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Ask HN: What problem does Foursquare/Gowalla/Places solve?
50 points by mcxx on Aug 19, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments
One of the most repeated advice for startups is build something people want, something that solves a problem. What problem do these services solve? They are just games/tools for sharing where I am right now. It's fun, but I can live without it. I get that there's value for business owners, but that's just a byproduct, at least I percieve it that way. For a regular user who is just checking-in, there's no real value.

So, what problem do they solve?




I think there is this huge gap between which startups are covered all the time in the tech-savy press and which ones actually (will) matter for most 'regular' people medium-to-long term. Being a 'media-darling' and getting lots of buzz IMHO doesn't correlate with serious adoption beyond SF bay and Boston/NYC. Generally speaking, I think solving regular peoples' problems could be more worthwhile than pandering to early-adopters. I don't think they necessarily have the same problems.


True, but FourSquare is really entertaining to the people who use it. Might not be a lasting trend but I've had several people gush about how fun it is. And there's a huge advertising opportunity, granted, again, that they can remain the popular platform for local-social-whatever.

I mean, what problem does FarmVille solve?


FarmVille solves the problem of people who want to avoid work by creating a game that allows them to simulate working on a farm instead.


It solves the problem of letting someone feel like they are nurturing something.


The question was rhetorical :) But thanks.


FarmVille is a distraction from work, just like Hacker News is for many people.


but HN is one fine and diversely educational distraction that is sometimes applicable to work. I can't say the same for FarmVille in 99% of the cases.


It's totally true: Foursquare, Gowalla, etc. appeal most directly to a young tech-savvy market. Basically, SF.

Companies like AngiesList and Groupon serve a broader market and are not based in SF area. So, they get less attention. But, these are bringing in far more revenue and will likely last longer.


It's the same answer that Ev Williams gave about an early critical review of Twitter: "how useful is ice cream?"

Just because there's people that use Groupon-like utilitarian services doesn't mean that they won't have fun with other stuff too.


Yet Facebook sees great potential in this space and just launched a competing service which I predict will become a HUGE hit, especially among college aged kids.


I'm not sure about that.

I think Facebook is moving to prevent someone else getting any sort of a foothold in the social media space.

It's play essentially amounts to little more than "you don't need to look at FourSquare, you can just stay here with us". If it turns out to be popular great, if not then it's not fussed, but what Facebook doesn't want is someone else building up a user base with anything close to critical mass.


I think there's a serious bifurcation between "tech-savvy, smartphone-using, social (and generally single) twenty- and thirty-somethings with disposable income and time, living in urban centers" and ... everyone else. If you aren't in that first group (I'm not), location-aware apps and social services aren't going to have a lot of utility. But if you live in Brooklyn, work in Manhattan, go out to bars or restaurants with friends two or three times per week, a service like Foursquare could be really useful: "I'm heading to the subway station ... which stop has a higher concentration of my friends at bars? Do I get off in the Village or Chelsea? Oh? Everyone's at Shake Shack? Off I go!" (and so on)


I'm in that group, and I don't find these services particularly compelling either. Maybe you need to add "extroverted" to your list; I'm not sure. I tend to have a smallish number of people I'm really interested in hanging out with, and we just coordinate directly.

I did spend some time using an earlier location-based social network and the problem it had was this: you don't know what check-ins are general invitations to come and join them, and which are purely habit (or in the case of 4sq, competitive). I, personally, was never confident of the etiquette, so generally avoided just dropping in at places where someone checked in.


does anyone want to go to shake shack right now? I do.


Upvoted because (a) I always want to go to Shake Shack and (b) why would anyone downvote this harmless comment?


First, the two parts of your advice aren't identical. That is, "something people want" doesn't always mean "something that solves a problem."

Second, you're being overly demanding, I think, even about "solves a problem." We could do a whole song and dance about the human need for fun, but that would be beside the point. When you say "It's fun, but I can live without it," you changed the terms of the whole debate. We started with "solves a problem," but tons of things solve problems and yet you can live without them.

Finally, I'm pretty sure that there is a real category "invented needs" (or "invented desires", if you prefer), and that lots of webapps fall into that category. The existence of the product creates the need (desire) after the fact.


Sure I can live without most things that solve a problem, but that's not the point. I want to understand if there's some added value for the users, why would they start (and continue) using it in the first place. Jerome_etienne gave a good answer, but you also made a good point with the "invented needs". On the other hand, I'm not sure that can last for more than a couple of years on its own. Users flock to the next hot thing all the time.


What you say here makes sense, but I'm not the one who brought up "living without" things; you did, in your original question. I agree that the real focus should be on why people flock to these things, but in that case, you answered your own question: it's fun (you said). The value is the fun.

