Do you remember Foursquare? Location technology used by Apple, Uber knows you
In this weekly series, CNBC takes a look at the companies that made the inaugural Disruptor 50 list 10 years later.
Even if you don’t realize it, you probably use Foursquare every day – or at least its technology.
With over 125,000 developers worldwide integrating it into their own software and with over 14 billion human-verified “records”, Foursquare is the underlying location engine that powers myriad brands, such as Twitter, Snapchat, Uber, Spotify. , Airbnb, Coca-Cola and JetBlue.
But Foursquare hasn’t always been behind the scenes of location services, let alone interested in being an enterprise technology provider. In 2009, when Foursquare launched, the iPhone was just over a year old, the App Store had only been around for six months, and location-based technology was still taking shape. Co-founders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai set out to create a social app that would allow users to “check in” when visiting various destinations, and easily connect with friends, meet strangers nearby, and easily connect with friends. explore cities in an unprecedented way. The user location data produced by the recordings could then be used to generate personalized recommendations, a database of specific site locations, and ultimately – in Crowley’s grandest vision and most common early catchphrase of the company – a “living, breathing map of the world.”
By the time Foursquare made CNBC’s inaugural Disruptor 50 list in 2013, it had more than 30 million users worldwide, hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and more than 3 billion check-ins, earning more every day. Soon after, the company split its operations into two, becoming Swarm and Foursquare City Guide, allowing it to focus on both the location discovery and social check-in aspects of the app. But bigger trends happening in mobile hit the business, and engagement began to drop rapidly.
“Facebook, Twitter and others have kind of consumed, if you will, consumer attention,” said current CEO and chairman Gary Little, who took over in 2021.
As the era of Foursquare seemed to be coming to an end, there was still something valuable: years of user data. In 2017, it again pivoted to the Pilgrim SDK, a software development kit powered by nearly a decade of data acquired by Foursquare. And it also made a repeat appearance on the Disruptor 50 list. The new strategy worked much like Foursquare’s original model, with one difference: It automatically logged users based on where they were. This hyper-contextual data collected from users has enabled Foursquare to offer services as a third-party enterprise tool to some of the biggest tech players, including Apple (for Maps), Snapchat, Twitter, Uber, Pinterest and Samsung.
In a blog post by Crowley when he left his last full-time position as the company’s executive chairman in mid-2021, he said he had revenue of over 100 million. in 2020 and a forecast of “well over” $100 million in revenue in 2021.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the dislocation of human populations and new travel patterns presented a new opportunity for Foursquare.
“Covid has made it clear for almost every industry that geospatial datasets are foundational and critical to truly understanding the consumer,” Little said. “Before, there were very delineated lines between a physical customer and a digital customer. Now it’s just customers. And so the need to understand that is a pretty fundamental pillar of investing that we see.”
The pandemic has also made clear, however, that predictive data relies on models, and in a world increasingly characterized by unpredictable factors, such as pandemics, economic instability and climate change, measurements are more difficult to generate reliably.
“Making sense of the world is very difficult today from a data science perspective,” Little said. “Extrapolating this over a very long horizon is probably a pretty dangerous game these days,” he said, but added that helping companies understand changes in direction and irregularities is a core function of Foursquare’s real-time location engine technology.
The mobile world is going through some of its biggest privacy shifts, with mobile operating systems from Apple and Google imposing greater restrictions on user tracking. Little says this change hasn’t been as significant for the company as it has been for many other app-based companies.
“Location-based data is probably the most sensitive personal information [personally identifiable information] in the ecosystem – where people move, where phones move and the correlation of that. And so, from the beginning, we first built our systems to be opt-in,” Little said.
Its datasets are anonymized and aggregated.
“We are investing heavily in these capabilities because we see this as a great opportunity, a great unlock to continue doing localization in a privacy environment. [way]central to our design,” he said.
While the company missed the decade of public offerings that have enriched many of its mobile peers, Little said Foursquare isn’t focused on whether its exit strategy is an IPO or a potential acquisition. But he added: “We hope to be in the position where it is our choice.”
The company’s consumer-facing apps, which were its original business model, remain in use, with the company claiming more than 9 billion monthly visits from 500 million unique devices, but it is focused on continued investment for brands that use it as their business technology.
“Across industries, most players are using central location, geospatial data and technology early in their applications,” Little said. “And so as we invest, it’s really accelerating the tools and the capabilities that we’ll be providing to enterprises to be able to both integrate their technology layer and analyze in their data stack what’s happening from one point from a geospatial perspective.”
Sign up for our quirky weekly newsletter that goes beyond the annual Disruptor 50 list, offering deeper insight into the companies making the list and their innovative founders.