Dennis Crowley on Building a Business: “Foursquare Hasn’t Succeeded Yet”

image by David Brabyn

At a live chat with Fred Wilson at NYU today, foursquare founder Dennis Crowley was asked by his most famous investor, “Were you ever afraid your business might fail?”

“Sure,” Mr. Crowley said. “We haven’t succeeded yet.”

“People pat me on the back all the time and tell me how great I’m doing. It’s true we’ve made something people like. But we’re on the 20 yard line with a long way to go. So the congratulations are a little premature.”

Mr. Crowley revealed that he went to college hoping to be a journalist. “I had used things like AOL and Prodigy to meet people and get their addresses. Then I would sell make zines and sell them at $1 a piece.”

After discovering the joys of creating for the web at university, Mr. Crowley went to work for Jupiter Research in the Silicon Alley of the dot-com boom. “We were publishing reports predicting how big the internet would be five or ten years down the road. I wanted to be that industry expert quoted in the Wall Street Journal.”

By 2000 he had focused on the idea of a socially aware city guide. There were catalysts along the way. “Friendster started getting really big and it taught people how social networks worked. That gave my first startup, Dodgeball, a lot more legs. It’s like Friendster on your phone!”

As social networks became standard, Mr. Crowley could focus on the location elements. “The iPhone was another kick in the pants, because it opened up GPS, and we believed dots don’t just have to be places, they can be people, and activities.”

Mr. Crowley said he is always worried about the things that could derail foursquare, whether its Facebook, Google or any one of the scrappy startups out there. “I remember when Facebook launched Places, we were all in the office together, and you could just feel the anxiety in the room. I had to get up and tell everyone, stop reading TechCrunch, lets get back to work and build something better than that.”

The key, says Mr. Crowley, is that they have a long term roadmap. They focus on fantasy use cases, things like Radar, that have only appeared recently, as the available technology has caught up with their vision.

“This is the roadmap we’ve had since ITP, so we can’t lose site of that. We won’t go off in another direction because something didn’t work after 18 months. That’s what keeps the team inspired.” Dennis Crowley on Building a Business: “Foursquare Hasn’t Succeeded Yet”