It all started with a check-in: the vision for #4sq3 and beyond

Note: foursquare 3.0 for Android and iPhone are now live in their respective app stores. Also, this is a really long post, but we have a lot to say… if you want to just look at what foursquare 3.0 looks like, keep scrolling.

It was almost exactly two years today that Naveen and I flipped the switch on foursquare, jumped on a plane to Austin and introduced the folks at SXSW 2009 to our idea of “turning life into a game.” We’ve told the story a number of times, but we really had no idea whether people would dig the “check-ins + game mechanics” model or laugh us out of Texas. As it turned out, a lot of people loved it. By the time we got back to NYC, we had 5,000 users. We started a company, raised a round of funding and hired a bunch of the smartest people we could find.

Last year, we came back to Austin with a slightly bigger team (12 of us!) and more confidence in our ideas. Not only were people digging the “life as a game” idea, but we were seeing foursquare badges actually driving people to do things (“Gym Rat” badge, anyone?), we saw mayorships encouraging loyalty at coffee shops and restaurants, and merchants starting to reward people for their check-ins (“free coffee for the Mayor!”). It wasn’t hard to see how the social utility of check-ins, tips, and to-dos were starting to change the way people experienced both familiar neighborhoods and new cities. We launched “Trending” at SXSW 2010 – a way to see where a critical mass of people were checked in – and watched as people at SXSW used it as a “sixth sense” to know when it was time to switch parties and as a way to choose which panels to gravitate towards. We left Austin last year with just under 500,000 users.

Now it’s a year later and almost 40 of us (!) are about to head down to Austin for SXSW 2011. Our team has grown to just over 50 people, we’re closing in on 7.5 million users, and we saw almost 500,000,000 check-ins (half a billion!!!) in the last year. And while the numbers are great, this was a challenging year for us: scaling infrastructure from 100,000 to 7,500,000 users is hard; growing a company from 5 to 50 people is hard. And that’s why we didn’t expand the foursquare experience as much as we hoped to… a lot of people still look at us as a “game built on check-ins,” while we had dreams of being something much bigger.

We started foursquare with the idea of “making cities easier to use,” focusing on check-ins as the atomic unit of measuring interest in a place. From our work on dodgeball (an early location-based project), we knew that while check-ins were interesting in the present tense (“Hey, Alex is at Ace Bar!”) they were most interesting when viewed in aggregate, as a history of the places you’ve been and people you’ve overlapped with. The world becomes so much more fun, social, and interesting when you have that context. We’ve long wanted to build those things that can augment your experience of the real world – software that introduces you to new places and new experiences – and with the launch of foursquare 3.0 we’re getting a little closer to that vision.

One of the big ideas kicking around foursquare HQ these last few months has been the idea of “every check-in counts.” Regardless of whether you’re checking into the same ol’ coffee shop or some far-away beach, we want every check-in to add value to every foursquare user. With that in mind, let me walk you though some of the new things you’ll find in our new Android and iPhone versions (both launch later tonight!) in the context of the way we’ve been thinking about the evolution of the company and the product.

Discovery

For many, foursquare has been a great way to find out about the places your friends frequent (through check-ins) and learn about specific experiences to seek out (through tips and to-dos). For years we’ve wanted to build a recommendation engine for the real world by turning all the check-ins and tips we’ve seen from you, your friends, and the larger foursquare community into personalized recommendations.

You’ll see our first pass at this in foursquare 3.0′s new “Explore” tab. The idea is pretty simple: tell us what you’re looking for and we’ll help you find something nearby. The suggestions are based on a little bit of everything – the places you’ve been, the places your friends have visited, your loyalty to your favorite places, the categories and types of places you gravitate towards, what’s popular with other users, the day of the week, places with great tips, the time of day, and so on. We’ll even tell you why we think you should visit a certain place (e.g. popular with friends, similar to your favorite spots). You’ll find it’s helpful for general things like “food”, “coffee”, “nightlife” (we built in quick access to these searches) and you’ll be surprised by what you get when searching for really specific things, like “80s music,” “fireplaces,” “pancakes,” “bratwurst,” and “romantic.” The more random you get, the more interesting the results get (though be patient with this first release… sometimes we can’t find every random thing).

And outside of the “Explore” tab, you’ll see some of this thinking starting to surface on the “Me” tab as well. As we started to tinker with our recommendations algorithms, we started to see “expertise” starting to emerge from the data – we’re seeing friends that have been to every karaoke place within 10 miles or tried every burger in Los Angeles. The new “Me” tab surfaces some of this, letting you seek guidance from your friends on the categories and places they explore most.

Now, with over half a billion data points, and with every additional check-in and every tip, foursquare gets a little smarter for you, your friends, and the rest of the community. We’re already finding this can be just as helpful for finding a brunch spot in your neighborhood as it can be for helping you navigate a new city for the first time.

Encouragement

The very first version of foursquare (January 2009) was built as a “leaderboard for Saturday night” – a way to motivate your friends to go out and explore the real world and a means to visualize your adventurousness. Points for check-ins, badges for accomplishments, and a leaderboard to compare the results with your friends all fed into this idea. At foursquare, we’re big believers in the power of software to encourage and motivate behavior, and while our first stab at a leaderboard hinted at some of the possibilities, it never got the love it deserved.

Today’s major overhaul to the leaderboard is a big step in the evolution of that original idea. You’ll see that we’ve replaced our old leaderboard (and its simple points system and Sunday night reset) with a sliding 7-day barometer of you and your friends. Check-ins now trigger points for dozens of different types of actions – everything from discovering new places, trying new types of restaurants, visiting new cities, getting groups together, hanging out with old friends, and a few things you might not expect.

From the early days, we’ve heard stories of foursquare’s game mechanics being a subtle motivator for trying a new restaurant or venturing a little further away from your local haunts. We’re excited to see how some of the new elements we’ve added will encourage people to actively explore the world around them.

Loyalty

Over the past two years, many of you watched as we experimented with local merchants all over the world, working with them to build tools that redefine customer loyalty. What started with a disagreement over who spent more time at our neighborhood coffee shop (hence, the “Mayor”), quickly evolved into local merchants rewarding foursquare Mayors with special treatment (discounts and freebies, the power to cut the line, and even ordering off a special menu). As foursquare has grown, though, it’s become harder to both hold down Mayorships and win back the ones you’ve lost. We’ve long wanted to move beyond that and give merchants more ways to reward loyal customers. So, later this week, we’re rolling out six new types of foursquare Specials for merchants. Business will now be able to offer Specials to swarms, groups of friends, regulars, newbies, Mayors, or simply to everyone. And, on the Places screen in the app, you’ll now see a list of all the Specials nearby, so it’s easier to find places that reward foursquare users. With over a quarter million businesses verified on foursquare, these new tools will mean more rewards for users everywhere in the world.

Anyway, this post was a very long way of saying that we’ve got really ambitious plans for the rest of the year and that we’re excited to let you play with three big new pieces of the master plan. It feels great to be making progress on things we’ve wanted to build for years and it’s even more exciting to have you all along for the ride. Here’s to a great rest of the year, and we look forward to seeing a bunch of you in Austin!

- @dens and the rest of team foursquare

P.S. BlackBerry users, we’ll have a new build for you this week as well, but alas, not yet with some of this foursquare 3.0 goodness. The good news is that this latest build has all the pieces in place for us to move a little quicker, so stay tuned!

P.P.S. Lots of you have been asking in the comments about Symbian and WP7. We’re working hard to make sure that foursquare 3.0 is available on all platforms, and will have updates as soon as we can.

Posted in Foursquare