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Foursquare tops Silicon Valley's most-wanted list

April 19, 2010 |  1:43 pm

In the sizzling hot location-based social networking space, the best place to be is in the shoes of New York entrepreneur Dennis Crowley, who has become the most-wanted entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.

Everyone is trying to check in with the founder of Foursquare, the increasingly popular service which lets your friends know where you are when you “check in” to locations on your cellphone.

As it closes in on 1 million users this week, Foursquare is being pursued by Internet giant Yahoo Inc., which has offered as much as $125 million for Foursquare, and by two powerful venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, Andreessen Horowitz and Khosla Ventures, which have proposed lucrative funding deals that could value the start-up at as much as $100 million. Foursquare is also drawing interest from other investors, including Russian firm Digital Sky Technologies, which has invested in Facebook and gaming sensation Zynga.

Foursquare “I am totally humbled by everything,” Crowley, 33, said in an interview. “We are hoping to figure out what we are going to do soon.”

What a whirlwind for Foursquare, which just last August raised $1.35 million, valuing the company at $6 million. Since then, Foursquare users have multiplied faster than tribbles on "Star Trek." It has lined up partnerships with Microsoft, HBO and Bravo, among others. And, at least in the hype department, Foursquare has outpaced competitors Gowalla and MyTown.

Silicon Valley is looking to capitalize on the mobile social networking craze, which has taken off with the rapid adoption of smart phones. If checking in becomes a mainstream activity, it could turbocharge mobile advertising, which is now just a tiny percentage of overall spending on online ads.

Foursquare is the front-runner, but Twitter recently announced its own location service called @anywhere. And Facebook may announce its own location service at its F8 developers event this week.

Influential technology blogger Michael Arrington on Monday publicly urged the Foursquare team not to sell out to Yahoo, which has a poor track record with nurturing start-ups.

“Facebook and Twitter hitting the geo space must be a scary thing for a small start-up to contemplate,” Arrington said in a blog post. “But there’s real momentum and that intangible buzz behind your product right now. Play this out.”

Foursquare2 That buzz got louder several weeks ago when Crowley, who spoke at the Where 2.0 Conference, took a VIP tour of Silicon Valley, checking in at Apple Inc., Twitter Inc. and Square (Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s latest venture). Crowley chronicled his adventures on Foursquare, including the “star-struck” moment when he met Chatroulette founder Andrey Ternovskiy at a venture capital firm.

The tour fueled heated speculation about Foursquare’s future. But Crowley does not talk like a guy on the verge of ceding control of his company.

“We work all hours of the day. It’s awesome. We’re loving it. We want to keep doing this. We have lots of ideas we want to build over a long time,” he said. “We are at the point where we have enough users to build things no one has thought of before. We think the product is at 10% of where it should be. We just have got to keep plugging away with it and keep rolling things out.”

Ironically, Crowley has Google to thank for his newfound fun, fame and good fortune. Foursquare is the 2.0 version of Dodgeball, a service Crowley created to help his friends connect and find cool things to do offline. Crowley was excited about the future in 2005 when he sold the start-up to Google. He bailed out two years later.

“I didn’t realize there wouldn’t be a happy ending for Dodgeball,” Crowley said. “I was bummed to walk away from it. It was the thing I felt most passionate about.”

Crowley swore to rebuild the service for his friends who used it in January 2009 when Google shut it down. He launched Foursquare two months later at South by Southwest Interactive, the annual technology conference in Austin, Texas.

“Foursquare is all about how do you find out the good things to do, who to meet up with next, how to have the best experience,” Crowley said. “People spend their lives making office productivity software. We make tools that make your social life more interesting and efficient.”

Crowley had originally wanted to name Dodgeball after his favorite playground game. But the Foursquare domain was taken. This time around, he managed to convince the domain owner to sell it to him. It was a harbinger. Whereas Dodgeball never quite caught on, Foursquare has exploded. It will reach 1 million users more quickly than Twitter.

“Everything about the company is so random and serendipitous,” Crowley said.

Foursquare’s users are fanatical about the service. They recently held hundreds of parties across the country to celebrate Foursquare Day (on April 16, 4/16, or four and four squared). Foursquare founders and 500 fans threw their own rooftop party with a hot tub, natch. Crowley and his fellow founders now are recognized when they check into New York bars, a bigger rush than the 100 straight days Crowley spent on the slopes during a temporary gig as a snowboarding instructor after the dot-com crash.

“We struck a nerve,” Crowley said. “Everyone has been super supportive. That really motivates us.”

-- Jessica Guynn 

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