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GigaOM Video: Gowalla CEO Josh Williams on Foursquare, Yelp & the Future of Location

Josh Williams, chief executive officer and co-founder of Alamofire, a Austin, Texas-based company behind the location-based mobile application Gowalla, stopped by our office last week to discuss his company and its future. (How Gowalla and similar apps work: You visit a place, you fire up your app and check in on your mobile phone, announcing to your friends that you’re at that location.)

Gowalla, which recently raised nearly $8.4 million in venture funding from the likes of Greylock, Shasta Ventures and Maples Investments, is still relatively young and has far fewer users than Foursquare. I’ve heard that the company has between 85,000 and 100,000 users — and that’s despite the backing of web celebrities (startup founders and angel investors) Kevin Rose, Gary Vaynerchuck, Chris Sacca and Jason Calacanis — who have been pushing it hard.

In the past, I’ve made it clear that I’m not such a big fan of Gowalla, primarily because I find it to be a not-so-fun copy of Foursquare, another location-based application, which I absolutely love. Despite that, Williams was a gentleman, stopping by to tell me his story and how Gowalla accidentally found itself in the location arena. He also explained that the company would soon be launching a new feature that allows it to harness the data it’s collecting and help surface interesting things based on one’s location and social graph. He also talked about how he’s worried that Twitter will eventually get into the location biz.

After finishing this conversation, I took him to Sightglass coffee, where we talked some more before he went on to celebrate his 30th birthday.

53 Responses to “GigaOM Video: Gowalla CEO Josh Williams on Foursquare, Yelp & the Future of Location”

  1. Interesting interview however I disagree completely with Om’s stance on the product. I started with 4Sq but have moved completely over to GoWalla. The UI, experience and icons is a more enjoyable experience to me. I don’t care for Mayors on 4SQ which seemed to be the sticking point for Om. Gowalla’s concept of trips is intriguing. Gowalla has the momentum in my mind and from this interview they have a bright leader driving.

  2. Small interactive design firm stumbles into a ‘hot’ space with no real business model, shows up at all the cool conferences, raises venture capitol.

    Is it just me or is all of this feeling a bit too much like 1999?

  3. aproductguy

    Yelp just doesn’t strike me as game over for 4sq or GW. First of all, Yelp’s actual registered user base is much smaller than its overall user base. Probably much like wikipedia, 1% of the users do 90% of the articles/reviews. So to introduce a check-in feature that requires some sort of social graph is a huge change from existing behavior. Not that it’s not a good move for Yelp, but I just don’t think it will be the end of the world for the startups, whose userbase is 100% registered and the sole purpose of installing and using the app is to interact with your friends.

    Josh held up well in the interview, especially with your “so…how long have you been beating your wife?” “when are you going to stop copying 4sq and make new features” question :)

    Personally still undecided, but I’m not sure how long I can keep checking into three services. I check in more with my iPhone apps than I do with my wife, and that’s not good. Really its a user acquisition race to me (or for Yelp, conversion of users to registered users), because most features are pretty easily replicated, so the most useful app will be the one that all my friends are on.

  4. i was an early adopter of foursquare and eventually tried gowalla. now i am trying the yelp with check-ins feature and have to say, i think it’s pretty much over. foursquare and gowalla were nothing more than a funded feature for someone like yelp to eventually acquire. are we back in the bubble? i can’t believe we have 3 separate companies competing with one basically cool feature.

    the existing data for venues will make this an unfair fight for yelp. it was just a matter of time. i was hoping foursquare would sell out to them to at least have a chance to make some money. gowalla is sooo much prettier but tied to the gps accuracy or lack there of from our iphones so you cannot check if someone locates a venue in the wrong place.

  5. Seriously, a good interview? Om- were you trying to be provocative with your constant badgering and bashing of his company. They’re young and you’re acting like you’re talking to an enterprise CEO that just bet his business on some tech. These guys could change they’re feature set in two weeks. Ease up and stop swinging on Foursquare’s you know what. Foursquare is interesting but not that innovative. Check-in get points and a badge. Big deal.

  6. An interesting aspect to the ‘checkin’ space is that most people are only going to check in once (seriously, are you going to use yelp, 4sq, and gowalla one after another while you are at lunch with someone?) This makes me wonder if there is need for a ‘meta’ app that will take your location info and post it to the other services?

  7. bedouinfred

    I find it interesting that people are focusing on the personality of the founders rather than the efficacy of the product he represented.
    They have a long way to go to beat the numbers of foursquare. This will be made harder by their decision to focus on the iphone platform, and not open to other platforms until quite late in the game. Only now have the decided to build an app for the droid, and the blackberry, well, maybe soon.
    If they choose to not embrace the whole mobile market, then it will be difficult to own the market.
    They have recently created a mobile app which sorta works, and I will continue to put it though its paces.
    At this point however, considering the number of users, the ability to use on multiple platforms, and the number of locations, foursquare is it for me.

    • Winston Walker

      Good points, but as a simple user, the numbers of FS don’t matter to me. It’s important that GW works best, in my opinion, and of course most of my friends are now using it.
      I do have an iPhone, so lack of other platforms is not an issue for me at this point. One other point is I find it MUCH easier to manually enter new places in my area with GW, while FS was requiring a full address. Most of the time I’m not willing to enter all that info when I’m on the move.


