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. One with the same name and core concept as the original. Gowalla debuted in 2009 in Austin (where it was headquartered at the time) and today is publicly relaunching there, with a fresh look and feel and some fundamental differences, but still holding on to the central belief that people are looking for ways to connect locally, in person, using technology.
I talked to Williams about the complicated topography of the map he followed to get here – including the original foundation; the hype-filled location-based app wars that followed in which Foursquare acted as its main rival (Dennis Crowley is now one of Gowalla’s investors); an acquisition by Facebook in 2011; a shuttering of the app just a year later; and a rebirth in the middle of a global pandemic.
But first, what is Gowalla? For some this is a partial refresher course, but a large number of you are probably learning about it for the first time. Essentially, the app is a social network that uses a map as its primary interface, allowing you to “check in” to share your location with trusted contacts and see the locations where others on your friends list have also checked in. and other locations (including branded locations like Chipotle) appear on the map, and you can also add your own locations. You can add comments on friends’ check-ins and also have conversations directly in the app. There’s a new mechanism for swiping through recent friend check-ins, and a gamified element via collecting stamps related to your activity. It’s simple, yet engaging, and distinctly different from what’s currently available from just about all mobile social competitors.
The name of the app and guiding principles may not have changed, but the landscape certainly has, which is what Williams says will give Gowalla a better chance of lasting success than the first time around. In part, he said, the reason the first attempt didn’t catch on was that the alleged race between Gowalla and Foursquare over who would essentially become the next Facebook or the next Twitter (it seemed at the time that both had a chance) meant making some decisions. which Williams says were not right for location-based networks in the long run.
“Whether it’s right or wrong, press and everyone is saying one of these companies is going to be the next Facebook or the next Twitter — so let’s beat them up big time,” he said. “It’s going to be a zero-sum game to become the next big thing, and that’s going to be this race for how do you get the most users and then how do you throw ads at them? A lot of the thinking back then was we’d have these local ads, and you’d check in and you’d get a penny off your coffee, or whatever. We could talk a lot about that, but for various reasons it’s a bad idea and it’s not going to work.”
Instead, Williams thinks the secret to a sustainable future for an app like Gowalla lies with the users who love it the most. There is precedent, he says, citing possibly the biggest in the form of an established global phenomenon.
“There are, I don’t know how many millions of traditional Pokemon card players there are, but there are basically two markets: you have the card builders, the people who really know there’s a game here, and they’re going to do it. structure their deck and know all the rules,” he said. “And then there’s my son, who just wants to collect Pikachu and Charizard and has no bigger worries. Pokemon has done a really great job serving these two different audiences – really hardcore, and then this really casual group.
This model doesn’t only work for card-based gaming, according to Williams. He also pointed to Fortnite as something that has basically done the same thing, and the Nikita Bier-founded Gas app that was acquired by Discord earlier this year, as well as social networking products that are successful outside the US, and particularly in Asia.
Gowalla already has a prototypical version of this approach in play: the “street team” feature, which offers additional features and early beta access to users who pay a small recurring membership fee. Williams says one of the things that has changed is the sheer scale of mobile users, meaning that even if only a small percentage of your total user base is willing to pay, you stand a chance of building something that successfully monetizes this way can earn. . Location-based networking app Zenly, which Snap acquired and then shut down much to the chagrin of its many million active users, is a great example of an app that had that kind of scale in the same space Gowalla is targeting, he added.
Zenly’s rapid growth, and subsequent death at the hands of its acquirer, is a great signal for Williams and efforts like Gowalla: it had 35 million daily active users by 2022, not long before it shut down earlier this year. Zenly’s demise wasn’t really a signal of its own potential, but rather an indication of Snap’s needs and priorities at the time, in an uncertain economic environment.
As for why the current moment offers more opportunities for a location-based social network than ever before, Williams cites the sheer number of devices out there now, with location services enabled and users feeling comfortable choosing them. He also points to a rare success from an unlikely player when it comes to social networking software: Apple.
“I think things have changed a lot again in the last 10 years where you clearly see Find my Friends,” said Williams. “Apple has done a lot of footwork to make that feel almost like an ad-hoc social network in itself.”
Gowalla has an impressive roster of notable investors this time around, including GV’s MG Siegler (who covered Gowalla in his original form for AapkaDost very early on when he was a writer here). I spoke to Siegler about why he’s optimistic the timing is right for a comeback to location-based networking. He said all his experience has led him to the conclusion that everything comes back to technology, and whether a startup is successful comes down to timing.
“I kind of believe that for a lot of startups, if they just have a long enough time horizon, they can be in the right place at the right time to make something work,” he said.
While Gowalla didn’t get both the timing and the place right the first time around, he said Williams and his team are poised to capitalize on this resurgence given signals like the Zenly success already mentioned above.
“It feels like it’s more in the right place and at the right time than ever before,” Siegler said. “Clearly there are more phones in people’s hands, the networks are better, these phones are much, much, much more powerful than they were in the days of the original location wars. And there are now business models that seem to support such an operation.”
Siegler sees hope for Gowalla’s future in its ability to implement subscription services, digital goods, or perhaps a combination of these different approaches, combined with the clear demand evidenced by Zenly’s success.
The other key timing element Williams cited as a driving force was the pandemic; He re-founded the company in October 2020 and said the global crisis contributed to his decision to start over on a number of fronts. First, he said that “people will have the sower to go back and experience the world” as soon as they are able to do so. And operationally, he noted that it “removed the stigma of running a distributed team,” which was a blessing because there were specific individuals he wanted to work with from his experience at Gowalla, but these people were now scattered around the world — includes Instagram design pioneer and original Gowalla alum Tim Van Damme.
“In some ways, the ways social media has evolved has certainly made it interesting to build, again, more private, or not necessarily private, but smaller, more intimate, more authentic kinds of networks,” he said. “The other thing we’re also seeing a first glimpse of is what’s going to happen with say chatGPT or some of the other AI approaches. I think there you will see all this content created by AI spitting out on this other social media canvas. So there will be a premium to know who is real and what is real. I think this presents an opportunity for products that innovate on these connections that are more real, based on the real world, to say, ‘Hey, these are, these are my real friends.’”