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Whrrl: Living In Foursquare's Shadow

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Updated: If you’re a consumer geo-location startup, then you have to contend with one simple reality — a little company from New York called Foursquare. Not a week goes by that doesn’t have someone grumbling about the attention being lavished on Dennis Crowley’s company. But life does continue for other apps, including Whrrl — a location-centric discovery app developed by Seattle-based Pelago — which has raised nearly $22.5 million in funding from the likes of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Bezos Expeditions, T-Ventures and others.

Jeff Holden started the company in 2006 after spending nearly a decade at Amazon (s AMZN), where he first learned about supply-chain and implementing a real-time fulfillment system. Holden is pretty satisfied with the progress his company has made in the past five months; Whrrl’s latest version (3.0) launched at SxSW in March 2010. Some facts I learned in my conversation with Holden this week:

  • Whrrl has 350,000 users: as many as Gowalla. In comparison, Foursquare has more than 2 million users.
  • Nearly 30 percent of Whrrl users engage with the service on a weekly basis.
  • Whrrl is adding 2,000 to 3,000 users a day.
  • It’s currently available only in the U.S. and only on the iPhone (s aapl).
  • Whrrl will launch Android (s goog) and BlackBerry (s rimm) versions soon, along with an API and international versions of the service.

While Foursquare and Gowalla are primarily driven by the act of “check-ins,” Holden says Whrrl is about discovery of things you are passionate about. That means you create Whrrl Societies based on your interests — gourmet foods, bluegrass music and hotrods, for example — and get updates and geo-mapped information around those interests. Whrrl is built around these societies; every action you take essentially helps you get more intimately involved with the societies. The experience is constantly changing, based on engagement with the service.

Holden says he learned about real-time interaction with Amazon’s end customers, where he saw the company optimize its sales process and customer pitches based on their clickstream. So, when he set-off with Whrrl, he wanted to build a physical world equivalent of the clickstream. He calls it the “foot-stream.”

The more data his 350,000 users provide him, more accurate Whrrl gets. “If you think about it, the lat-long data itself isn’t very valuable,” says Holden. “What you need is place data.” Place data combined with the social graph adds up to an engaged experience, which is an opportunity to make money.

While Foursquare offers special rewards for places where you check-in, Whrrl is creating branded “societies” and then offering rewards or coupons. For instance, Murphy USA, a chain of gas stations, started a Murphy USA Whrrl Society which entitled members to free Wi-Fi a Free Tank of Gas (up to $50 value), (not free Wi-fi as previously noted in the post) when they checked into one of the Murphy gas stations. The company wants to offer these “branded societies” much like  Facebook offers fan pages for brands on its service.

Will this be a mainstream activity tomorrow? Not likely. The regular Joes and Janes are far removed from the Silicon Valley’s excitement over geo-local applications. But one thing is clear — Whrrl and its peers are moving in the right direction.

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7 Responses to “Whrrl: Living In Foursquare's Shadow”

  1. As a founder of a mobile start-up, I must say that simplicity must be a forefront concern in those services and Foursquare got more acceptance simply for being simpler than all those other services.
    Personally I felt quite overwhelmed when I first used Gowalla compared to Foursquare, which was way simpler to use. Still today, many features of Foursquare, such as “tips” are underused, which seems to show that people tend to check-in and leave.

  2. viscaheel

    You guys do write way too much about foursquare. and it must be infuriating for their competitors. I am convinced that tech blogs are what pushed Foursquare ahead of Gowalla. Nothing will convince me otherwise.

    • I think you generalize. Look at our coverage of Geo-location stuff. it is much more diverse and much wider than FSQ.

      On your overall theory about FSQ vs Gowalla, I wouldn’t entirely disagree with your logic, though I think it is more to do with the product. Just saying.

  3. sandramp

    Being a regular user of both services, as a consumer I have to say Whrrl much more engaging and fun. While it still leverages elements of competitive play, it is much more collaborative and inclusive, rewarding me for checkins, recommendations and then accolades on my recommendations from my network – where with FourSquare I am locked in a battle for mayordom where only 1 can win – Whrrl taps into my desire to be recognized as a contributor to the community. While Foursquare has the headstart, I think the way Whrrl taps into the social & helpful nature of the community will help them give Foursquare a run for their money.

  4. Interesting niche they are going after in building around societies and I think their model will be very successful. I do think it differentiates them from Four Square and Gowalla.
    I do admire their steady growth rate and with the launch of other version should see it scale faster