Dennis Crowley (TSOA '04)
The CEO of Foursquare discusses his path from dot-com survivor to snowboard instructor to one of New York's most talked about entrepreneurs—and how a student art show changed his life.
By Kristine Jannuzzi (CAS '98)
Unless your friends happen to be aspiring politicians, vying for mayorship probably wasn't a regular topic of your conversations just one year ago. But with Foursquare users numbering over 3 million and a recent New York Times article documenting the heated battles developing over Foursquare turf, talk of "checking in" and "unlocking badges" is rapidly expanding well outside of social media circles.
For those who are unfamiliar with Foursquare and its lingo, the networking service lets users share information about their whereabouts via their cell phones. It is at once a friend-finder, a city guide, and a game that rewards users with points and badges based on the places where they check in. You can even become the “mayor” if you check into a place the most within a two-month period.
At the center of the Foursquare phenomenon is CEO and co-founder Dennis Crowley (TSOA '04), a graduate of Tisch's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), a two-year master's program that explores the imaginative uses of communications technologies. Crowley came up with Dodgeball, a predecessor to Foursquare, while he was a student at NYU. He describes the ITP floor as a kind of Alice in Wonderland playground for people interested in technology, and says he still enjoys coming back to teach occasional classes. Crowley recently talked to Connect about his experiences at NYU and his whirlwind success since graduating in 2004.
ITP Spring Show 2010. Photo Credit: Tom Igoe
How did you end up deciding to come to ITP at NYU?
After graduating from Syracuse [in 1998], I went and worked two jobs in New York: one was at an Internet research firm and the other was at a tech start-up. Like everyone else, I got laid off in 2001. I was laid off in the summer and then 9/11 happened, and then there was just nothing going on in the city…so I went to be a snowboard instructor for the winter, and while I was there I applied to grad school and ended up at ITP. You know what the funny thing is, when I was laid off in the summer, actually in the fall, I was filling out an application for Stern, and I said [to myself] I guess I should go to business school, I don't know what else to do. And I was filling out the application and I just couldn't get into it. And then a buddy called me up and he was like, "I'm going to this weird art show at NYU, do you wanna go?" And I was like, yeah, whatever. I really had nothing else to do. So I went over to ITP and it was a weird art show. As soon as I walked in there, the first project I saw was someone who was making robots who follow robots who follow robots…And as soon as I saw that, I was like, oh my God, I need to be here, I need to be doing this stuff. It was very clear to me.
And what did you think of the program when you were a student here?
I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted to do. I was really into emerging technology and the Internet and building things that people use and get enjoyment out of – that's what ITP is all about. It's like a playground, almost, for people who are really enthusiastic about tech and the user experience and using technology to enrich people's lives.
Was there a particular faculty member or class that you especially liked?
I think one of the big draws about ITP is the physical computing program…regardless of where you come from, a lot of ITP kids don't have any background in coding or computer science or engineering. They're people who are just randoms like me. And [at ITP] they make you program microprocessors; they make you hook them up to modems and LEDs, and we built hardware. So those computing classes were amazing. They really convince you that you can build anything you want to. The guy who taught that class was Tom Igoe. Between Tom's class and Clay Shirky, he was the inspiration for a lot of stuff that we're doing.
How was NYU different from Syracuse?
It's tough to compare, because one is a grad school experience and one is an undergraduate experience. In undergrad, you are just trying to get through the four years. And in grad school, you're trying to make those two years last as long as possible. I treated ITP like the craziest full-time job ever – I was there seven days a week. I just lived on the floor.
How did you come up with the idea for Foursquare?
My thesis project at ITP was called Dodgeball. It was kind of a really early version of what Foursquare is: you tell Dodgeball where you are, and we'll tell your friends where you are. We were trying to raise money for it and we actually ended up selling it to Google. The company got acquired about a year after we finished ITP, so it was at Google for two years, but the project didn't really succeed at Google, it was a weird place for it. So after I left Google, I worked for a friend's company for eight months. Then I took around a year off, and then I wanted to get back into building stuff. And I feel like Foursquare now is continuing to do a lot of things that we were thinking about during grad school.
What do you think is the appeal for people?
It's funny, you put 10 different people in the room and you get 10 different answers to the question "why do you use Foursquare?" I think people generally like to share things online, so we are enabling people to share things offline, in a sense, sharing information with your friends to meet up. People start checking in at their favorite bars, restaurants, museums, and coffee shops, and you end up learning about those places and experiencing them for yourself. You're sharing things online, but with the intent of experiencing them offline.
I know that Foursquare is looking to partner with universities. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Sure. The company is in the stage of growth and what we want to do is grow it as quickly as possible. Get as many users as possible. We are realizing that an audience that we have a hard time connecting with is college kids. So we are specifically doing university outreach, trying to get as many schools as possible signed up and using Foursquare and then trying to get the administrations to pitch it to incoming freshman as a way to communicate with their friends and learn about the campus and maybe even be rewarded for going out and finding things on campus. Just as like a general tool for becoming familiar with your surroundings.
What particular places at NYU do you think you would turn into check-in points?
My experience at NYU was [mainly at] ITP. But one of the things about Foursquare is that people leave tips about things that they're experts in. Of course, I would encourage anyone to go check out the floor at ITP…then there are little things, like, you know, Pizza Mercato, that place on the corner, like a sandwich that's not on the menu like the chicken parm with pepperoni, you could leave that as a tip. Or what we used to refer to as the secret Coke machine in the basement that nobody knows about. It's just a way of sharing the things that you find with your friends. Just like I have tips all over the East Village and the Lower East Side, I'm sure that there are undergrads at NYU who have tips for all the campus places and all the campus eateries. Like the Chick-Fil-A in Weinstein! It's the only Chick-Fil-A in New York and no one knows about it.
How often do you get back to campus?
I'm over in Astor Place right now. I go to ITP maybe once a month. I taught about four classes there. I'm just so busy right now, I'd love to go back and teach. But I'll sometimes do a guest lecture, just come into a class for an hour at a time.
What are the students like at ITP?
They are awesome. They are on the cutting edge of everything. That is one of the main reasons to teach. Everyone is like, "Oh, it's so nice of you to go back and teach." I go back because the students are teaching me as much as I'm teaching them. Even if you teach the same class two or three semesters in a row, you take the syllabus and you rip it apart every semester. You have to rebuild it from scratch because the students are that much smarter.
Do you have any advice for recent NYU graduates?
Well, yeah, I get asked for advice as an entrepreneur all the time. I think if you have things that you think are good ideas, don't give up on them, find ways to get them built. In the early part of my career, before I started doing stuff on my own, people would tell me that the things I was thinking about were stupid and weren't going to work, and for the most part, I would listen to them. But I think as soon as you just decide I can try this on my own, you can prove to yourself whether it's a stupid idea or not.
Would you ever have anticipated something like Foursquare when you came into the program?
No, I was really surprised at the success of Dodgeball. We left and we sold Dodgeball to Google, and I was like, "Holy crap, this is gonna be the biggest thing we ever do!" And here it is, like two years later, and I'm doing something that is working on a worldwide scale. It's exponentially larger. We actually have a couple ITP kids who are working for us now, interning.
Is there anything else about your time at NYU that you would want to add?
I would definitely encourage people to go check out the ITP student show at the end of the semester. That's the thing that took me to ITP. I wasn't in there for five minutes and I was like, I need to be here. They have one in December and one in May. That was the turning point in my whole career, going to that show.