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Play by your own rules. ~Josh Williams on Gowalla startup lessons

Stashed in: 106 Miles, Instagram!, Foursquare, Startup Lessons, Rules, Medium

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Josh Williams explains how the exponential growth of Gowalla became a job unto itself in this great Medium story.

It is unfortunately easy to get onto a track that takes us away from the path we want to be on:

We were the younger, prettier, but less popular sister of foursquare. And even that had changed. In time, foursquare had dramatically improved the design and experience of its service. This was no longer a defensible platform for us as a company.

Around this time we knew that our path was in trouble. We would have to pull out the stops to change our game.

The months that followed brought new product iterations from us. We gave people a way to check-in on both Facebook and foursquare through Gowalla. It was very well received. But it was a lot like being Tweetdeck instead of Twitter. Tweetdeck might be cool, but let’s be honest, you’d rather be Twitter. We were still in the game of brokering check-ins, a game we couldn’t win.


By the time SXSW rolled around in 2011, the hype surrounding our rivalry had started to fade as the tech community had begun the search for The Next Big Thing™, this time anointing Group Messaging as the new hill to be conquered in place of Check-Ins.

Truth be told, we didn't really care about Check-Ins either. It was just the action verb we put on the orange button that performed our app's primary function. What we really wanted was for people to see the world through the eyes of their friends.

I appreciate that Josh took the time to write this. Wow.

Growth Hack Lesson:

Don't get so caught up in growth hacks that you get pulled away from making something you love.

The end of Josh Williams' story reminds us that sometimes the best opportunities are right in front of us, if we have the ability to see them:

Now here’s the M. Night Shyamalan moment for you:

It turns out there was another app that shared a similar vision called Burbn. They were building yet another check-in type service loaded with every feature but the kitchen sink. But early user feedback, coupled with a desire to avoid the check-in battle shitshow already in progress, led them to drop everything to focus on one simple feature: Photos.

They made the act of taking and sharing photos (many of which just happened to be location-tagged) fast, simple and fun.

They made their own rules. They called it Instagram.

That whole “see the world through the eyes of their friends” thing? Turns out Instagram did a pretty good job of this.

While we were busy playing tug-of-war over check-ins, someone else found a path to the goal with less friction.

About a year after the launch of Instagram, Gowalla's service would shut down and several of us would join Facebook. Others would move on to new endeavors of their own. Ironically a couple from the team would join Instagram.

(I'm really happy I still get to work with those guys.)

Of course there's a lot more to the story of Gowalla. I hope to unpack other parts of the journey in time — growing a team, raising (and spending) money, what it was like to sell, etc. But of all the lessons I’ve learned through this journey, this one sticks out like a splinter.

Play by your own rules.

Listen to your users more than the press. Don't get sucked into the gravity hole between you and your competition. Ruthlessly run your own path, not someone else's.

Today I'm at Facebook. It's a special time to be at the company right now. We're able to build unique products that few others can dream of. But those same challenges still present themselves: How do we choose our own path? Build to our own strengths? Avoid the gravity holes?

These are the questions I chew on every morning.

Again, it's worth reading Josh Williams' whole story on Medium.

Meanwhile, I'm going to take some time to digest this startup lesson:

Play by your own rules.

Having recently re-activated my Foursquare account, I read this and think: wow, I haven't used Gowalla ina  while.  I launch ye ol' iphone, go to the market, type in Gowalla.  Nothing.  Scanning through a dozen apps, I can't find it.  

I don't get it. Are they dead? 

Oops, apparently they are:

Facebook shut down the application when they bought Gowalla.

Why did you re-activate your foursquare account?

Foursquare now acknowledges that the check-in was never going to be mainstream.

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