letting your teams feel ownership and why you’re doing it and they get to shape it. So those are lessons I’ve learned the hard way.
Although for some people the fast approach works just fine, which is really interesting. You know what I mean? It depends on the team you build, you know, “just go and do this, this is how I want it done.”
JG: I mean, our culture, I don’t think, would take well to the Steve Jobs screaming. I don’t know.
Or perhaps the Uber mentality.
DC: Yeah, every company has different personalities reflective of the people that help build those companies.
Right, absolutely. Yeah, I don’t see you as that kind of company at all. Anyway, I really appreciate you guys being here. We’re here with Dennis Crowley and Jeff Glueck of Foursquare and we’ve been talking about all kinds of things. Thank you guys so much for coming by.
DC: This was fun, thanks for having us on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.