I don't know anything about Foursquare's fundraising plans--but as a user, I certainly hope the company lives to die another day. Somewhere along the line, the product went from changing the way I interact with the real world around me--running into friends more often, choosing to go to stick to habits to maintain a Mayorship--to aiming its sights on Yelp.
I don't use Yelp and never wanted a better one. It is what it is--less a discovery platform and more of a way to check on places you already heard about elsewhere. Besides, Yelp's core product is its killer sales team and ability to sell. It was never that great of a user experience. If you want to beat Yelp, you need to reinvent the product it gives to merchants, not the product on the phone.
Foursquare's product has moved away from two things--gaming and social, the two core aspects of what led to its growth in the first place. It's also what the team was good at. When times get tough, I generally tell people to start with what you know and build from there.
I'm hoping that it will retrench and return to those roots--because I actually think that's going to be key to returning to growth and building a business.
The game kind of went away by itself. Mayorships were never really that scalable in the first place. Only one person could be Mayor and, eventually, the person who frequents that venue everyday is the one who holds onto it and never lets go. In a city where the app has high penetration, Mayorship turnovers are rare. Creating levels around badges seemed to be an attempt to scale that system, but when you don't know what you need to do to win one and the badges aren't new to you, they fail to capture your interest. It's like when I studied Tae Kwon Do. Getting my blackbelt was a major goal of mine--but becoming a second, third or fourth degree didn't hold the same interest and so I moved onto other hobbies after six or seven years of working towards black.
Social moved to the side seemingly as a result of trying to move the app more into the mainstream. In a world where not everyone wants to check-in, then Explore, so it was thought, had to become front and center so anyone can feed off the data and get recommendations.
While finding out where your friends were and interacting with them in a stream wasn't necessarily a huge growth opportunity, deemphasizing that seemed to open up a flank for apps like Instagram and Path to take over that mindshare. If I want to know what my friends are doing--I can just as easily see where they're taking Instagram photos--especially given that they're using the Foursquare API to attach those photos to places.
It seems that growth and excitement around Foursquare has come down. I still use it regularly, but I'll admit that I don't check-in wherever I go--especially in a world of crappy cell bandwidth where it isn't always fast to load up a place and find the venue. It's impossible to win a Mayorship anywhere in NYC anyway--so sometimes it's just easier to snap an Instagram photo and kill two birds with one stone.
What I really want is that app that made it more fun to interact with the world around me and be more social with friends in real life--and I think it's very possible.
The key? Lists.
Before Wander, Jeremy Fisher built a site called Dinevore. I was the site's most hardcore user, despite its overly complicated interface. I loved the concept--publisher lists of "Top 25 Brooklyn Eats" and "Best Burger in NYC" were the main attraction, as were user created lists like "Places you're likely to run into a VC." Dinevore never made it to mobile, little time was spent on acquiring more publisher lists, and Jeremy moved onto Wander.
Still, I thought the lists were brilliant. Humans love lists. They love crossing off lists and getting to the end. It feels like a sense of accomplishment. They love sharing lists and they make for great SEO bait. Lists also negate the need for complicated recommendation algorithms. Instead of trying to figure out where the "best brunch" is by searching user comments on venues, then pulling in social data, you know that someone's already created that list--and you can just rank places depending on how many times they appear on publisher lists, weighted by the quality of the publisher. This is what Google does and it works. When you search for "best brunch in NYC", you get lots of publisher lists--and they're pretty good to be honest. Are they the single perfect recommendation based on time, coordinates, your friends, etc? No, but they don't have to be. That's a tough game to play. Instead, I'm pretty sure if I ate at every one of the places featured on Refinery29's best brunch list, I'd have a pretty good brunch experience. It would keep me incentivized to keep engaging with the app over time as well, because I'd keep coming back to see where to go next.
By bringing publisher lists into the equation, you also give publishers a way for them to reach their audience on phones. Every publisher recommendation list should come with an "Add to Foursquare" button. They tried that a while back and never seemed to push that through as a strategy. When you add a whole list at a time, you give a new user a set of goals that should keep them engaged for a while. You could even give people on site recognition on publisher sites when they've reached that goal--so that when I visit the page announcing the Eater 38, I can see all the people, including my friends, who have been to all 38 places.
Accomplishing lists is also much more scalable than a Mayorship and Badge system. It takes longer to run through a list--and there are always lots of lists specific to you that you'd care about.
Sharing lists also leads to what a more social Foursquare should look like--something that actually gets me to interact with my friends in real life. Just watching streams gets kind of tiresome after a while--and it's nothing that Foursquare has any innate advantage over than Instagram or Path. The difference could be that those two apps have zero chance of getting me to actually show up somewhere to meet a friend. That is much more emotionally meaningful to me than seeing a picture, and driving foot traffic to venues is... oh, what do you call that... that's right... a business.
One of the buried features of Dinevore was the ability to see which venues were on your friends' To Do lists. Everyone had a To Do list because the whole point of the site was about completing the lists. It made for a well informed answer to "Where should we go?" When you suggest going to a place with friends and they say, "Oh, great, I've been dying to go there!" it's pure geosocial gold. Foursquare should suggest people to hangout with and the places to go with them when they overlap--especially since they know who my closer friends are given who I've checked in together with and commented at.
The great thing for Foursquare is that it already has all of these features, in parts. Lists are buried in the app right now. It's just a design question to make them more important, specifically my friends' To Do's--as well as a business development strategy to get more publishers actively creating them.
If lists became front and center in the mobile app, Foursquare would accomplish three things:
a) It would kill off the awkward divide between using it for recommendations and being social--which feels like two separate things now.
b) It would engage people with a game they already play. The mobile app Matchbook proved out the same thing--reaching fantastic engagement because "normals" make lists of places they want to go to.
c) It would engage publishers in a better app distribution strategy. There's got to be some version of a list leaderboard and an add this list button that publishers would go for--and getting that kind of screen real estate, as well as a targeted scavenger hunt of sorts, could kickstart Foursquare's growth again.
The Foursquare I want to see will help me circle through the top eats in Brooklyn and tell me which of my friends also want to do so. It will be more about inspiring me to go out and be social--something that even parents with kids can plan ahead to do--rather than help me figure out what to do when I'm already out, which is a niche use case in my mind.
In any case, whether this is the strategy or something else is, I hope Foursquare figures it out. Foursquare's fate is emotionally meaningful to the NYC startup scene, even if, in the grand scheme of things, it's not the biggest, and you've got companies out there with lots of revs like Appnexus, Gilt, Etsy, Fab and ZocDoc. Foursquare, for a moment, seemed more "ours" and its funding in 2009 is what turned the VC engine back on in NYC.