As for not lasting or people flocking to the next hot thing, that sounds about right to me for many faddish things that you find and play with on the internet, no?


This thread reminds me of the cacophony of similar questions people had about Twitter when it was the center of attention. I think the problems that these location apps solve are quite obvious, just like I thought that Twitter very obviously solved problems too.

The catch is, however, that you need to have a significant amount of your friends and acquaintances using either service for them to become useful. Imagine if you were in college, and were meeting a bunch of new people every week, and you could see at any moment where your new friends are hanging out, or partying, or studying. You could see where the most popular hangouts are. You could check and see if anyone you know is at the same location you are currently at.

Once the network effect kicks in, these apps become awesome. And yes, just as people pigeonholed Twitter as being a narcissistic service, these apps allow people to express themselves as well, only through their choice of venue, not their choice of words.

If you want practical solutions, imagine a street team for a band or product going around town hitting all the hip locations spreading the word about a new album or product. They could keep tabs on each other as they fan out over the city and make sure they don't double up on locations.

The possibilities are endless, really. You just need to use your imagination and stop being so skeptical.


I started studying marketing in order to start my own company some time ago and from the very beginning I remember one maxim that stuck with me: "If you cant be the best in a category, invent a new category."

I think that makes sense and it's exactly what Foursquare and Gowalla do. Besides, if people only had invented what other people said their need was in history, perhaps we wouldn't have many things we take for granted today.

Also: Entertainment is a huge deal. Look at the gaming industry.


To paraphase Henry Ford, 'If I'd have asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.'


One of the most often forgot story of Ford was the failure of the Edsel. They designed the hell out of the product. They researched design, interiors, market segments, price points, ect. At the time, it was known as one of the best designed prodcuts.

They 'launched' it and it was a complete failure.

It was a unexpected failure - they thought it was going to be huge. But, the information they obtained from the failure was that the market changed. Their assumptions were incorrect. Instead of blaming it on a 'irrational customer', they "pivoted". They went out to research why and found out that customer segmentation had changed. Instead of based on economic customer segmentation ('low', 'middle income', ect.) there was a change towards a 'lifestyle' segmentation. They incorporated this new information into their development, and shortly after they successfully released the Ford Thunderbird - an American classic.

Great story.


But at least he would have learned that their problem was speed.


He got that one solved pretty good though, in spite of lack of market research.

About 3 years ago a friend named Ed A. who owns a Ford Model-A took me out for a spin and it was surprisingly quick for it's very small engine, it wasn't the fastest of the mark but that didn't stop it from accelerating all the way to 100 km/h.

The difference between a steady 100 km/h and a horse is quite large, in fact we haven't gone much beyond what the Model-A could do in day to day driving situations.


knowing where people are physically is a usefull info.

this is no game. it is big stuff, close to the localisation trend. very linked to mobile world obviously. google/twitter/facebook are all going in the localisation in order to get data closer to the user. They are more likely to be relevant to them.

possible usage scenarios

"where are my friends"

"i like this personn, oh this personn is going there, oh i dunno this place, maybe i will like this place"

"oh you went to this bar ? i like it too. ask bob the barman to give you one drink on the house, i know him"

obviously once the arch is setup, it is possible to push local store ads on this. It think local-store ads on the internet will be huge, once the arch is setup, so not soon, but in a few years.

The deployment of local ads is slow, because you need to get local stores to actually advertize... and they are not used to it. This is my understanding of it at least. aka "the market is not yet ready".


Basically it add physicality to the virtual world. Part of the trend of the internet is to help connect people who are not physically present or close. So people can form groups with other people based on interest rather then on location. But there is still lots of value in connecting with people on a more physical level, and these types of services tap into that value.


How about these scenarios?

"721 people are gathering five blocks down? One of them posted a picture. Oh, looks like there is a free concert happening in the park? Let me check that out."

"355 people at grocery store? Maybe I'll wait until it slows down and go later."

"467 people on Interstate X? Might be an accident."

Even with anonymous tracking, this could be really interesting.


Foursquare: entertainment for users, spam for non-users. As a non-user, they provide an easy means to identify and remove people from my social networks who are willing to spam me.

Seriously, apps that send messages to non-users by default are annoying. If I cared about where you've been, I can join Foursquare on my own, I shouldn't be required to block every new app that comes along, it should be opt-in.


What path are they using to spam you? I've never seen foursquare spam.


It spams feeds. So you end up with a lot of checkins inside of Twitter, FB, etc. Depending on how linked the person's accounts are.


