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Catching up with Foursquare co-founder (and Medway native) Dennis Crowley

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 14, 2010 10:00 AM

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Sidling up to a bar or sitting down at a sidewalk table, your first thought may not be to whip out your mobile phone to let the world know you've arrived at River Gods or Stephanie's on Newbury. If not, you're not yet an obsessive user of Foursquare, the social network/game created by Naveen Selvadurai and Dennis Crowley. Hop around to enough places and you can earn a Foursquare badge like "Bender" (going out four nights in a row) or "Pizzaiolo" (grabbing a slice at twenty different pizza joints.) Check in to the same establishment frequently enough, and you may earn the title of "Mayor."

All spring, rumors have been circulating that Foursquare, which just surpassed one million users, is in talks to potentially be acquired by Yahoo, Facebook, or Microsoft for $100 million or more.

I caught up with co-founder Dennis Crowley yesterday for a quick chat. (He's a native of Medway and a graduate of the Xavieran Brothers High School in Westwood.) Crowley is on the speaker list for an event coming up later this month in Cambridge: Eat, Drink & Be Social, organized by Tyson Goodridge of Dialogue, a social media consulting firm. The conference looks at how the new media technologies are changing the restaurant business. 

Q. How do you see foodies and restaurants using Foursquare?

A. For foodies, it's very much about sharing experiences about the places you've been, the dishes you've had, and what you'd recommend to friends. When you go to a new restaurant, tips from your friends pop up, like "ask the waiter if they have this special thing." It's like having insider information with you. The other side is that restaurant owners or other local merchants can have a dashboard with analytics that they see: here's who is checking in most frequently to your business with Foursquare, here's how often Foursquare users come in. That's something we're just in the process of rolling out. We have about 2,000 people on it, and about 15,000 venues in the queue. The challenge is authenticating that someone is the manager or owner of a venue.

Q. Are you seeing more places offer incentives to customers using Foursquare, like discounts or freebies? That isn't something I've seen in Boston much.

A. We see them all over the place. The new version of the mobile app has a tab next to the venue name, so you can see who offers specials. Typical things are a free coffee or a free slice of pizza, or you can cut the line if you're the mayor, or you can always get a reservation after you've been there five times. Some places will write the name of the current mayor up on a blackboard.

Q. What's your favorite little-known badge on Foursquare?

A. I went to school at Syracuse, and we have a badge named after a food truck there, called Ziggy's Wagon. When you've eaten at three food trucks, you get that badge.

Q. I heard you made the rounds, talking with some Boston venture capital firms, but ultimately you took $1.3 million last year from Union Square Ventures in New York and O'Reilly Alphatech Ventures in California. 

A. There was a lot of interest in our Series A. We talked to everyone, but we really connected with Union Square and OATV early on. We know the Spark guys from Boston, and we like them a lot. [Partners at New Atlantic Ventures in Cambridge tell me they also considered investing in Foursquare.]

Q. How would you compare the VCs in Boston and New York? 

A. It's less of a Boston/New York thing, but there's a difference in the east coast and west coast vibes. I feel like the firms investing in consumer Internet start-ups in New York and Boston they seem smaller and scrappier, which I like. Union Square basically has three partners.

Q. There has been a lot of attention paid to tech in New York lately, like the New York Magazine cover story that you guys were in last month.

A. There really is a big resurgence in the start-up scene here. The stuff getting started here had traditionally been advertising technologies. But now there's a wave of consumer start-ups. There's definitely a scene going on.

Q. Let me ask about the acquisition rumors. This week, the buzz is that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came out to talk to you.

A. We're trying not to comment on all that, any of the meetings or fundraising. People read too much into it.

Q. But I guess I'm curious whether you intend to stay independent, or whether you are thinking you might sell. [Crowley sold his last start-up, Dodgeball, to Google in 2005.]

A. Long-term, we're looking at what's best for the product. Through grad school, and with Dodgeball, we've had visions for these things we want to build. We ask ourselves, "What are the best ways to get those things done?" We're always talking to a lot of companies and VC firms to get their thoughts on what the best strategies are.

Q. But your experience selling Dodgeball to Google, and not really having them continue to develop that service that can't have been fun.

A. Just because we had a lousy experience with Dodgeball doesn't mean that interesting start-ups can't thrive at larger companies. We learned a lot from that experience, which could be useful if we wind up with a bigger company. Or we could stay independent and just continue killing it.

Q. I have to ask, what did you eat for lunch?

A. What time is it?

Q. 12:30.

A. 12:30? I haven't had lunch. But I did eat two breakfasts today.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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