Kings College London

Succeeding in the world of social media

Naveen Selvadurai is co-founder of Foursquare, a geo-social networking site with more than four million users. A graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Naveen attended King’s for five months during his junior year in 2002. He recently spoke with members of the Alumni Office about his success in the highly competitive world of social networking.


What is Foursquare?

It’s a mobile network on your phone that helps you meet up with your friends in real life, learn about places to go and things to do.


Where did the idea for this network come from?

It’s the amalgamation of a couple of different smaller projects that we’d been working on. My co-founder Dennis [Crowley] and I had been working on mobile social space for a few years and had been experimenting with prior services, like Dodgeball, that were trying to introduce the idea of check-ins and the concept of location-based awareness of where certain people are.

We live in New York City, and there are so many things to do here. You read about events and restaurants in New York Magazine, the Times, all these publications, but you never remember them when you’re out and about. The idea was to take that information, put it into your phone and your phone would remind you later on.

The way we differentiate ourselves is by introducing the idea of gaming. We tried to take a few elements from game theory and introduce them into a traditional social network. Imagine, wouldn’t it be great if I discovered more new places than my friends did; I should be recognised for something like that.

One of the examples I like is the Pizziola badge. New York is a pizza town, but more often than not everyone ends up going to the same place over and over again. They either go late at night close to where they live, or for work they go to the same place for lunch every day. What’s it going to take for a system – software – to encourage you to try as many pizza places as you can?

We’re trying to make your life richer, getting you to experience even more of New York. So we came up with a badge called Pizziola, and the concept behind Pizziola is if you go to 10 different pizza places in the city then you earn this badge. You are attempting to earn this virtual token, this badge, but in doing that you’ve actually discovered 10 pizza places in New York.


Is there such a thing as a typical FourSquare user?

Our users fall into three or four buckets. Some people really like it because of the game-like elements; they like playing the game to earn things.

There’s another class of user that just wants to check in; the way the system works is that when you go to a place you take out your phone and check in. It broadcasts your location out to your close network of friends. It’s not something that’s constantly tracking where you are.

Others use it to inform their friends about parties, to make it easier to meet up. Let’s say you’re attending a conference and a whole bunch of people are going out together. Instead of sending a flat text or pinging all of your friends asking, ‘Hey, what’s going on tonight?’, you just kind of see this heat map of the city. Foursquare gives you a dashboard view of the city.

And there’s another class of user who use it just as a bookmarking service, just to remember every place they’ve ever been in.


You and Dennis have talked about the playful nature of Fourquare. What do you mean by that?

One example is the swarm badge. We introduced this back when we were quite small. We were looking at some of the stats and we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to award a badge for bringing 25 people to a room and having all 25 people check in.

People would hold swarm parties just to get swarm badges. But these were real parties, with people meeting, socialising, sharing drinks and making new friends.

That makes us different than a traditional social network because at the end of the day we want the system to go only so far as to bring people together and then get out of their way.


The link to businesses is also important too, right?

What we really wanted to build on the backside was a platform for local businesses, so they could keep track of their best customers – who’s walking in the door, where they’re coming from, what they like.

Early on we created a system of ‘specials’. They’re basically rewards that people get in real life for coming into a place. For example, if you come into this restaurant more than anyone else, you can get your appetisers for free. Or if you bring in three or four of your friends, then the first round of drinks is on the house.

This has real benefits for small businesses. We give them an even playing field with the big retail chains. We’ve also given them a great way to reach their customers.

The points you receive for checking in are virtual rewards; the points and badges don’t really mean anything. But then there are the real rewards you can get, such as the free appetiser. That’s what completes the loop.


How do you stay nimble enough to be a step ahead of giants such as Google and Microsoft?

We focus on one thing, instead of focusing on however many projects each one of these big firms might have. And we have embraced our really passionate user base. They talk about our service in a way that those other companies don’t get talked about.


Privacy on social networks is a huge concern. How have you approached that?

We have a privacy page – Privacy 101 we call it – where everything in the system is broken down. ‘If you do this, this is going to happen.’ ‘You can share this, or you can choose not to share.’ I would never build anything that I wouldn’t want to use. Remember, we originally built this for our friends.


What advice would you give someone thinking about starting an online network?

Just go out and do it. Don’t wait to get permission from anyone. There will always people who will say it won’t work. You’ve just got to do it, and do it again, and do it again.

Both Dennis and I had worked on two separate projects trying to do something in this space. We were both unemployed for two and a half years getting Foursquare started. I worked on the side, I consulted and I taught classes. It’s a scary thing to do sometimes. It all depends on how much risk someone is willing to take on.


Do you still feel a connection to King’s?

I wish I had gone there longer. I wish I had a full year of study abroad or two years. I just like London.


Related links:
Visit Foursquare
Follow Naveen on Twitter

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