I don't use any of these products (I don't think I'm the target demographic) but it seems that they can be applied to jwz's classic use case:

"Your "use case" should be, there's a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?"

http://www.jwz.org/doc/groupware.html

Where human beings are concerned, there are few problems more fundamental than that.


I think we often only view the world in terms of problems. But there are different types of problems which can be further broken down. I think the quote below puts it best.

"There are three kinds of pain. You can be vitamins to someone, you can be aspirin to someone, or you can be morphine to someone"

-Genevieve Thiers


I agree these companies are more for entertainment and socializing than "solving a problem". You can easily argue the twitter doesn't solve a specific problem, as with most geolocation services it is merely a tool for sharing information. Having said that I think there is a real problem that can be solved using geoloction technology and that problem is "where the heck are you?". My roomate and I moved to a new city recently and had an terrible time coordinating meetups with people. To solve our problem we created a simple web app. We posted it on HN a couple days ago http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1607982


From http://www.jwz.org/doc/groupware.html

> So I said, narrow the focus. Your "use case" should be, there's a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?


Is it "I can't tell the world enough about me through Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Tumblr and I for some utterly incomprehensible reason I honestly believe the world NEEDS TO KNOW MORE about what I'm doing"?


Games are a totally valid business and solve the problem of boredom. It seems like you're dismissing games as a category of business and that's silly. Just look at the giant video game industry.

I don't think that's all a location-based service provides though. It always seemed silly that everyone has mobile phones, and yet I have no way of knowing where any of my friends are without polling each one individually. So far they haven't helped since most people I know and care about are not on them yet.


They solve the problem of saying something when you have nothing to say, and making it more socially acceptable (and easier) to brag about where you are going and what you are doing.


Attracting investment from VC's, hoping for a big sell-out before the thing falls flat on its face.


They don't have to solve a problem; they satisfy needs, such as the need to share, to belong to a community, joy/play etc.

Non-violent communication gathers these - it's pretty useful for a brainstorming, for instance:

- http://www.cnvc.org/en/Training/needs-inventory

Also useful:

- http://www.cnvc.org/en/Training/feelings-inventory


It solves the problem of knowing if your target is at home before you go to rob it.

Seriously, I can't ever see myself using this. I don't want people to know where I am because then they know where I'm not.

I'm also appalled by the (luckily few) LinkedIn connections that let tripit tell me when they will be out of town. If I were a bad guy that would start my target list.

...end of rant


Good thing most bad-guys aren't super tech savvy...Most people going out to rob someone aren't necessarily using technology to assist in their exploits.

I live in as much of a hood as you can get in Portland, and the people I am worried about being robbed by are any neighbors that may see me packing up to leave for the weekend!

I won't be jumping on this location bandwagon myself, however, my guess is this will NOT fly without some access controls.


They provide entertainment. They don't solve any problem, unless you consider the search for entertainment to be a problem.


Exactly - just like every game company, film production company or musician.


I think the following two sentences:

'build something people want' 'build something that solves a problem'

became just empty trivialities by now. These were important relevations after the dot com boom: During the first dot com boom there were those overly optimistic overly financed companies which did not care about what people want. But by now I think this lesson is learned, everybody want to solve a problem and everybody cares about what people want. It is just very hard to know what people want. Or at least hard to know it better then the competition. That's why most startups fail. Honestly I would not think some years ago that these services like Foursquare will be such a big deal. I am coming from a very different social context, so I cannot really understand the needs of those kind of people who use these services. That's why I don't even try to create these kind of startups.


I have said this before. Mobility is such a disruptive shift in computing, I am also surprised that the best that is being offered to consumers are check in games and promos. Looking back at the wired internet I think that its widespread adoption was due mostly to its utility. Sure there are distracting fun and games, but people use it because it is inherently useful.

That is the driving principle behind our startup, Presence. http://www.presence.co

We enable physical locations with virtual services, and make them accessible to both businesses and consumers, in an attempt to make mobile useful. If you have some time please visit our website to see what we are up to. I would sincerely appreciate the perspective of the HN community.


Maybe you should simplify your message. I had problems grasping why this might be useful to me.


"What do I do with all this time on my hands?"

"How do I avoid being bored?"


I suppose volunteer work doesn't cut it any more, because we've solve all the problems that used to afflict people? Nor continuing-education classes, because we all know everything we'll ever need to know? </sardonic>

Seriously, an excess of leisure time may be another manifestation of business efficiencies brought about by technology improvements (the most obvious manifestation being unemployment). The long-term sociological implications could be interesting.


I think its a massive problem space, sure you could argue we'd all go on without it being solved, but the same can hold true for services like Twitter.

