When Foursquare debuted at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2007, co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley said, “We thought we were going to be embarrassed. …It was kitschy.”
Instead, they were a hit – among the tech faithful who attended the conference that year, and their cohorts in New York, San Francisco, Boston and other major cities.
Three years later, the location-based social networking app is closing on 20 million users and works with brands like American Express and Walgreens.
In a conversation with CrunchFund general partner and TechCrunch columnist MG Siegler today at South by Southwest (SXSW), Crowley said that when he looks at how people use Foursquare at the conference – checking-in in droves and using the app to determine which party to go to next – he sees the “Foursquare of the future.”
“We’re the smallest of the big guys,” he said, but later added, “If we keep doing what we’re doing, we can be one of those big companies.”
It’s true that for tech enthusiasts at SXSW, Foursquare is almost as much as a part of the experience as beer and barbecue. But for the population in general, the value of location-based apps is just coming in to view.
According to a Forrester study released in December, the percentage of U.S. online adults who use geolocation apps has grown to 6 percent this year from 4 percent in 2010. Of that small sliver of geosocial smartphone users, just 2 percent say they use the apps once a week or more.
But Crowley said that the company’s partnerships with brands like Walgreens, as well as smaller local businesses, are helping to raise its profile among average Americans.
“Muggles – normal people in the world … they think Foursquare is about getting deals,” he said. “That’s how you get from 20 million to 50 million [users].”
One of Foursquare's strengths is lead generation for local merchants, Crowley claimed. For those looking to acquire new customers, retain current ones, or resurrecting relationships with old ones, he continued, Foursquare has valuable data and a platform for facilitating a connection.
When asked whether location-based services would be niche or break into the mainstream, he said that if people don’t use location apps, it will be “silly.”
People already lean on Google maps to help them get from place to place, but there’s no reason that those maps shouldn’t be tailored to each individual.
“This is the problem I love,” he said. “You should be able to walk around the world and have perfect information of everything that’s interesting.”