Gowalla returns to see if the location-based network is ready for its mainstream moment
Image sources: Gowalla
Gowalla co-founder and CEO Josh Williams is heading to the annual SXSW music, technology and arts festival in Austin, Texas this year to do something he’s already done — launch a location-based social networking app. With the same name and basic concept as the original. Gowalla debuted in Austin (where it was based at the time) in 2009, and is back in public today with a fresh look and feel and some key differences, but still sticking to the core belief that people are searching. local, personal ways of connecting through technology.
I spoke with Williams about the intricate topography of the map he followed to get here—which includes the original founding; the hyped location-based app wars that followed, with Foursquare as its primary rival (Dennis Crowley is now an investor in Gowalla); the acquisition of Facebook in 2011; shutting down the app just a year later; and a rebirth in the midst of a global pandemic.
But first, what is Gowalla? For some, this is partly a refresher, but quite a few are probably learning about it for the first time. Essentially, the app is a social network that uses the map as its primary interface, allowing you to “check in” to share your location with trusted contacts and see where others have checked in on your friends list. Landmarks and other places (including branded places like Chipotle) appear on the map, and you can add your own places. You can comment on your friends’ check-ins and have conversations right in the app. There’s a new mechanism for scrolling through recent friend check-ins, and a gamified element by collecting stamps related to your activity. It’s simple, yet immersive, and definitely different from what’s currently available on almost any mobile social competitor.
While the app’s name and guiding principles haven’t changed, the landscape certainly has, and Williams says that gives Gowalla a better chance of lasting success than it did the first time around. He said part of the reason the first attempt didn’t catch on was because the race between Gowalla and Foursquare to be the next Facebook or the next Twitter (at the time, both seemed to have a chance) made decisions that which, according to Williams, were unsuitable for location-based networking in the long term.
“Right or wrong, the press and everybody else is saying that one of these companies is going to be the next Facebook or the next Twitter — so let’s kick the crap out of it,” he said. “Zero-sum gaming is going to be the next big thing, and it’s going to be a race of how do you get the most users and throw ads at them? A lot of times the idea was that we’d have these local ads and you’d log in and get a nickel off your coffee or whatever. We could talk a lot about this, but for various reasons it’s a bad idea and it won’t work.”
Instead, Williams believes the secret to a sustainable future for an app like Gowalla lies in the users who love it the most. There is a precedent for it, he says, citing perhaps the biggest one in the form of a well-established global phenomenon.
“There are, I don’t know how many millions of traditional Pokemon card players, but there are basically two markets: you have the deck builders, the people who actually know there’s a game here, and the people who build their decks and know all the rules” – He told. “Then there’s my son who just wants to collect Pikachu and Charizard and he’s fine.” Pokemon has done a great job of catering to these two different audiences – the really tough and then this really casual crowd.”
According to Williams, this model doesn’t just work in card-based games. He also pointed to Fortnite as something that did essentially the same thing, and Gas, an app founded by Nikita Bier that Discord bought earlier this year, as well as successful social networking products outside the US and especially in Asia.
Gowalla already has a prototypical version of this approach: the “street team” feature, which provides additional features and early beta access to users who pay a small, regular membership fee. One thing that’s changed, Williams says, is the large number of mobile users, which means that even if only a small percentage of the total user base wants to pay, there’s still a chance you can build something that can be successfully monetized that way. . Location-based networking app Zenly, which was acquired by Snap and then shut down to the chagrin of its millions of active users, is a great example of an app that has that scale in the same space Gowalla is targeting, he added.
Zenly’s rapid growth and subsequent demise at the hands of an acquirer is a great sign for Williams and efforts like Gowalla: It had 35 million daily active users in 2022, just earlier this year. Zenly’s death was not really a sign of his own potential, but rather an indicator of Snap’s needs and priorities at the time, in the face of an uncertain economic environment.
As for why the opportunity for a location-based social network is greater than ever at the moment, Williams cites the sheer number of devices currently available that are location-enabled and that users can conveniently opt-in to. It also points to a rare success from an unlikely player in social networking software: Apple.
“I think things have changed a lot again in the last 10 years, obviously seeing Find my Friends,” Williams said. “Apple has worked hard to make this almost feel like an ad hoc social network in and of itself.”
This time, Gowalla has an impressive list of notable investors, including MG Siegler of GV (who actually covered Gowalla in its original form very early on, when he was a writer here at TechCrunch). I spoke with Siegler about why he’s optimistic the timing is right for a location-based network comeback. He said that all of his experiences led him to the conclusion that everything in tech comes back and whether a startup succeeds depends on timing.
“I think with a lot of startups, if they have a long enough time horizon, they can be in the right place at the right time to make something work,” he said.
While the time and place weren’t right for Gowalla the first time around, he said Williams and his team are poised to capitalize on this resurgence, based on signs like the aforementioned Zenly success.
“I feel like it’s the right place, the right time, more than ever,” Siegler said. “Obviously there are more phones in people’s hands, the networks are better, these phones are much more powerful than they were in the original Civil War. And there are currently business models that seem to be able to support such an operation.”
Siegler sees hope for the future of Gowalla in its ability to deliver subscription services, digital goods, or perhaps a combination of these different approaches, coupled with the clear demand demonstrated by Zenly’s success.
The other key timing element Williams cited as a driving force was the pandemic; He refounded the company in October 2020 and said that the global crisis contributed to his decision to start over on several fronts. First, he said, “people will have so much more to go back and experience the world” if they can. And operationally, he noted that it “removed the stigma of running a distributed team,” which was a blessing because there were certain people he wanted to work with from his experience at Gowalla, but those people are now scattered across the world — including Instagram -design pioneer and original Gowalla alum Tim Van Damme.
“In some ways, the way social media has evolved has certainly made it interesting to build networks that are more private, or not necessarily private, but smaller, more intimate, more authentic,” he said. “The other thing we’re seeing early glimpses of is what’s going to happen with, say, chatGPT or some of the other AI approaches. I think that’s where you’ll see all the content that’s been created by AI and that’s going out on other social media canvases. So knowing who is real and what is real will be at a premium. I think that gives an opportunity for products that innovate on these relationships that are more real, real-world based and say, “Hey, these are my real friends.”