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, 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.
  • Whrrl will launch Android and BlackBerry 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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