Liz Gannes

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Dennis Crowley Live at Dive Into Mobile

With only nine Foursquare members currently checked in to our D:Dive Into Mobile conference, Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley may be a little out of his usual element of adoring fans. But fresh from modeling Gap’s new chunky cardigan in bus stop ads, Crowley is here to answer tough questions from All Things Digital chief Kara Swisher. Crowley’s Foursquare now has 4.5 million users, a whopping 35 employees and $20 million in funding, and it recently opened a San Francisco office.

9:15 am: Kara: I gave you a hard time earlier this year.

Dennis: I noticed.

Kara: I called you the Hamlet of Web 2.0, because you didn’t know what you wanted to do. When you were raising funding, what was happening in your mind?

Dennis: We were focused on the product.

9:16 am: We knew what we wanted the product to do, and I think we were figuring out what we wanted the company to be. We were choosing between funding and aligning with a bigger company.

Kara asks specifically about Yahoo and Facebook, and Dennis replies very non-specifically: “We talked to those company about hey, it would be interesting to work together.”

9:18 am: Dennis: Dodgeball was the perfect storm of bad timing. In the N.Y. Google office, right after the IPO. I think we’d be smarter about structuring the deal now.

Kara: What’s the difference between Dodgeball and Foursquare? Didn’t you just sell the same company to Google and are now starting it again?

Dennis: Dodgeball was just dots on a map. After Google I worked at a company called Area Code, and (Foursquare co-founder) Naveen (Selvadurai) was working at a company called Socialight, building social guides. We brought a little of both into Foursquare.

Kara: You should do it again, and the next one should be called Tetherball.

Dennis: Actually, I wanted to name Dodgeball “Foursquare” back in the day, but some guy owned the domain.

9:21 am: Dennis says Foursquare gets people to try new experiences and go to the gym more. “Our ultimate focus is about becoming the best social utility possible that overlaps with the real world. We’re not trying to build this amazing game.”

Dennis Crowley of foursquare

We didn’t think the mayor thing would blow up into what it is now. One of the things we’re most excited about tweaking is we’re getting really good at game mechanics and we want to overhaul them.

9:24 am: Kara asks about improving incentives, and Crowley replies he wants to build a couponing engine that’s like a rewards engine on top of the stats.

“Everyone’s gotten a buyback from a bartender”–Foursquare wants to bring that online. (Crowley always seems to be assuming his NYC party scene is the model for the rest of the world.)

9:26 am: Dennis, on making merchant relationships scalable: Foursquare now has a self-service system. Eventually all businesses will have TV screens that will integrate with Foursquare.

Also, developers are extending what Foursquare can do–for instance cab-sharing apps use Foursquare info to know who’s checked into nearby locations and may want to share a cab.

9:29 am: What about competition? Dennis: It’s all about evangelism. The check-in itself isn’t interesting; it’s all about after the check-in. What is on the screen that you show, the deals, learning about what friends are ordering. He is most excited about recommendations, games and incentives.

Dennis Crowley of foursquare

Dennis: We’re not raising money, though people have approached us. We have enough money to go through till the end of next year. The point is not to become profitable now, but to grow. When we figure out what is actually working on the local merchant front, then we’ll pull that lever. (Hmm…Groupon didn’t take quite so long to figure that one out!)

We don’t want to charge local merchants for a product that isn’t ready yet.

9:32 am: Our business model is to create and sell tools to local merchants. Along the way we figured out other ways to make money, like getting brands involved to help explore the world through their lens.

Some more rapid-fire topics:

Longer-term goals: We’re so focused on what happens before the end of the quarter.

Facebook: We knew Facebook was going to do location for a long time. The question for us is how do we make our product as special as possible.

Groupon: There are lessons we can learn from them and ways we can work together. We could easily pull Groupon deals into Foursquare and make them sweeter based on the stats behind them.

Valuations and frothiness: Ours was around $100 million. For us the goal is to build products, not an amazing company; hopefully that will come out of it.

All start-ups have the same problems: We want to move faster, hire faster, revise the road map faster.

9:38 am: Foursquare will have 40 people by Monday; we’re putting the pieces together. Crowley says he’s still focused on product and evangelism. I’m a lousy engineer, he says, but I’ve always been hands-on, and it’s been hard for me to delegate, but I am trying to do so with the team we have now.

Dennis: I have a solid idea of what the product will look like after two years. No idea if we’ll be sold or independent in five years. The most frustrating experience for me was having a lot of things we wanted to build with Dodgeball, and it was so frustrating not to be able to, and now we’re actually getting them done.

Dennis Crowley of foursquare

“I think location is underhyped. People don’t understand how the stuff that we’re building will help change the way people experience physical space.”

9:41 am: Audience question about passive check-ins. “Ultimately that’s the way this stuff goes. It just doesn’t work very well. GPS isn’t smart enough to snap you to the right place at the right time.”

It’s also a matter of battery life. GPS and batteries need to be fixed before we can do that stuff.

Audience question about “off-the-grid check-ins.” Crowley says they’re below 20 percent of all check-ins, though he doesn’t know the number. He personally does it to leave breadcrumbs at all the places he’s been to, but when he doesn’t want people to come up to him when he’s having dinner with his girlfriend, for instance.

Also, he adds, about 20 percent of check-ins go to other networks like Facebook or Twitter. The Foursquare social graph is “much much tighter” and gets the majority of check-ins.

Question about devices. We haven’t built for iPad yet. Crowley just bought an Android phone. Ultimately, wants to treat all devices the same.

“Everyone thinks we’re a 200-person company, but there’s just not enough engineers to do all the stuff we want to do.”

9:48 am: By the way, there are now 17 people checked in to D:Dive Into Mobile on Foursquare. Guess seeing Crowley in person was a good reminder!

Dennis Crowley at Dive Into Mobile

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