On stage during an interview at Internet Week, an annual tech and marketing conference in Manhattan, Dennis Crowley seemed more enthusiastic than I'd seen him in a long time. Indeed, it's been a roller-coaster couple of years for his company, the five-year-old Foursquare.
First there was a round of debt financing in 2013, which allegedly caused the company's valuation to sag. The company, which claimed to be making ample money from large advertising clients, had raised a whopping $162 million in total funding. Then there were reports of disgruntled employees. Then, the Boston Marathon mess.
But Crowley, ever the optimist, has a new product, Swarm, to get excited about. The Swarm app is, essentially, the social version of Foursquare, which allows users to check-in at locations and share their location with friends, split off from the old Foursquare. (Not to be confused with the new Foursquare, which is more of a recommendation-engine for restaurants, cafes, and nearby events.) As Crowley explained, the app would be helpful for someone who lives, say, in the East Village of New York City and gets off the train in Chelsea and isn't familiar with the area.
"It should tell you, based on the way you live in the East Village, these are the things you should be doing in this neighborhood [of Chelsea, where the Internet Week sessions took place]," he said.
While in development at Foursquare, which is based in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, the project was called "Robin," the sidekick to Foursquare, a.k.a "Batman." It's been heralded as the "death of the check-in," because Foursquare's goal with Swarm is for location to become a passive, ambient, "light version of check-in that means you never have to push a button to check in," as Crowley described it.
As Foursquare turns five years old, and the company matures, it's worth considering that Crowley has been working on the concept of location-awareness in apps for the past 10 years. (His previous geolocation startup, Dodgeball, was acquired and tabled by Google.) Turns out, it's not purely "location" he's obsessed with.
"It's not so much 'location,' but this thing we started with Dodgeball: Can you make cities easier to use?" Crowley said. "I feel lucky because earlier in career I found what I liked to do, it's build software that you see your friends using on the street and they like it."
He's bullish about the New York City tech ecosystem, having seen it evolve over the past decade, and says Foursquare will long stay rooted in Silicon Alley. He said San Francisco has become an industry town for tech--and that just doesn't foster the kind of creativity or diversity he likes to see in his company, and surrounding it culturally.
"What I like about New York tech is that it's like the sixth- or seventh-most-important thing here," he said, referring to the dominance of the finance, fashion, and media industries. The upside? "We are one of the bigger fishes in a smaller pond."
Now that Foursquare is a 165-employee company, Crowley isn't necessarily hands-on building software anymore. And that fact keeps him up at night.
"Running an organization as large as we are is a lot of hard work," he said, noting he sleeps more these days than in years past. "And fighting off the 10 other companies trying to copy us is hard work."