Gowalla’s Josh Williams: Groupon Is One-Dimensional

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Location-based check-in service Gowalla is kind of a virtual tour guide, to use the analogy of the day for such companies. Mobile users log in with their location and get information about the places around them, nearby businesses and places their friends recommend. Gowalla integrates both Facebook Places and Foursquare check-ins, and lets users share photographs tagged to places.

Street Fight spoke to the company’s CEO, Josh Williams, who called Groupon “one-dimensional” for now, and discussed the scramble for local ad dollars, the inseparability of mobile and location, and the persistent privacy problem around check-ins.

We hear the word “hyperlocal” a lot from news people, but what does hyperlocal mean to services like Gowalla?
Once I get past the buzzword nature of the term itself, I guess the first thing that comes to mind for me is really stuff that happens on a neighborhood level. I think that’s something that’s been really difficult to crack in terms of services that deal consistently with events or activities that happen on a level smaller than a metro or city region.

Part of that is due to the fact that oftentimes it’s really difficult to agree on what neighborhood boundaries are. There are just a lot of disparate services that service this area and I don’t think anyone can really crack it yet, but definitely there are tons of people who are trying.

What’s your sense of what local businesses want from Gowalla — and anyone else vying for local ad dollars?
In the end, I think everybody is trying to figure out a way to continue to drive new people into the business who are going to stay and ultimately become fans and repeat customers — or spread the word that there’s something remarkable about a local business. I think obviously sites like Groupon and LivingSocial have raised the awareness of local businesses in a certain way, but I still think it’s kind of a one-dimensional look. Services like Gowalla and Foursquare have definitely given ways for people to share their favorite places. Frankly, I end up finding out a lot about new places that are around — or even places that have been there forever, but I’ve just not ever been to — because of my friends’ activity on Gowalla. It becomes very much like a social travel guide of sorts. Ultimately, I think these businesses are looking for ways to raise awareness of what they’re doing. Often, I think they’re overwhelmed by the number of perceived tools that are out there. I think a value proposition has to be very clear and simple in order for them to adopt services like ours.

“The next step for [daily deals] is going to be: “How do we move to stuff that is a bit more targeted and a bit more relevant to each individual?”

The daily deals phenomenon has risen up incredibly quickly in the past year or so as a force for attracting local advertising. How have these kinds of sites affected Gowalla’s strategy?
I think where I see the interesting overlap is that one of our core visions has always been, “How do we inspire people to go out to new places?” For us, the definition of that isn’t necessarily commercial, either. It’s: “How do we get you to go look at that scenic viewpoint, or go kayak on a lake, or do something that’s a little bit unique?” There’s an aspect of Groupon and LivingSocial that hit to that same niche: How do we get people to go to new places?

I do feel like there’s going to need to be a level of evolution that starts to happen, otherwise people are going to get burned out seeing yet another Brazilian blowout or facial, and there’s more to life than that. The success of those companies is amazing, but the next step for them is going to be: “How do we move to stuff that is a bit more targeted and a bit more relevant to each individual?” So, in some ways what they’ve cracked well is the local or hyperlocal side of things, but it’s the social part of it that I feel like they would benefit from developing a bit more.

I think there’s enough activity going on in that space that we’re likely not to step directly into it, because we see ourselves as a product team and not necessarily a sales-driven, direct-marketing-driven, telephone call, sales-driven type team. However, it’s certainly something we’re paying attention to.

Do you think Groupon can maintain market dominance? Do you see yourself as competing for ad dollars with them?
No. I really don’t see ourselves competing for ad dollars with those folks. Simply because, in so many ways, most of where our revenue is coming from right now is largely event-driven and frankly a little bit more large-brand-driven. So it’s a different sort of thing.

At the same time too, I also feel like our business models are going to be running down different paths. I think both LivingSocial and Groupon both realize there is going to be a need to evolve over the next 12 to 18 months. Stuff like LivingSocial Instant is a testament to that. I’m excited to see what they continue to do to change things up a little bit. I really don’t see it being competitive at this point.

“In the next five-to-ten years, all the major advances will center around mobile. I see location as being an inseparable layer, much like social.”

People have been talking for several years about location being “the next big thing” in mobile. Do you think location is still the next big thing? Once you’ve conquered location, what’s the next?
I think that the story for the next decade is certainly mobile, and maybe the story beyond that. But the next five-to-ten years, all the major advances will center around the mobile arena. I see location as being an inseparable layer, much like social. I don’t think it necessary supplants social by any means, but I certainly see it operating on an equal sort of plane. I don’t know that anybody is going to crack it, per se. I think there’s going to continue to be new and interesting ways to make use of location that go far beyond what we’re doing now.

Checking in to share where you are, or leaving a photo of a place, these are kind of still location features. When you start looking beyond, you see all the magical things you can do with location. I think we have a long way to go before we tap out the opportunity here.

People have slowly become more and more comfortable with sharing information about their location. Why do you think that is?
I think part of it is contact. I mean, you look back at [Google] Latitude and some of the earlier services that were similar to it, it has this perception of your location is a red beacon on a map. There’s something about that that is disconcerting and creepy that people just weren’t comfortable with. The way location is being shared now, at least in the way it’s taken off in the last year or two, it’s much more akin to a status update on Twitter or on Facebook. Prior to the rise of services like Foursquare, there was a significant number of tweets… and even the major value proposition of Twitter was to connect and hook up with your friends. So, there was definitely location being shared on Twitter and on Facebook prior to this latest rise of location-based services; it was just much more implicit and much less about “here’s my beacon on a map.” I think people are much more comfortable with that. When this idea of checking in came along, people equated it much more like a status update on Twitter and much less like a dot on a map.