Lauren Goode

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Foursquare’s Crowley Declares Bygones! — And Maybe More? — With Google

Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley sold his company, Dodgeball, to Google in 2007, but he left two years later complaining about the lack of resources devoted to his start-up by the search giant.

Crowley called the experience the “perfect storm of bad timing.”

But that sentiment has apparently shifted considerably. Now, Crowley looks back on his Google tenure as valuable — and said that he’s feeling a lot friendlier toward Google these days.

“You know when people leave a job and they say they didn’t know what they came away with after two years? That’s how I felt when I first left Google,” Crowley said in an interview with AllThingsD. “But I’ve been able to spend time with the folks at Google and reconnect with people there. And now when things come up at Foursquare, [they're] all the challenges and issues I realize I already encountered at Google.”

Could that mean even closer relations in the future?

Crowley declined to elaborate on the substance of his talks with Google, which, in some cases, are with business development teams.

But what about the possibility of another acquisition?

“I wouldn’t disqualify anything,” he said. “The thing that’s important to us is doing the things we want to do, which could be partnering with someone, or it could be continuing to grow the product independently.”

While that’s appropriately vague enough, what is clear is that where Foursquare goes from here is a big question going forward.

Most especially, while it still remains the cool kid at the check-in party, especially as more competitors are checking out — is the party dying down?

Foursquare now claims 15 million users, adding the last five million in just the last six months, a fact it often points to as a sign of success rather than to its aggregate number of downloads.

As a basis for comparison, the popular mobile photo-sharing app Instagram recently touted it had attracted between 14 and 15 million users, amassed in just over a year.

There is no doubt, though, that Foursquare started with a similar bang. Based in New York, the start-up first launched in 2009 as a mobile social networking site that tapped into the inherent GPS capabilities of smartphones.

It was not that unlike the idea behind Dodgeball. But this time, Crowley, along with Naveen Selvadurai, created a fast-growing mobile app that allowed users to broadcast to their friends where they were, while also earning badges and mayoral bragging rights for visiting certain locations.

It took off from there, with Crowley and Foursquare featured in splashy magazine takeouts and even in an ad for the Gap, portrayed as the toast of New York’s entrepreneur scene.

By the spring of 2010, the hot company was reported to be weighing offers from both Yahoo and Facebook, which shortly afterward introduced its own check-in function called Places.

Neither of those deals happened, and this past summer, the company raised $50 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and others.

That move sent a clear message: We’ll grow ourselves, thanks very much.

Still, despite the cash, Crowley is careful to note that he realizes that times have changed in the location space.

While he said he believes that social media is moving away from the idea of just one news feed, the growing popularity of apps such as Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Path imply that consumers have an appetite for multiple apps.

And while data shows that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of geolocation services, it also indicates that the location-based craze hasn’t really caught on yet.

Crowley said he doesn’t put much stock in the most recent Forrester Research report on location-based services. He noted that three years ago Twitter was known as the online network for broadcasting what people had for lunch, before it became recognized as a game-changing technology tool.

That said, a handful of other location-focused companies — Hot Potato, SimpleGeo and early Foursquare competitor Gowalla, as well as Pelago, which was bought by Groupon — have all been absorbed by bigger tech companies in the past 18 months, their value less than expected by eager investors. Instead, they were bought mainly for their entrepreneurial and engineering talent rather than their product or user base.

That’s left Foursquare standing tall, but largely alone.

Crowley said that if the company had to focus on one area right now, it would be nearby discovery, fed by the database that’s been built up over the past two and a half years. He even went as far as to say there’s been a de-emphasis on the flagship “check-in” feature, citing evidence that more people are using the app to get tips without actually checking in.

Within the app, which is available on iOS, BlackBerry and Android, users can also follow friends, get tips on local venues and make to-do lists. Its most recent feature, Radar, pings users when they’re near venues they’ve indicated they want to check out, or in this case, check into.

And, with regard to Foursquare’s other high-profile feature — badge-earning — Crowley likened the whole element to the movie “The Karate Kid.”

“It’s like Mr. Miyagi having Daniel paint the fence, and later he realizes he’s been practicing karate,” Crowley said. “Badges are an important onboarding tool, but from the beginning we’ve said the important thing was data, and now we’ve gotten our users to leave all of these data signals.”

Crowley hinted at more differentiating products coming down the pipeline, and said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more consolidation and sharing among social networking apps, as well as more acquisitions within the industry.

With more than 800 million active users in Facebook’s network, Foursquare might become even more interesting to Google, which has jumped into the social networking space with Google+. Now Foursquare and Google share a common rival in Facebook, which may also help them make up their past differences.

Whether Foursquare could be the buyer, or one of those acquisitions, remains to be seen.


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— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post