It's the first day of the rest of Foursquare's life.
The company announced Thursday it had raised a significant new round of venture funding. But the $45 million in finding was what's known as a "down round," and zapped the company's valuation to reportedly less than half of the roughly $650 million it was valued at in 2013. The disappointing round--which will mean a lot less equity for employees and existing shareholders--has been anticipated for weeks now.(And it's even more bleak when one considers the valuation now is allegedly just more than twice what the company has raised, previously: more than $120 million, in addition to $41 million in debt financing.)
There's a glob of defensiveness in what investor Fred Wilson, whose Union Square Ventures led the round, wrote on his website Thursday: That Foursquare is a "real business that is sustainable and has attractive economics."
The week's real surprise for Foursquare is a significant management reshuffling that is plucking Dennis Crowley, the company's founder, chief executive, and rambunctious spirit animal, out of his longtime role as CEO. "Meanwhile," wrote Crowley while explaining the new funding, as if it was oh-so-innocently unrelated, "I will be stepping up into role of Executive Chairman."
Crowley co-founded Foursquare seven years ago, and will be replaced in his former role by two executives: Jeff Glueck, the former head of marketing at Travelocity and Steven Rosenblatt, who worked on Apple's iAds, who will be Foursquare's president, working alongside Glueck.
There are multiple reasons this is difficult to interpret, the most significant of which is that "executive chairman" is a highly variable role. It can be a sort of board chairmanship-CEO hybrid, with a heavy load of day-to-day duties. Or it can be at the other side of the spectrum--a very light half-day-a-week "advisory" job. Often, because of its lofty title and flexibility in terms of role, its appearance can simply mean there's a compromise happening--one that hasn't yet reached its conclusion.
Crowley has hinted his role will be less day-to-day business-building, and more conceptual and advisory. Still, it's odd to see this sort of abrupt founder step-back after the founder has been working on the same idea for a company for more than a decade. (In fact, by the time a venture is three years old, there's less than a 50 percent chance its founder is still at the helm. Research published in HBR found that four out of five founders who leave do so against their will.)
"Build another one."
Consider that, for Crowley it's been an entire adulthood of working on the idea of broadcasting one's location through check-in. Before building Foursquare, Crowley, who's now 39, built a location-messaging service called Dodgeball, which he sold to Google in 2005, five years after he founded it. Before Dodgeball, Crowley worked at a scrappy city-search service for PalmPilots called Vindigo.
He found that gig boring, he told a reporter.
"I was like, This is so broken. Fuck it, I'm going to build my own," Crowley recalls. After teaching himself a bit of software programming, he developed what would become Dodgeball. After selling to Google and leaving that company (which eventually killed the product) , Crowley and his friend, Naveen Selvaduri, decided to rekindle the idea yet another time. "They're going to turn Dodgeball off? Naveen and I were like, 'Let's stop dicking around and build another one.'"
Crowley is one of the most iconic startup founders of the past decade--especially in New York, where he's a legend for his perseverance and his consistently spirited approach to solving the same problem over and over again, through various iterations and monetization schemes. Perhaps he's become even more iconic in that he's managed to become someone to look up to while, well, working on an idea that might just not work. Ever.
In Fast Company, Austin Carr profiled Crowley last year, wondering aloud: "after 10 years, eight South by Southwests, two startups, and zero dollars in profit, will Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley ever find his way?" One paragraph is particularly illuminating:
Startups are always tied to their founders; rarely has the identification been so close as Foursquare is with Crowley. It has worked in his favor during the beginning of the hype cycle--a process every hot startup goes through--from the magazine covers Crowley was featured on after Foursquare surpassed a million users to the television coverage he received for raising a $50 million round from Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures. But even as Foursquare topped 15 million users and 500,000 businesses in late 2011--with brands like Starbucks flocking to the service--the polish was already starting to wear. The struggles of the past year in particular have turned into not just a referendum on Foursquare's potential but on Crowley's tenure as CEO. "It's inevitable with such high expectations that everyone will turn on you," says Foursquare employee No. 4 Nathan Folkman, now the CTO of Path, which is experiencing its own honeymoon period. "People are in love with you, but then all of a sudden, they can't wait to watch you fail."
The message and the truth
It's been at least four years in a sort of defensive crouch for Crowley, so the air of positivity in Crowley's Medium post yesterday is a little tough to read. He refers to his position change as "stepping up," says Foursquare is in "great hands" with new management, and uses a triple exclamation point (in parentheses) when referring to the $45 million in new funding. Remarkable, because that figure cost him a lot of money--and, probably, his job leading 160 employees, most of whom he's hired.
More than anything else, this quote from an interview with Crowley in the New York Times seems telling: "I believe it's important for Foursquare to be run by executives who have previous experience scaling companies." (Said no entrepreneur, ever, or at least never said of his own volition.)
There's so much at stake when a management transition happens at a startup: employee morale is super vulnerable, the press are circling, and investors want to see a certain narrative emerge. Still--and this is testimony to one of his giftst--Crowley managed to make this gloomy week in January feel sunny beyond belief.
"Everyone thought we were going to be the company that toppled Facebook, which is crazy talk," he said in an interview. Still, he added, "we're building a really amazing, very scalable business around the many successful products we've built that people love." He posted on Twitter Friday morning a gleeful check-in at an East Village coffee shop.
Wilson is right about one thing--the last sentiment he writes: "[Foursquare] has survived and is thriving. Very few understand that, but those close to the company do. Which is the hallmark of a tenacious and durable founder and leader and his or her company."
What will the durable Dennis Crowley do next? It's all up to him--and whether he can actually let go of this idea that may be deeply flawed, but which has been his life's work. Will he move on?
Maybe it'll be a third time for him to utter a trademark: Let's build another one.