Startup Hacks with Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley

Dennis Crowley founded Foursquare seven years ago. Today, he’s one of the most well known, iconic startup founders in New York.

Just last month, Dennis announced that he is handing off his role as CEO, and taking on a new role as executive chairman. Along with this came the news that the company raised a $45 million round led by Union Square Ventures with other investors including Andreessen Horowitz and Morgan Stanley.

Foursquare employs over 180 folk between headquarters in New York, an office in San Francisco, and teams in London and Chicago. As Dennis steps away from the day to day running of the company he co-founded, he shares his advice to other startup founders.

The Swarm and Foursquare logos
The Swarm and Foursquare logos 

In 2009 when the company launched, Foursquare introduced checking in and real-time location sharing with friends. Five years later, they decided to give the check-in function its own app, Swarm. Both apps, Foursquare and Swarm, generate tons of data about places people visit every day.

How much data? 7 billion check-ins, and more than than 1 billion place confirmations each month between the two apps. The community of users has helped the company map the real world, developing a database of over 65 million places. As the company has grown and developed, Dennis has seen almost everything that can get thrown at a founder.

So, what are his hacks for hiring?

Find a jack of all trades

Good hires are key as you build your team, but they are different at different stages: “Early on, you should focus on finding people who are are okay existing a little bit outside of the job description.”

“Sometimes your startup needs an engineer who can also design a web page. A designer that can do a little bit of product. A product manager that can get on the phone and talk business development…”

Know that change is certain

In a startup environment, you have to be upfront during the interview process about how roles can change. That’s the way you set expectations in the right way – being honest about the job and how it might evolve over time.

“Find people who are open to their job changing. A lot,” Dennis says.

“Discuss with the candidate how much the job could evolve over time, especially if your startup is in its first or second year”.

Dennis talked about his own role within the company is evolving. “The last year was challenging as we worked on the management transition and I moved into a new role,” Dennis adds.

Jeff Glueck, COO of Foursquare for the previous 18 months (and former CMO of Travelocity) has stepped into the role of CEO, while Steven Rosenblatt, who was chief revenue officer of Foursquare (and former Director of Apple’s iAd sales and strategy) becomes President of the company. “We’re taking our two strongest business leaders and putting them into new positions so we can best grow this company.”

foursquareleaders Steven, Dennis and Jeff in Foursquare HQ

This role change may seem uncharacteristic for Dennis. As a founder, he has spent nearly a decade dedicated to location intelligence. But Dennis is positive towards the new position – “My job will be so much more enjoyable now. I get to work on things that I feel I can personally contribute a lot to. From now on, my full-time job will be looking at what other things we should build – that only we can build”.

Get ready for the competition

When Dennis was building Foursquare seven years ago, the infamous tech “war for talent” hadn’t really reached New York. Now it is almost global, he says.

“The NYC tech scene isn’t under the radar anymore. There are more startup folk here than there was seven years ago, when we made our first hire.

“Finding the best talent is tough. There’s so much competition.”

You have to take into account the vast number of tech companies now based in the city – “Facebook, Twitter and Google all have offices here and we’re competing against them”.

It is a matter of being the best in a particular space. Dennis believes there will be huge competition in the location intelligence, but he’s not worried – “We’re already seeing that our products are better than other location tools”. He’s confident that this will attract the right people.

“Going forward, we’re going to show off a lot more of what Foursquare can do, that Google, Apple and Facebook cannot. We’ve actually already licensed our data to them.”

Don’t stray far from your roots

Foursquare’s mission has become steadily more ambitious, but Dennis insists that the company has never gone far from its roots.

It is crucial to educate candidates on your company’s story and vision. Last week, Steven Rosenblatt (President) said that Foursquare is “the most misunderstood company in the history of technology.” Dennis agrees. “It’s a big task to try and change people’s’ perceptions of us.”

Things are beginning to turn around – “People are starting to understand that we aren’t just a check-in app from 2009. We’re a company that can predict what’s interesting, anywhere in the world.”

Foursquare actually owns the world’s biggest panel of foot traffic data.

Four months ago, they very publicly predicted that Apple would sell 13-15 million new iPhones (5, 5S and 6) over launch weekend, based on their foot traffic data. It’s worth noting that this prediction surpassed all previous sales records.

Apple @ One Stockton Street Place Shape from Foursquare on Vimeo.

When the figures were in, it appeared that Apple indeed sold more than 13 million phones, neatly fitting right within Foursquare’s prediction window.

Dennis said he wasn’t surprised. “You’re going to see a lot more predictions being made by Foursquare.”

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