How Harry Potter inspired Foursquare's Dennis Crowley

Social media and smartphones have created an era of unprecedented levels of sharing: where you're going, wha...

Posted: Nov 8, 2018 2:31 PM
Updated: Nov 8, 2018 2:31 PM

Social media and smartphones have created an era of unprecedented levels of sharing: where you're going, what you're doing, who you're with, at all times of the day and night.

Foursquare cofounder Dennis Crowley helped usher in that phenomenon.

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He started Foursquare in 2009 as a social network that let you 'check in' at various locations to let your friends know where you were and earn points and badges. The idea behind the rewards was to get users to explore the world and have more fun.

But it didn't make for a great business model. After concerted efforts to monetize its assets, Foursquare has transformed itself into a "location intelligence" platform for consumers, businesses and developers.

Users search — and get recommendations — for places to eat, shop, drink or visit in 150 countries. Businesses buy access to data on Foursquare's more than 50 million users to measure foot traffic and better target their ads. And app developers pay to use its location technology.

The company has partnered over the years with many brand-name companies, including Samsung, Airbnb, Uber and TripAdvisor.

CNN asked Crowley, now the company's executive chairman, what gave him the idea for the company, the scariest part of his job and what makes him happy today.

What was your inspiration for Foursquare?

Harry Potter's Marauder's Map. In 2000, while reading one of the Harry Potter books, I was struck by the idea that having a Marauder's Map in New York City would be a great way to make the city easier to use. So before smartphones, apps or GPS, we invented the idea of a "check in" to allow people to share their location with others.

Years later, we invented a technology called Pilgrim, which allows us to understand where a phone is located and how phones move in and out of different spaces, without the check-in. This piece of tech enables all sorts of cool experiences for consumers, like the smart mobile recommendations from Foursquare City Guide; it's used by advertisers, in our product Foursquare Attribution; and it's embedded into our R&D projects like Marsbot. It's also now relied on by other brands who want to engage with consumers as they move through the world.

What's the scariest part of your job?

Having 250+ people looking up to you, expecting you to have all the answers.

Pro tip: The only way to get past this is build a strong team that feels confident they have great answers to many of these questions.

What brings you the most joy?

My family. Seeing my kids and my brother's and sisters' kids all sharing toys together. Seeing my parents overwhelmed with grandkids running around their house. After all the time I spent heads-down building a company, this is truly the best.

If you could have dinner with any influential figure from any time period, who would it be?

You know that Apple television commercial from the late 1990s ("Here's to the Crazy Ones...")? I'd be honored to meet any of them. [Editor's note: Apple's Think Different ad campaign featured everyone from Albert Einstein to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Bob Dylan.]

If I had to pick just one, and this may be a super cliche answer, but I'd choose Steve Jobs. He dreamed just as big and just as crazy as anyone in that ad, and he did so in a way that changed the way almost everyone on the planet connects with the people in their lives and the world they live in.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Helping people do the thing that they didn't think they'd be able to do. Sometimes the biggest hurdle in startups is "just getting started" and people need one last push, which ends up being the difference between "not doing it" and "doing it."

I try to share this knowledge with entrepreneurs all the time. I love talking to people about their big ideas for the future. Knowing that I've helped inspire people to pursue their dreams (in the same way that other tech founders and entrepreneurs did for me) never gets old, and is always energizing.

If you weren't executive chairman of Foursquare, what would you be?

I'd be a founder again because I love developing crazy ideas that challenge the way people think about the world — and impact how we'll all explore and connect in 5, 10, 15 years. I like to think I've done it three times already: with Dodgeball, with Foursquare, and with Kingston Stockade, a Division 4 soccer team we started in the Hudson Valley. [Editor's note: Dodgeball, a location-based social network, preceded Foursquare and was bought by Google in 2005.]

What's the best piece of advice you ever received?

From my dad: "You can't eat newspapers!" ... meaning that even if you have a super interesting, buzzworthy idea that gets lots of press and attention, that's an entirely different ballgame from figuring out how to turn it into a business.

What's your advice to people searching for inspiration?

"Do what you love and the rest will come" ... it really is good advice and I'm happy to pass it along. If you wake up every morning thinking of this one thing, and how the future would be just a little bit more awesome if this thing existed — then go do that thing, go build that thing.

How many hours of sleep do you get?

I've lived through the period of Foursquare where all I did was work, eat and sleep. And I've lived through the part of Foursquare when I would wake up every night stressing.

These days work doesn't keep me up at night because we have such a great team. But it's the kids — we have two kids under 3 years old. Still, I probably get right around 8 hours a night (which is great!), but I also can't remember the last time I slept past 7 a.m.

What's your favorite podcast?

The Daily. Every morning. At 20 to 30 minutes, the length perfectly matches my 25-minute walk to Foursquare headquarters in New York City. And I feel smarter after I listen to it.

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