Many businesses at situated at a physical location, they need an effective way to be able to promote their offerings. People are out and about and want to know where the best places to go are, this combines their friends and other opinions, recommendations algorithms and can at time align with businesses wanting to promote themselves.

I guess saying this isn't a problem would be similar to saying that adwords didn't solve a problem for businesses less reliant on a physical location.


it engages your ego, like every other social networking service. it lets you feel more important than you really are. and by compelling you to contribute, it has the side effect of creating value for others to consume.


It creates a better platform for rewarding regulars and, on the places' side, to turn them into advocates for the place - with reference to the classic article about what the 5-10% diehard fans can do for spreading the word compared to regular users (the details and link escape me).

It has the potential to facilitate the bond between person and place (business, shop, gym, bar, etc.) in a manner that is much more convenient than coupons, ticket coupons, remembering their faces and names, etc.

In this case, everyone wins.


think job-to-be-done, people visit places, they want to share their location and update status associated with those places to their friends, and that is the job they want to get done. Ask yourself how many times you visit a place and you want your friends to know about it (let alone earning discounts or earning awards)? if you have thought about it several times which means you might have a job that you want to get done. Before LCB service, they either use workaround solutions like FB status update and Twitter (tweet sth like (@John's coffee)) to their friends / followers or simply they don't use anything at all, at the very core, LBS target non-consumers, people who know they have a job to be done, but still looking around for a solution.

I agree that this job is not important to everyone, some might buy it some might not, and to think about it further, I think their core priority is to give user enough motivation / incentives to use their LCB services, that's why they add Reward systems and gaming elements, in other words, give users more reasons to use their service rather than just mindlessly checking - ins, I wrote a blog post about this http://20sth.tumblr.com/post/974848197/how-to-get-users-to-u...


The game aspect is just to get traction and frankly, it's a waste of time. However, I imagine travelling to a new town on vacation and seeing suggestions and tips from friends of mine that have been there before. Or looking for something to do on a Friday evening and seeing that there's a new Thai place down the road. Once the game has done its work, the real benefits will emerge.


It's hard for local businesses to leverage technology for advertising. foursquare and other location-based services allow local businesses -- like restaurants and bars and shops -- to identify, target, and reward customers. The users benefit from deals / discounts with local businesses that are relevant to them. That seems valuable to me.


Easy. These services provide you with instant access to advice from other people who have been to that place before. For example, when I was in in NYC recently, I frequently consulted Foursquare to get recommendations about what to eat. Got some great advice that previous patrons had provided about the Marshmallow Shake. =)


In general, when you are single there is a very low cost and high desire to go to where your friends are when living in an urban area, but as you move on to getting married and having kids (and in a lot cases moving away from dense urban areas) the cost keeps increasing and the desire decreases.


IMHO not every startup needs to solve a problem. Most probably should, but entertainment is a viable reason for existence. Even so, some services simply lower barriers for socialization, which serves a need.

That said, I don't get Foursquare, etc. There isn't much entertainment there.


I too always question the "solve a problem" drum that everyone keeps banging around. These services are used to keep close friends in the loop and those friends can be between 1-100 years of age.

If you don't see a need or want to know where your friends are or, in Gowalla's case, what they are doing through pictures then you might need to rethink your friendship. Although it is cool to see what other people are up to that you might not know, these services are mainly tied to the close friends in your life, the people you care about and the people you want to spend the most amount of time with.

With that, I think that Facebook should concentrate on improving and designing a better core experience. Jumping on the mobile LBS isn't going to impress that many people. Plus the API is currently only read and although a rough time me table for write was given, Facebook has never been one to give out data all that freely.


My use-case for Foursquare:

Hmm, which bar in the neighborhood are my friends at tonight? Oh, I'll just check foursquare instead of texting them.


Yeah, that's lowering the barrier for socialization. I can see it.


I'd say they are entertainment startups. So they solve the boredom problem. Take FourSquare. It's a game, in the real-world. You win points for playing and then even prizes for being at the top of the leaderboard (mayor, badges, etc).


the best repeated advice I've seen so far is "build something that entices one or more cardinal sins". If your game/tool/app tickles jealousness, pride, gluttony, greed or any other major sin, you're in for a good start

4sq/gowalla work on vanity (people like doing things/going places to impress/make their friends envy) as well as gluttony (the 'badges' concept - eat all you can eat), and to a point, even sloth ('whatever, I'm _here_ and too lazy to call every one of my friends individually')


It solves the "I want everyone to think I'm cool" problem, or at least it tries to.


Entertainment, connection, discovery


why do you dismiss the benefit to businesses?

and consumers do get some extra deals from using these services


People on HN don't get that an app which makes you more social solves a real problem. What a surprise.




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