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The Hemi Q&A: Dennis Crowley

As far as tech success stories go, his is decidedly uncool: attending not just college, but also grad school ... refusing to move to Silicon Valley ... being in his 30s. But none of this has done anything to slow the rise of one of the industry's brightest stars. Checking in with the mayor of Foursquare.

Author David Carr Illustration Andy Martin

IF SOMEONE WERE TO MAKE A MOVIE about the building of a social network—which, now that you mention it, seems like a good idea—they could do a lot worse than setting up shop at Foursquare in lower Manhattan. The HQ of this location-based social network service looks a little like a movie set, with walls decorated with vinyl records and row after row of kids beavering away writing code. And then there’s Dennis Crowley himself, the co-founder of Foursquare, a man who, if he weren’t so busy building a company, could easily play a celluloid version of himself. Boyishly handsome? Check. Disarmingly casual? Sure. Smart as all get-out? Yep.

Launched in 2009, Foursquare is built on a base of users who “check in” via smartphone when they arrive at a specific location, signaling to the rest of their network where they are. Originally, it was kind of a game. Users received virtual badges when they checked in, and if they visited a place often enough, they became the “mayor” of that location. More recently, Foursquare has focused on the commercial world, letting shops know when a certain customer is in the house and helping users access special offers.

So far there have been more than 3 billion check-ins on Foursquare, giving the company a lot of data to work with. It has nearly 30 million users, with a million more signing up each month, and the company is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

When we went to see him, Crowley, 36, was in the middle of a run of meetings. It can get frantic, he admitted—but as a sign on one of the office walls advises, “Keep calm and check in.” So that’s what we did.

Hemispheres: When you tell people what you do and get a blank stare, how do you explain Foursquare?

Crowley: I say we make software for cellphones that helps make the most of where you are. We can help you find great places to go, we can help you find the places that your friends have been to and, because we have deals with merchants, we can help you save money at the same time. Everyone is carrying some kind of network-connected device in their pocket, and all those devices should just be talking to each other, so that you know when friends are close by and you know when you pass a storefront that there’s something of interest to you inside.

Hemispheres: Location-based services like yours have been the next big thing for quite a while.

Crowley: They’ve been saying that for almost 10 years. But then again, people aren’t carrying a lot of paper maps anymore, so a lot of that stuff snuck into our lives when we weren’t paying attention. The first time you see a dot onscreen that represents where you are, that’s an oh-my-gosh, this-is-the-future type of experience. The big opportunity for Foursquare is to reinvent the way that people think about maps. So if I open up a map on this phone and it’s going to drop the blue pin for where I am, that’s no different from my unfolding a paper map and putting my finger on that same spot. But what if when you open up the map, it already knows where your friends are, what you might like to do and all the places you’ve already been?

Hemispheres: And a lot of that data comes from users checking in, right?

Crowley: It’s not just who’s where right now, but where people have been over time. The likelihood of my going to Atlanta right now and bumping into a bunch of my friends is probably pretty low, but instead of me wandering around Atlanta figuring out what to do, that map should say, “Hey, you’ve had 10 friends come here over the last year and these are the 10 places they went that they thought were interesting—maybe you would think they’re interesting too.”

Hemispheres: How many people work here now?

Crowley: [Looks around.] About 130.

Hemispheres: How has it been for you, not just writing code but actually running a company?

Crowley: It’s weird because it grew so quickly. A little more than three years ago, there were two of us at my kitchen table in the East Village. I’m learning a lot of this on the fly, because I’m not trained as a CEO; I don’t know if anyone is. You figure out a lot of these skills as you’re doing it. I’ve had to learn ways to get people inspired about the things we’re building and learn the best way to get everyone on the same page. One of the lessons we keep learning over and over again is the value of repeating the vision and talking to as many people as you can—overcommunicating, actually—just so we all know why we’re doing this and why it’s important.

Hemispheres: The company grew out of your master’s thesis, right?

Crowley: Yeah, it all started with the idea of creating software that makes cities easier to use and your friends easier to keep track of. We came up with something called Dodgeball. Say I have the people I used to work with, I have the kids I went to college with and I have the guys I was in grad school with, and I want to hang out with all of them at a given time. What’s the most efficient way to do that? To have a service that knows where everyone is.

We never set out to build a company; we set out to solve problems that we had. We wrote software that our 10 friends would use, and then 10 more people wanted to use it, and then their 20 friends, and then their 50 friends, and so on. And once you reach critical mass, you can know more about where you are. Like, “Hey, you’ve never been down this street before? You need to know about this bookstore on the left-hand side because five of your friends have checked in there.” It’s almost like a superpower, giving you the ability to see around corners and through walls.

Hemispheres: And now you’re working on giving people deals that are based on where they are.

Crowley: Google invented this great way of crawling the Web with spiders; it ended up with a whole bunch of users looking for something, and it matched them with paid advertisements. At Foursquare, we don’t have spiders—we have millions of people who check into their favorite places every day. We have a network of merchants who are very interested in tapping into that and can help out customers with deals right where they are.

Hemispheres: You went to college at Syracuse University and graduate school at New York University, and you’ve done very well for yourself. But these days college is a little out of fashion, at least for budding tech entrepreneurs. When young people ask you about college, what do you say?

Crowley: It’s tough. It depends a lot on the type of person you are. I think some people need that structure in order to be really productive. It’s been a long time since I was in college, but when I went to grad school it was a two-year chunk of time when basically my full-time job was to learn as much as I could. I went to grad school because I got laid off from a job, and I ended up using that time to build things and learn. But if you have the discipline to structure your time and really dedicate yourself to something, it doesn’t matter if you do it on your own or through an academic institution.

Hemispheres: You’re still rooted in New York—shouldn’t a company like Foursquare be in Silicon Valley?

Crowley: People ask me all the time, “Why didn’t you start it in San Francisco?” It’s because we live here. I’ve been living here for eight years. I like my apartment and my neighborhood and I don’t want to move. Ten years ago, no one was starting tech companies here, but now there’s Etsy, Tumblr and Kickstarter. The best thing about the New York tech scene is that a lot of people don’t even know it exists. New York is about finance, publishing, advertising, music, art and fashion. Tech is about seventh on the list, which makes for a rich, diverse business environment. I like being around people who do all sorts of things for a living. It makes for a better conversation and helps us build a product that fits into the real world. I don’t want to spend my whole life around engineers and tech people.

Hemispheres: Do you get anxious when you’re off the grid?

Crowley: It takes a day or two of withdrawal, but then you start to realize that you’re fine with it. It’s like when your smartphone battery dies at 10 at night, and you go through that frantic 30 minutes of looking for a charger. Then you give up. A few hours later, you notice that you’re still alive and everything is OK.

DAVID CARR, a columnist at the New York Times, once became Foursquare mayor of taking a disco nap at the South by Southwest conference. True story.

 

FOURSQUARE BY THE NUMBERS

Year that Foursquare was founded
2009

Number of Foursquare users
≈30 million

Number of user check-ins each day
≈5 million

Number of check-ins to date
≈3 billion

Percentage of countries worldwide that users have checked into
100

Number of check-ins to Foursquare’s first global venue, “Super Bowl Sunday” (2011)
200,000+

Number of check-ins at the North Pole
31

Number of check-ins on Mars
2
(Both by the NASA rover Curiosity, the current mayor of Gale Crater)

Number of mayorships held by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak
26

As of March 1, 2013

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