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Gowalla returns to see if location-based networking is ready for its mainstream moment

Gowalla co-founder and CEO Josh Williams is heading to the annual SXSW music, technology and arts festival in Austin, Texas this year to do something he's already done -- launch a location-based social networking app. One with the same name and core concept as the original, too. Gowalla made its debut in 2009 in Austin (where it was headquartered at the time) and today, it's launching publicly there again, with a fresh look and feel, and some fundamental differences, but still hewing to the central belief that people are looking for ways to connect locally, in person, with the help of technology.

I spoke to Williams about the complicated topography of the map he followed to get to here -- which includes the original founding; the hype-filled location-based app wars that followed in which Foursquare acted as its primary rival (Dennis Crowley is now among Gowalla's investors); an acquisition by Facebook in 2011; a shuttering of the app just a year later; and a rebirth mid-way through a global pandemic.

But first, what is Gowalla? For some, this is part refresher, but a good number of you are probably learning about it for the first time. In essence, the app is a social network that uses a map as its primary interface, allowing you to "check in" to share your location with trusted contacts, and to see the locations where others in your friends list have also checked in. Landmarks and other locations (including branded spots like Chipotle) appear on the map, and you can add your own locations as well. You can add comments on friends' check-ins, and have conversations right in the app, too. There's a new mechanism for swiping through recent friend check-ins, and a gamified element via collection of stamps related to your activity. It's simple, but engrossing and distinctly different from what's currently available from just about any mobile social competitors.

The name of the app and its guiding principals may not have changed, but the landscape sure has, and that's what Williams says will give Gowalla a better chance at lasting success than it had the first time around. In part, he said, the reason the first try didn't stick is that the perceived race between Gowalla and Foursquare over who would essentially become the next Facebook or the next Twitter (it did at the time seem like both had a shot) meant making some decisions that Williams says were not right long-term for location-based networking.

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"Whether right or wrong, press and everybody else says one of these companies is going to be the next Facebook or the next Twitter -- so, let's beat the crap out of them," he said. "It's going to be a zero sum game to be the next big thing, and that becomes this race for, how do you get the most users, and how do you then throw ads against them? A lot of the thought, then, was that we would have these local ads, and you would check in and you'd get a nickel off your coffee, or whatever. We could talk about that a lot, but for various reasons, it's a bad idea, and it's not going to work."

Instead, Williams thinks the secret to a sustainable future for an app like Gowalla lies with the users who love it the most. There's precedent, he says, citing possibly the largest in the form of a well-established global phenomenon.

"There are, I don't know how many million traditional Pokémon card players there are, but there are effectively two markets: You have the deck builders, the people that actually know that there's a game that exists here, and who are going to structure their deck and know all the rules," he said. "And then there's my son, who just wants to collect Pikachu and Charizard and has no larger care whatsoever. Pokémon's done a really great job of catering to actually these two different audiences -- really hardcore, and then this really casual group."

This model doesn't just work in card-based gaming, either, according to Williams. He also pointed to Fortnite as something that has effectively done the same, and the Nikita Bier-founded Gas app acquired by Discord earlier this year, as well as social networking products that are successful outside the U.S., and in Asia in particular.

Gowalla app
Gowalla app

Image Credits: Gowalla app

Already, Gowalla has a prototypical version of this approach in play: its "street team" feature, which provides additional features and early beta access to users who pay a small recurring membership fee. Williams says one of the things that has changed is the sheer scale of mobile users, which means that even if only a small percentage of your overall user base wants to pay up, you stand a chance of building something that can successfully monetize in this way. Location-based networking app Zenly, which Snap acquired and then shut down, much to the chagrin of its many million active users, is a great example of an app that had that kind of scale in the same space Gowalla is targeting, he added.