The past few years I’ve seen a lot of articles written on the difference between foursquare and gowalla. There were a lot of people trying to highlight the changing landscape of the location based services (LBS) space by comparing the two top companies in the industry. The companies created a great use case of two companies trying to solve the same problem at the same time. A few months ago gowalla was acquired by facebook after falling far behind foursquare in the LBS race. So what happened and why did foursquare come out on top?
Shane Snow wrote a Mashable article that breaks down the differences in features between the two companies. There are a bunch of different variables that come to mind when comparing the two companies, different cities, different funding and different teams. Shane wrote a nice piece introducing both products, and in early 2009 (time of the article) most people had never heard of either service. Shane does a great job in his article of breaking down what each company is doing and how they are doing it. For instance, both services are rewarding people for check-ins by offering badges, and both services are rewarding discounts for check ins to businesses.
However, Shane’s article missed the most important part of the foursquare/gowalla race. Shane never asked why each company was building their product. I never knew the gowalla story, by that I mean I don’t know what inspired the founders to build gowalla. The foursquare story is clear though and most people following gowalla and foursquare knew the story of Dennis (the foursquare CEO). Dennis first attempted to make ‘the real world easier to use’ with dodgeball. Dodgeball was acquired by Google for a small amount. After a short stint at Google Dennis and his co-founder Alex (now foursquare’s head of product) left because Google decided to shut down dodgeball. Upset and looking for a new project, Dennis dove right back into his mission of ‘making the real world easier to use’. Dennis did not lose desire by his unfortunate stint at Google, instead he began rebuilding his vision with a new co-founder, Naveen. I think people who knew Dennis’ story understood that he was obsessed with making a cell phone a real world tool to enhance your social life and earn rewards. To answer why foursquare was started is the major differenentiator between foursquare and gowalla.
You might be thinking that foursquare also benefited from great PR/marketing in making Dennis’ story known to users. You would be right. But users embracing Dennis’ longtime mission is not the only reason his compelling story is important. The employees at foursquare work hard not because they are getting paid, or have stock options, but because they are inspired. The employees are inspired by a leader who has persevered through a rocky acquisition and never given up on his vision.
The inspiration that Dennis is able to draw from his employees makes everyone work better and harder. As a consequence the product is better and the users derive the greatest benefit. I think when we ask why foursquare and gowalla build what they build we begin to uncover the fundamental reason of why foursquare was able to pull ahead of gowalla.
I wish more start-ups would have inspiring stories because at the end of the day there will always be companies working on the same thing. Most users and specifically early adopters will be swayed to use a product if they are inspired by why that product exists. Why that product exists should not be confused by what that product does or how it does it.