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How Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley Lost The Narrative To Yelp’s Keith Rabois

Last year, if you believed the hype, Foursquare was said to be bleeding cash and talent. It was struggling to generate revenue. And, worse yet, it faced growing public skepticism and increasingly hostile media attention.

The ups and downs of this journey are charted in Fast Company‘s new profile of cofounder and CEO Dennis Crowley. Crowley has struggled with the hype cycle that’s familiar to most hot startups. The company thrived off of its positive attention in the beginning–from the magazine covers Crowley was featured on after Foursquare surpassed a million users to the television coverage he received for raising a $50 million round from Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures. But when the narrative flipped in the past year, Foursquare and its star started to fade from the attention. “It’s inevitable with such high expectations that everyone will turn on you,” says Foursquare employee No. 4 Nathan Folkman, now the CTO of Path, which is experiencing the end of its own honeymoon period. “People are in love with you, but then all of a sudden, they can’t wait to watch you fail.”

Foursquare is far from faultless. Its product missteps, along with its early and overly heavy focus on game mechanics and badges, pigeonholed the company. “A lot of people still think of us for these cute check-ins, points, and badges–we’re still having a hard time shaking that stigma,” Crowley told me. Compounded with the company’s business stumbles–such as its lack of a local sales team and its sterile search ads–it was perhaps inevitable that Foursquare would face snowballing criticism.

But there is a larger issue at play here, beyond the company’s product mistakes. “If I have one criticism of Foursquare,” summarizes ThinkUp cofounder and Twitter pundit Anil Dash, “it’s that they don’t control their narrative very well.”

Any observer of the company could tell Foursquare had let its narrative slip away–much of it was co-opted by a particularly vocal detractor with a big platform: Keith Rabois. Rabois is a board member of Yelp, which is increasingly one of Foursquare’s chief competitors. (Incidentally, Foursquare also shared an office with Square, where Rabois once functioned as COO.) He’s been rabid in his attacks, calling the company’s potential a “myth,” implying that Foursquare is fudging its user numbers, and suggesting Crowley’s only hope is a “Hail Mary Bebo-style acquisition” to bail the company out.

His public assaults, delivered on Twitter, largely resonated. They received a disproportionate amount of attention from the press, and soon, there was rarely an article or tech conference where Rabois’s name wasn’t mentioned in the same sentence as Crowley’s. It also served as a catalyst in changing the narrative about Foursquare.

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Mystic Maggie

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