Old Media Interview: Gowalla CEO Josh Williams

January 22nd, 2010

Mobile social game startup Gowalla has only been around since October, but the Austin-based company pulled in $8.4 million in venture capital in a tough market. Why? Because what Gowalla does is not just a game – it might be the next way we communicate. The next Twitter.

This Q&A is with Josh Williams, the CEO of Gowalla Inc. and a co-founder of the company.

Josh Williams, the CEO of Gowalla. (Credit: Keegan Jones)

Josh Williams, the CEO of Gowalla. (Credit: Keegan Jones)

OMNT: Please explain what Gowalla does, for those of us who are not addicted to “checking in” to locations. Why would someone participate?

Williams: Gowalla is a location-based mobile social network (the kiddies who make up acronyms are calling these things LoMoSo’s) that encourages people discover and share places with their friends. We use the GPS and other location services in smart phones to help people find nearby locations, “check in,” leave a comment if appropriate, then share that update with their friends.

It’s like a updating your status on Facebook or Twitter, only in the case of Gowalla you are sharing the place you’re at as well. It’s a remarkable way to meet up with friends, share your favorite places or learn about nearby hotspots you might be unaware of.

You could even think of Gowalla as a digital passport rewarding users with beautiful icons each time they check in. We see these “digital collectibles” as a bit of a game encouraging people to remember to check in.

How many active users does Gowalla have and what is the growth like?

Our month over month growth is north of 70 percent. I’d prefer to steer clear of specific numbers for the time being though.

Mashable’s Pete Cashmore said Foursquare, Gowalla’s chief competition, is “next year’s Twitter.” Do you believe that location-based social apps have that potential? Why?

Yes, I think location is the next big thing. We’ve been chasing this Holy Grail for years, but only now—with ubiquitous location-aware devices such as the iPhone — have some of these dreams become reality. The next several years are going to be a coming out party for this space.

What separates Gowalla from your main competitor, Foursquare? Is there room for two big mobile location services?

Gowalla’s strength is in our community. We have the most remarkable group of folks who have now created and shared over 400,000 unique locations in nearly every recognized country and region around the world. I believe that Gowalla, and the care with which it is crafted, resonates with people everywhere.

The reality is that location is going to be a massive space with many players fulfilling diverse needs. I believe the verdict is still out on whether or not there will be “One Check In to Rule Them All” but we’re working feverishly to ensure Gowalla is always improving based on the feedback from our community.

How does/will Gowalla get revenue? Do the locations (restaurants, bars and coffee shops, etc) see any benefit, and if so, what?

We’re already working with established brands who are excited to partner with us to experiment with location-based product placement within Gowalla. We’re being careful to ensure these brands uphold the “ethos” of our product and what it stands for. As these experiments yield measurable results you’ll begin to see the fruits of our partnerships become a revenue generating product.

Users can push out their “check ins” from Gowalla out to Twitter and Facebook. There has been criticism that many of those posts are mundane and annoying to people who are followers and friends. Is there a way to make those push notifications more interesting?

In their current form, I agree that push notifications tend to be very simple, even dumb, in their implementation. We have lots of room to improve here, adding context and relevancy to these notifications, while only pushing them to you when they’re truly meaningful. It’s an interesting problem to solve, but we’re up for the challenge.

Outside of its own application, what is Gowalla’s social media strategy?

If we build a quality product that brings happiness and meaning to someone’s life, then they’re going to share it with their friends. That’s our social media strategy.

The established media seems to have missed out on either partnering with or usurping sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor for user reviews. Do you think there is there a place for mainstream media when it comes to mobile apps? How could local news organizations leverage platforms like Gowalla and Foursquare?

I do think there is a place for mainstream media and brands, but I am concerned that the decision makers that be look at location like the next big gold rush without truly understanding the space. Just like Twitter, there’s going to be folks who leverage the technology in remarkable ways while others attempt to sell snake oil. It’ll be important for mainstream media to keep an open mind.

However, I do think news outlets will have an interesting opportunity to learn more about the people and places that surround them. Where are people going today? Is there a storyline? Could be very exciting.

What’s next for Gowalla?

We’re working hard to release native Gowalla applications for Android, Palm and Blackberry devices. Getting Gowalla into the hands of more people is our top priority.

What’s next for location-based social networks?

I think we’ll see a variety of established internet players attempt to hop into the game with varying degrees of success while the younger companies like ours drive innovation forward. Our goal is to make a product that is useful, serendipitous and focused on enriching the lives of our community.

Note: After submitting these questions to Williams, a major player did hop in: Yelp. On Jan. 15, Yelp announced a change in its iPhone app that lets people check-in to locations, much the same way Gowalla and Foursquare do. I followed up with this question for Williams:

Yelp just jumped into the fray, offering in its latest build-out the ability for users to check in to businesses, much like Gowalla. What are your thoughts on Yelp as a competitor?

I think Yelp’s foray into the space is certainly a validation of what we’re doing. Ultimately the presence of other well known players is driving us to build a more compelling, innovative product. We’re excited.

Thank you, Josh, for doing this interview. Best of luck.

Team Gowalla. (Credit: Brooke Raymond)

Team Gowalla. (Credit: Brooke Raymond)

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Entry Filed under: Old Media Interview

  • http://doted.tumblr.com DotEd

    I'm a huge fan of Gowalla over foursquare.
    Gowalla's rewards are incentive for friends to join before they learn about the usefulness the application later offers as you grow into it.

    http://gowalla.com/users/DotEd <–fleshed out example :)


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  • http://www.mikemerrill.com Mike D. Merrill

    Daniel, thank for a very insightful interview and more background into the founder's thoughts about this space. I think one of the advantages of these location-based apps is there ability to create a micro-community of sorts since most of the time you really only want to know share your where abouts with folks you know. Although when we share with the world on twitter that kind of dilutes it.

    That's why I am surprised by all of the out of town requests I get and why I have numerous pending requests. I think for SXSW this could be appealing but jury is out for me.

    In my opinion Gowalla nailed the design and graphics. I actually won't post my location to Facebook except through Gowalla. My using the images vs. a map I think it's visually more appealing in your social stream. However, I'm sure my friends on Facebook are tired of the Starbucks checkins.

    I also enjoyed the “One Check In to Rule Them All” quote from Josh. We are lobbying to get him or someone from his team to speak at The Social Media Club of Dallas.



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