  8. Tough interview. That’s the first time I’ve seen Josh on camera. I thought he made a good case for Gowalla but he should have pushed back harder on some of the “But Foursquare is better than you because…” questions/comments. I didn’t feel the level of passionate evangelism you’d expect to see from someone leading a company like Gowalla. Perhaps he was more focused on being respectful to Om and his preference for a competing app. Overall, I think Gowalla will be a formidable player in the location space.

  9. Om, thanks for having me out. Really enjoyed it. A point to clarify since there (rightly so) is some confusion around the timeline of our product. We released a public beta of Gowalla last March. At the time—we launched a few days before SXSW—I believe Brightkite was the only service using a similar Check In metaphor. This of course changed quickly.

    Unfortunately for us, the logic we were using to determine your location via iPhone GPS was wonky at best. So we went back to the drawing board, improved the location logic, added support for Facebook Connect, then relaunched the app in September. We’ve been rocking along since that time.

    We’ve been iterating and innovating here for almost a year, even though our product has only been largely known to the public since September.

    • Great interview Josh! I thought you did a fine job explaining Gowalla’s uniqueness and fielding Om’s incessant questions about Foursquare and competition compared to the current crop location-based apps.

      I think he might just discover that Gowalla scratches an itch of his by the time SXSW rolls around.

  10. Om,

    Yes, they may have “copied” FourSquare’s checkin but they have been more creative in the space than FourSquare.

    GoWalla solved the problem of adding spots first than FourSquare by allowing pretty much anybody to add and therefore be in more cities and countries. 4Square just started doing that.

    I like the virtual items that you can drop or pick up in different spots.

    I have actually uninstalled the 4Sq app on my phone mainly because it’s not as engaging as GoWalla. Once I checked-in on 4Sq, there’s really not much else to see or do.

  11. I still don’t understand the interest in Badges and Mayors in Fsq since people can game the system by checking into the same place several times and checking into places without being at the place

  12. Big fan of Gowalla (gave Foursquare a fair shot, but they took too long to add features and cities that Gowalla launched with).

    I don’t think Yelp is much of a threat. I check into both Yelp and Gowalla. Yelp for the check-in points, and Gowalla for the community and collecting the items.

    Would love to have Gowalla let you upload pictures from where you are (& tweet them), like Brightkite.

    The ONLY feature I think Foursquare really has over Gowalla is the “mayor” thing. It’s not enough for me to switch back though.

    Last week I collected a prairie dog from some place. I mean, c’mon, that’s awesome.

  13. Winston Walker

    Loved the interview, and really like the product. I’m just a normal user, who started out with FS, but decided to try GW. I like the look of GW better, and find it much easier to find places here in VEGAS. When I was using FS, it never found places, and I was always manually entering locales. Even when i tried to check in to places I had visited 5 times, I had to manually find them again. No problem with GW, so I dropped FS from my iPhone. I do agree that GW needs to work on getting some incentive to checking in at all these places. ;-)

  14. Om,

    I think this is one of the better interviews I’ve ever seen you do. I just wonder if you would be as critical of foursquare when you sit them down for an interview. I agree with Darren; if you have an issue with them copying foursquare why do you keep asking him to be more like the ‘better’ foursquare.

    Josh..I thought you held yourself up very well and was well composed.

    Good luck Gowalla

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree – Josh did extremely well. And yes, I would be very critical of Fsq for not doing a lot of things when I sit down with them as well.

      As to why I ask them to better FSQ. Well for now, they are nothing mor than FSQ in terms of form-and-function. If that is their schtick, they need to be “better” FSQ. If not, they need to quickly demonstrate what makes them better.

      I am still waiting for services like FSQ and GOW to come up with a value proposition that goes beyond checking in — which I believe is nothing more than a cool functionality for starters.

      • That all makes perfect sense — to me it seems that Yelp has the increased value proposition with review integration and augmented reality so closely linked to check-ins.

        Great interview by the way. I think your candor made it way more interesting than your average chat because it gave Josh some real questions to unravel. And revealed just how cool and visionary he is. I was especially wowed by Josh’s excitement about Yelp (a competitor) entering the space. Clearly he’s got his head in the right place. :)

  15. @ Darren, Jeffrey, Zeldman – While the Gowalla UI is 10 times better, Foursquare was first and has better integration on the back end that no amount of cute icons can replicate. Still, Josh is incredibly bright and he’s absolutely one to watch. :)

      • UI a matter of personal choice? UI is defenitely something based on guidelines, design rationale, etc. Defenitely not a matter of personal choice. When looking at for example UI guidelines, Gowalla is defenitely the winner.

    • I think that UI of the iphone app is pretty much disastrous. Several times I installed app on my iphone, pushed by noise in the press, and everytime I would delete it after day or two because it’s so ugly. Also those items which you are supposed to exchange are ridiculous. Foursquare have still long way to go but I don’t se how gowalla can be serious competition.

  16. I thought he interviewed well, I think you are being unfair about them to be honest. Their design and UI is 10 times better than foursquare. Also you railed the guy on copying foursquare and then moaned that they didn’t have the same features which I thought was a little odd.

    • Darren

      Josh acquitted himself quite well in the interview and he argued his case very nicely and I like him more because of it. When I say they don’t have the same features — let me explain, same kind of element of fun and delight I feel with Fsq. As for me being unfair — market will decide the two companies fate — I have made my preferences very clear.