I’m a huge fan of Gowalla. I use multiple location-based services, but really appreciate Gowalla for their focus on quality user experience, tools that let you explore and share well beyond simply checking in at a location, and for developing a business plan where partnerships don’t simply generate income but actually enhance the user experience in some truly creative ways. You just get the sense that they love what they do and care deeply about quality of both product and experience, as well as about the users themselves. Tweet at them, I’ll bet they take time to respond.
Scott Raymond, Gowalla’s Co-Founder and CTO, recently took time out of his busy schedule (both at Gowalla and as a proud new parent) to talk to Social: IRL. I’m excited to release this interview the same day that Gowalla themselves release a major update of their flagship iPhone app, version 3.0. Scott talks about that update in the interview.
Feel free to leave feedback or questions at the end of the post. Special thanks to Scott for taking time out to chat with us.
With the increasing number of location based services, how do you feel Gowalla stands apart? What makes the Gowalla experience unique?
The vision that we’ve always had for Gowalla, and that’s still unique, is to inspire a sense of exploration and discovery. Of course, exploring the world is its own reward, but sometimes people appreciate a little nudge, an excuse to veer off their usual path and discover something new. For example, collecting Gowalla Passport stamps is so simple, but so fun. When I visit a new city and have a few spare hours, I love to walk around and collect the custom stamps in the area — it’s more purposeful than aimless wandering, but more personal and organic than following a pre-fab tourist map.
Today we released a major new update to our iPhone app, and I think it really emphasizes what makes Gowalla special. There is a ton of new stuff in this version, but a couple are especially relevant.
First, we wanted to make checking in as fast as humanly possible, so we put a Check In button at the bottom of every screen. When you select it, you can start typing a message even while the GPS is still loading your nearby spots. Then we use your history to intelligently predict which spot you are at, which you can quickly override if needed. All of this adds up to a major improvement in the total “launch-to-checkin” time.
The second huge feature is new and deeper 3rd-party integration with Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Foursquare. Up till now, we’ve allowed you to share check-ins with Facebook and Twitter. Now you can share check-ins with your Foursquare and Tumblr friends as well. And even cooler, you can now *see* check-ins from your friends on Foursquare and Facebook. So if some of your friends use Gowalla, some use Foursquare, and some use Facebook, now you can use one app to share your location with everyone, and see where everyone is
It’s a huge update, so check out the App Store to see everything new.
What was the original inspiration for developing Gowalla? And how about that name… Where did “Gowalla” come from?
When smartphones became mainstream with the advent of the iPhone, we thought a lot about what it means to have an always-connected, pocket-sized, location-aware device with a rich display. But the vision really become personal when our CEO, Josh Williams, was on a trip to Tahoe, looking out over a scenic landscape, and wished for some way to capture the moment and share it with family back home, sort of like a souvenir. That’s when he sketched out the initial concept for the digital passport — and we started building the first prototype shortly after that. The name Gowalla came out of a brainstorming session. We liked it because it’s a little goofy, fun to say, and it vaguely evokes an outback-explorer vibe.
Does Gowalla have a formal mission statement you can share?
Our vision in a nutshell is to enable connections at the intersection of people and places. In other words, we’re not out to build a generic social network, like Facebook. And we’re not interested in creating a static travel guide or business listing service. But when people and places are overlayed, there is an explosion of interesting possibilities, and we want to help enable that.
Checkin specials have been a key focus for location based services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places. Is that something we should be expecting to see from Gowalla?
Yeah, check-in deals are one of several ways that we’re trying to make the experience more rewarding, and we’ve already done lots of them. Ultimately though, I think coupons are just one piece of the puzzle, and I’m not terribly interested in just creating a coupon company. What interests me commercially is creating new ways for people to connect with businesses they love, and to enable two-way conversation. When we talk to small businesses, they tell us that they want to engage with their best customers better. For example, when a restaurateur can get a real-time notification that a regular customer has just arrived, she could come out to greet them personally. There are dozens of other ways that businesses can strengthen their customer relationships with this technology, and that’s the stuff that really excites me.
Gowalla recently enabled businesses and venues to claim their Gowalla spots. You also created the opportunity for businesses to purchase custom stamps. What type of response have you seen so far?
Allowing businesses to claim their spots and purchase custom stamps has been something we’ve wanted to do for a while. We suspected that the demand would be great, so we didn’t launch the program till we were sure we could keep up. The response has been great, and over the next year we’ll be rolling out new features and tools to give businesses more insight into their Gowalla spots.
How can a local business use Gowalla to better engage customers?
The first step is simple: every local business owner should make sure to claim their Gowalla spot now — it’s free — at http://gowalla.com/business. That will give you ownership of your Gowalla real estate, allowing you to control all the the associated metadata (hours of operation, phone number and address, website links, etc). And most interestingly, you’ll be able to configure a custom welcome message that’s displayed after each check-in, which is a great place to welcome your customers, inform them of specials, etc.
The next tip is to encourage your customers to check in when they arrive, especially during peak hours or special events. The reason is simple: when enough people are checked in at the same time, your business will become a “hot spot” — and instantly jump to the top of the list in your city. Creative and strategic use of hot spots can be a great way to drive awareness of a business or event.
Is there a niche type of business you feel could most benefit from using Gowalla?
I just mentioned events, and I think that’s a category that’s very interesting in Gowalla. One of our unique features is that a Gowalla spot is more than just a place — it can also be an event. So users can create temporary Gowalla spots for parties, conventions, concerts, sales, weddings, whatever. I think that we’ll start to see more inventive uses by promoters to spread the word about their events.
What do you consider Gowalla’s greatest success to date?
There are a ton of accomplishments I’m very proud of — our recent partnership with Disney has been quite a thrill, and having our iPad app called out by Steve Jobs at the Apple developers conference was quite an honor. But perhaps the coolest thing is the collective accomplishment of our users, who have done far more than our company of nearly 30 could ever do ourselves. Namely, amassing a huge database of rich, accurate, quality location information covering the whole world. And all of that information remains open to the community, through our API.
How did the launch of Facebook Places impact Gowalla?
It was great to be a launch partner with Facebook Places. As we expected, we haven’t seen any slowdown at all in Gowalla’s growth. With today’s update for our iPhone app, our integration with Facebook Places is going even deeper. They are clearly putting a lot of energy into their local deals, and we’re going to continue to focus on our strengths — great user experience, clear privacy controls, cool tools for exploring the world, and deep integration with 3rd-party services.
Can you share any insights on what we can expect to see from Gowalla in the coming months?
We have invested a lot of energy recently into making the check-in process as fast and smooth as possible. That effort will always continue, and from there we’re going to keep working on making it easier to record your travels, share your experiences, explore the world, and connect with friends. One example I’m excited about is a new feature called Notes. From the web or the mobile app, you can leave a note for a friend at a certain spot. The next time the friend checks in at that spot, the note will be displayed right on their device. It’s a fun way to give personalized recommendations, leave a surprise love note, or even leave a reminder for yourself. I expect people to come up with some very cool uses that we haven’t even imagined yet.