Startup Lessons From Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley

One of the great things about Quora, the question-and-answer site founded by former Facebook staffers Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, is that anyone can use it to pose questions to prominent venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and other Internet celebrities — and every so often, they actually answer. Over the weekend, for example, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley decided to respond to a user who asked for his top five pieces of advice for entrepreneurs. Among his tips: “Don’t let anyone tell you your ideas don’t work.”

In his answers, Crowley talks about his experiences as the co-founder of Dodgeball — a location-based precursor to Foursquare that was purchased by Google ( s goog) but eventually shut down after the launch of Google Latitude — and also at a company called Vindigo, which tried to create a location-based service for the Palm Pilot (s hpq) before consumer devices with global-positioning systems had even appeared on the market. This experience led to what he describes as tip #4: “Don’t let a lack of technology get in the way.”

If there’s something you want to build, but the tech isn’t there yet, just find the closest possible way to make it happen. Vindigo was a mobile city guide before devices had GPS or network connections — they just compressed all the data like mad, combined it with slick UX and asked the user to self report their location.

Crowley could also have added that being early doesn’t guarantee success: Vindigo was acquired by a Japanese company in 2004 (the future Foursquare founder had been laid off by then and moved to New Hampshire to work as a snowboarding instructor) and was eventually shut down completely in 2008.

The other tips Crowley had for the Quora questioner include:

  • Stop sketching and start building. Before Dodgeball, Crowley says he “went thru 3-4 years thinking I was going to meet some magical engineer who would build all the stuff I was thinking about,” but then decided to teach himself how to program and got to work “just hacking stuff together.” Being able to hack together a prototype is what you need “to get other people/investors on board,” he says.
  • Don’t let people tell you your ideas won’t work. Crowley admits he went through years of this before “I realized I probably just saw the world differently than the people who said the stuff I was excited about wouldn’t work.” If you’re passionate about an idea, “find a way to build it so you can prove to yourself that it doesn’t work.”
  • Build early and often. With Dodgeball, Crowley says his co-founder and he would “roll out half-baked features a few times every week and were more worried about getting stuff in the hands of users than making sure it was perfect or actually worked,” and this is still the approach he prefers to take.

In addition to saying startups should “hire the best people” (which seems like a no-brainer — no offence to Dennis), the Foursquare founder also adds a bonus answer that suggests how he feels about critics of Foursquare, as well as the entry of much larger competitors such as Facebook into the location-based services market. No matter what happens, he says, don’t get distracted:

If your stuff ends up taking off, just put your head down and keep plugging away. Don’t get distracted by haters talking sh** or the bigger guys copying you. We’ve got so many ideas of things we want to build and this is probably going to be our best shot at getting them out to millions of users. Focusing on what we’re doing is the best way to make that happen. Getting distracted by all the dust we’re kicking up is not.

Foursquare recently passed 4 million users, less than two months after it hit the three-million-user mark, although a recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that the vast majority of Internet users don’t make use of location-based services yet. Will Foursquare be able to tap into that vast, unserved market? Maybe someone should ask that question on Quora.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user See Ming-Lee