Why Foursquare's so hard to pin down

What is Foursquare? CEO and founder Dennis Crowley offered at least a half-dozen different definitions of the location-based service in an on-stage interview with AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher today.

Fundamentally, Foursquare is a service that allows users to announce their whereabouts to friends online by checking in to a location, and in the process it lets users earn forms of virtual recognition, like badges, points, and mayorships, titles earned through frequent check-ins.

“Where are you going with this?” Swisher asked Crowley at D: Dive Into Mobile, a conference the News Corp.-affiliated journalist is running in San Francisco. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “As the product matures, the paths will become clearer.”

Foursquare recently raised $20 million in a round led by the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, at a valuation of roughly $100 million. But it’s not clear — even according to Crowley — what they put their money into.

Here are a few of the definitions Crowley offered: Foursquare is a “social utility that intersects with the real world.” It’s a “crowdsourced city guide.” It’s a “stats engine.”

Using Foursquare, in perhaps Crowley’s most tenuous metaphor, is like “pulling a lever on a slot machine,” referring to the uncertainty of whether a user might earn a badge, a mayorship, or another reward from checking in.

He also suggested that Foursquare could offer coupons for local businesses in a manner similar to Groupon, or even help Groupon make its deals more interesting.

Swisher asked Crowley if Foursquare, which has attracted acquisition interest from Facebook and Yahoo, will be independent in five years. Crowley was vague in his answer, saying he and his team just wanted to build the local products they’d been thinking about: “If we’re independent, so be it.”

All that uncertainty may be part of Foursquare’s appeal to Sand Hill Road’s starry-eyed investors, though. One venture capitalist’s uncertainty is another’s potential. And as long as Crowley can keep spinning tales of Foursquare’s many possible futures, they’ll keep knocking.


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  1. [...] Crowley seemed to echo this point recently at the AllThingsD mobile conference, where he seemed almost unsure about what Foursquare will turn into. Why is that? Because all that data could help the company transition in a number of ways. It could [...]