Almost four years ago, two very different services launched on the same day. Both were defined by outsiders, though, by their central action — the check-in — and forever lumped together into the same category. Journalists labeled it the “check-in wars” and turned the growth of Foursquare and Gowalla into a horse race from which just one could emerge.
Over the weekend, Gowalla’s Josh Williams presented the story from inside the eventual “loser” of that horse race. It’s a story worth reading.
After pivoting from PackRat — a location-based item collecting game — to build what became Gowalla, the team was shocked to find Foursquare released on the same day at SXSW:
At launch, both apps had their distinct moments of strength and weakness. We thought foursquare was crap, and believed the design nerds flocking to Gowalla validated our attitude. Gowalla also worked anywhere — We were the first to crowd-source a local database from scratch. foursquare only worked in a dozen cities. In short, all else equal, we believed people would use our service because of its superior craft and availability.
Of course all was not equal. foursquare was not Dens’ first rodeo (even prior to Dodgeball, Dens’ involvement with earlier location-based projects like Vindingo continues to impress me). foursquare’s first cut proved more accessible and less fussy to the common crowd than our own. And while foursquare was initially only available in a dozen cities, a dense and deeply connected crowd in New York — many of them previously Dodgeball users — had already formed a strong base to build from. The NY-based media, thrilled that “the next Twitter” might come out of Manhattan, also proved to be a force.
Thanks to Foursquare’s early momentum, Gowalla ended up forced to play by Foursquare’s rules, knowing the leader in check-ins would eventually be crowned the “winner.” The moral of the story is that Gowalla should have played by their own rules, which is exactly what Williams is now advising other entrepreneurs to do.
Behind in check-ins, Gowalla eventually went on to allow users to share their check-ins to Foursquare and Facebook while they tried to pivot into a travel guide. Foursquare’s substantial lead (and significant growth of the product), combined with the complicated nature of Gowalla — is it an item collecting game? is it a check-in app? is it a travel guide? — eventually led to Williams selling to Facebook. Some of the team moved along to Facebook, others went separate ways and still others landed at Instagram — the app that sidestepped the ”check-in battle shitshow already in progress” and dropped “everything to focus on one simple feature: Photos.”
Why do you think Gowalla “failed” and eventually sold to Facebook?