Remember Foursquare? The location tech used by Apple, Uber knows you

In this weekly series, CNBC takes a look at companies that made the inaugural Disruptor 50 list, 10 years later.

Even if you aren’t aware of it, you probably use Foursquare every single day — or at least its technology.

With more than 125,000 developers worldwide embedding it in their own software, and with 14 billion-plus human-verified “check-ins,” Foursquare is the underlying location engine that powers a myriad of brands, such as Twitter, Snapchat, Uber, Spotify , Airbnb, Coca-Cola, and JetBlue.

But Foursquare wasn’t always behind-the-scenes in location services, let alone interested in being an enterprise technology vendor. In 2009, when Foursquare launched, the iPhone was just over a year old, the App Store had only been around for six months, and location technology was still taking shape. Co-founders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai set out to make a social application that would allow users to “check in” as they visited various destinations, and easily connect with friends, meet nearby strangers, and explore cities in an any way. The user location data produced by the check-ins could then be used to generate customized recommendations, a database of specific venue locations, and ultimately — in Crowley’s grandest vision and most common catchphrase from the company’s early days — a “living, breathing map of the world.”

By the time Foursquare made CNBC’s inaugural Disruptor 50 list in 2013, it had over 30 million users worldwide, hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and over 3 billion check-ins, gaining more each day. Shortly thereafter, the company split its operations in two, becoming Swarm and Foursquare City Guide, allowing it to focus on both the location discovery and social check-in aspects of the application. But bigger trends taking place in mobile hit the company, and engagement began to rapidly fall.

“Facebook, Twitter and others sort of consumed, if you will, the consumer attention,” said current CEO and president Gary Little, who took over in 2021.

As the era of Foursquare seemed to be quickly coming to an end, it still had something valuable: years of user data. In 2017, it pivoted again, to Pilgrim SDK, a software development kit powered by the near-decade of data Foursquare had acquired. And it also made a repeat appearance on the Disruptor 50 list. The new strategy functioned much like the original model for Foursquare, except with one big difference: it automatically checked in users based on movement. This hyper-contextual data collected from users allowed Foursquare to offer services as a third-party enterprise tool to some of tech’s biggest players, including Apple (for Maps), Snapchat, Twitter, Uber, Pinterest, and Samsung.

In a blog post from Crowley when he left his last full-time role as executive chairman at the company in mid-2021, he stated it had revenue of over $100 million in 2020, and a forecast for “well over” of $100 million in revenue in 2021.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the dislocation of human populations and new patterns of movement presented a new opportunity to Foursquare.

“Covid made clear for almost every industry that geospatial data sets are fundamental and critical to really understand the consumer,” Little said. “There is used to be very delineated lines between a physical customer and digital customer. Now it’s just customers. And so, the need to understand that is a pretty fundamental investment pillar that we see.”

The pandemic also made clear, however, that predictive data relies on patterns, and in a world growingly characterized by unpredictable factors, such as pandemics, economic instability and climate change, the metrics are more difficult to generate reliably.

“Making sense of the world is very difficult today from a data science perspective,” Little said. “Extrapolating that out over a very long horizon is probably a pretty dangerous game these days,” he said, but he added that helping companies understand directional shifts and irregularities is a core function of Foursquare’s real-time location engine technology.

The world of mobile is going through some of its biggest privacy changes ever, with both Apple and Google mobile operating systems placing greater restrictions on tracking of users. Little says this change hasn’t been as significant for the company as it has been for many other app-based businesses.

“Location based data is probably the most sensitive PII [personally identifiable information] in the ecosystem — where people move, where phones move, and the correlation of that. And so, from the very beginning, we’ve built our systems first to be opt-in,” Little said.

Its datasets are anonymized and aggregated.

“We’re investing a lot in those capabilities because we see that as a big opportunity, a big unlock to continue to do location in a privacy forward [way]at the center of our design,” he said.

While the company missed out on the decade of public offerings that made many of its mobile peers rich, Little said Foursquare isn’t focused on whether its exit strategy is an IPO or potential acquisition. But he added, “We hope to be in the position where that is our choice.”

The company’s consumer-facing apps that were its original business model remain in use, with the company claiming 9 billion-plus monthly visits from 500 million unique devices, but it is focused on continued investment for the brands that use it as an enterprise technology.

“Across all industries most players are very early in utilizing core location, geospatial data and technology, in their applications,” Little said. “And so, as we invest, it’s really accelerating the tools and capabilities that we will provide companies to be able to both build in their technology layer and analyze in their data stack what’s happening from a geospatial perspective.”

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