Over the past few weeks I’ve found that my usage of the Foursquare app has been waning.  It’s not on purpose, but as Foursquare makes the big push to split their app into two separate ones — Swarm (for check-ins) and Foursquare (for local discovery) — I’m having trouble staying interested.  I’ve been a Foursquare user for over four years, but neither of these new apps are overwhelmingly appealing to me.  It’s unclear how these two new apps will provide more than I get today with just the one Foursquare app.  This got me thinking more: what would I do if I were Dennis Crowley, the CEO of Foursquare?

Side note: I do not have any special relationship with Foursquare outside of the fact that I once sat next to Dennis Crowley on the airplane.

Well here it goes.

Foursquare’s current strategy is certainly bold: removing location check-ins from their original Foursquare app and porting all of the geo-location features to their new app called Swarm.  The next release of the app with the original name (Foursquare) will now be used exclusively for local discovery.

The problem I see with this strategy is that neither check-ins nor local discovery are novel concepts (certainly not as novel as check-ins were back when Foursquare was first introduced) and there are several competitors who are already offering both of these services to consumers.  Google and Yelp are lead competitors here and Facebook, Trip Advisor and a host of start-ups are in the mix as well.

In his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz says that for a start-up to succeed, they must find a way of doing something that is at least 10x better than the current solutions in the market.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that either of Foursquare’s new apps pass this 10x sniff test.

Also, for as long as the app has existed, Foursquare has focused at least part of their attention on game-like features including offering users “points” for check-ins, “mayorship” if they check in to one place more than any other user, badges for accomplishments, stickers, etc.  The intent of these features has been to “gamify” the usage of their app, however, in my opinion: all of this stuff is crap.  Sure – some people may get a kick out of playing the game for a few weeks, but the game gets old very quickly and the features will not be a source of long term value for Foursquare.

However, all is not lost, because I think that there are four value propositions that Foursquare is uniquely positioned to capture (some of which they partially provide today):

1)     Help me avoid “close misses” by showing me when my friends are nearby me

One of the main value propositions of the check-in is finding out when a friend is nearby.  To help maximize this value proposition Foursquare should try to make check-ins faster and easier.  Perhaps offering a feature that allows you to “auto check-in” to specific locations or easier one-touch check-ins to places you go often.  They should also give you a special push notification when someone checks in very close by (e.g. within a few blocks). (note – currently by default you get push notifications for everyone within a large radius which, for me, encompasses the entire tri-state area).

2)     Help me share my location with my friends so they can see where I’ve been (serves as conversation starter for next time I see that person).

For me, one of the biggest values of the current Foursquare app is helping me start conversations with my friends about new restaurants they’ve been to.  Usually I’ll see someone check into a new place – then the next time I see them in person, I’ll ask them about their experience.  Foursquare could enhance this value by providing a daily digest of where my friends have checked-in.  It’s much easier for me to digest all of my friend’s check-in information daily rather than through interruptive real-time push notifications (as is the case today).

3)     Quick, easily digestible tips about restaurants and food places (quickly help me answer the question “what should I get here?”)

In the food-tip department, it’s the “quick” part that differentiates Foursquare from Yelp or Zagat.  Very short-form reviews are the key to this value proposition.  This sort of works today – but could be faster and better.  As I walk into a new restaurant, I want to be able to quickly glance at my phone and know the best things on the menu within 30 seconds.

4)     Help me find the best thing to do next in my area.

Now that we’re really dreaming.  Recommendations would be a killer value proposition for Foursquare. Check-in to a restaurant in the Flatiron District?  Get a recommendation to go to Shake Shack for a milkshake dessert.  Check into a matinee show at Lincoln Center?  How about a short walk to Levain Bakery – home of the world’s most delicious cookies just a few blocks away on 72nd Street?  This is the value proposition that is most appealing to me about Foursquare and one that I’m afraid they will be jeopardizing by breaking their app into two separate parts.

So – what about making money?  How can Foursquare profit from the value propositions laid out above?

Advertising is an obvious fit here, but mobile banner ads or interstitial ads may negatively impact the user experience.  How about a Google-like model that involves paid listings?  Value proposition #4 above provides recommendations to users about what they should do next.  What about having three “organic” recommendations of what to do next and one “paid recommendation”?  It would be a great way for Foursquare to make money and a great way for businesses to drive traffic to their physical locations.  After getting screwed by “flash deal” companies for the past three years, local merchants are bound to be looking for an alternative, more sustainable way to boost their business.  The pricing model to local businesses could literally be “pay per referral” – paying for the number of referrals that are made – or even pay per check in: pay only when Foursquare successfully refers someone to your business and they then check in at your location.

Find the hidden gems near you right now.  That’s the value proposition missing from Foursquare.  Decoupling local discovery from check-ins?  It’s a mistake in my view.

If I Were Dennis Crowley…
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