Siobhan Quinn Says “Technology is the Underdog” in New York; A Check-In with Foursquare’s First Product Manager

4/11/11Follow @wroush

If you’re a software engineer turned product manager who’s overseen the seventh-most-visited website in the world—Google’s Blogger platform—what do you do for an encore? You move to New York to work for a little startup trying to change the world through mobile check-ins, of course.

Siobhan Quinn got her BS in computer science at the University of Washington in 2003 and spent the next seven years at Google. Last summer she became Foursquare‘s first product manager, overseeing new feature development for the startup’s mobile apps. Those apps—in case you’ve been living on a desert island for the last two years—allow users to earn virtual badges, and often discounts and other rewards, by checking in at locations like coffee shops or restaurants.

The check-in concept didn’t exist five years ago, but it has spread at lightning speed thanks to Foursquare and competitors like Brightkite, Gowalla, SCVNGR, and Facebook. But now that the novelty of earning a Bender badge (for going drinking four nights in a row) or a Jobs badge (for checking in at three Apple stores) is starting to wear off, Quinn’s job is to make sure that people keep using Foursquare. And that means making th app truly useful—for example, by giving merchants new ways to reward loyal customers who check in at their stores, or helping third-party developers invent totally new uses for the platform. (There’s one that your dog would really like—read on for that.)

In a conversation last week, Quinn told us that she loves working in New York, in part because “technology is the underdog” here and has to compete for attention alongside finance, fashion, the arts, and all of New Yorkers’ other obsessions. Ultimately, being just one element in the city’s diversity—rather than the dominant force, as in Silicon Valley—may help tech companies develop more balanced products, says Quinn, who is an Xconomist (a member of our board of informal editorial advisors). Quinn says Foursquare resembles Google—where co-founder Dennis Crowley also worked after it acquired his previous location-based-services startup, Dodgeball—in the sense that it’s full of whip-smart engineers and business folks. But she says Foursquare has the advantage of being much smaller and nimbler—and, of course, of being in New York. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: First question. What does a product manager do at a company like Foursquare, where there’s only one product?

Siobhan Quinn: It’s funny, the term product manager is so ill-defined. I guess the product manager plays an essential role in the entire development of a product, from the idea stage to actually getting it out the door. That means defining the functions of our application, prioritizing features, performing market research, gathering requirements, and taking the vision and turning it into a plan that designers and engineers can execute, and finally getting it into the hands of customers.

Until recently, I was the only product manager at Foursquare, so I kind of focused on everything. But now I can be focused on something I’m more excited about, which is how to encourage users to use Foursquare. That is one of our big problems—making it easier to check in and maintaining the feedback loop with users when they interact. For example, sending people an alert to say ‘Hey, you haven’t checked in six months,” or creating rewards and incentives to get people engaged.

It’s true that we only have one product, but there are large features that span across the whole product, and sometimes totally new features. For example, we recently launched a new Specials program which can almost be seen as an entirely new product. It helps merchants attract new customers and also rewards loyalty. That kind of initiative, when we launch it, is treated like a new product.

X: Okay, Question Two. Before you joined Foursquare, you were a product manager at Google for the Blogger blogging platform. How does working at Foursquare compare to working at Google?

SB: The really awesome thing about Foursquare is—I was at Google for seven years, starting in 2003—the same energy and excitement that we had there is definitely here. The one thing in common at both companies, and it’s more important than being incentivized by stock options, is knowing that you are working with world-class people, and that you will all benefit from each other’s knowledge and ideas. Google got a lot of things right, and we borrowed a lot of those best practices at Foursquare. The most important of those is an open, collaborative atmosphere. Sometimes the best ideas come from engineers, or the business team. So, like Google, we have an open meeting policy where anyone can walk into any meeting. The idea is that everyone has an idea that they can contribute and there are no barriers to communication.

One of the biggest differences overall is that here, we launch things very much faster. At the time I left Google, you had to go through a lot of refinement to launch anything. But it is Google after all, and it’s going to reach a lot of people. Here, we launch things every day, which is cool, because you can come to work and leave at the end of the day with something in the hands of users. We all trust each other’s capabilities and judgment, which, at our size, is something people can uniquely do. Obviously, because we’re small, every single individual here has an interest in the growth of the company. It’s really exciting to see metrics growing because of code you wrote. At a large company, you don’t always see your impact.

With regard to Blogger, it’s interesting because I probably wouldn’t have ended up at Foursquare if I hadn’t worked on Blogger. I used to be an engineer, and when I moved to the product team, the only product I wanted to work on was Blogger. Others would have gone into search or ads, but I felt like Blogger has so much potential. It’s still the largest blogging platform worldwide. It’s not Google’s most touted product, but that reach, that open communication, that free expression on the Web is really meaningful. I saw a lot of untapped potential and impact. That’s why I went to Blogger, and I learned a lot about how people want to engage with others, and how important the feedback loop and a simple concept like comments can be. No one likes to talk to an empty room. So one of my first projects at Foursquare was to launch comments on check-ins.

X: Question Three is related. At Google you worked from the Googleplex in Mountain View. How does the New York technology scene compare to Silicon Valley, from your point of view?

SB: There are actually a lot of differences. It’s surprising how awesome it’s been to be part of the New York startup scene. The first thing I noticed was that the tech startup scene here is really strong, but it’s also very intimate. We have a few of the bigger players, but not as many as in Silicon Valley. And the cool thing is that you are never very many degrees of separation away from those bigger players. I know that I’m probably only one degree of separation away from anyone here that I would want to meet. The first week I got here, I got to know many people immediately. There is something nice about being in a bit smaller of a community. You get access to people and you tend to meet everyone very quickly.

The other thing I’ve noticed, which is really cool, is that there’s this sense in the New York tech community of having to prove ourselves [compared to Silicon Valley]. You feel that in the community. That’s why everyone is geared to helping each other out. That kind of spirit, gumption, or drive is something I think would surprise people from the West Coast.

There’s one other big thing, and it’s an overarching thing about New York. I grew up in Redmond, Washington, in the middle of Microsoft’s domain, and then I went to the University of Washington, and then I went to the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years and worked at Google. So I was very much in the tech-bubble mindset. In New York, technology is an underdog. There is finance, fashion, the arts. With the mix of people and occupations in New York City, you really have to think about how your product will impact people in different ways. People might not get super excited here that Color launched something that can detect aggregated photos. I think you become a bit more tuned into a broader set of users. I’ve noticed that my groups are much more diverse. So maybe being in New York helps you define the right product-market fit for new technologies better.

X: Question Four: What future improvements in Foursquare are you excited about right now? And do you have favorite examples of the way people use Foursquare in their daily lives? Okay, that was two questions.

SB: With Foursquare 3.0 [which debuted in early March], where it’s really coming from is that over the last year we have gotten half a billion check-ins, and we have started to take those check-ins and turn them into value for the user. Recently we launched personalized recommendations, so that every check-in by you or your friends makes recommendations smarter. We also wanted to give you a lens to see your own history. What categories are you an expert at? Coffee in New York City? Where are the places you go the most? We are also excited about personal analytics, and getting you interested in continuing to check in. We are going to continue to update what you can do with your history and your check-ins. It’s a tool to really help you navigate your life.

There are so many people using Foursquare in ways we wouldn’t have expected that sometimes our users are teaching us. One time a person checked in and said they had a flat tire, and one of their friends came to help them because of the check-in. One kind of silly thing, but it teaches us about how people are using Foursquare, was a billboard in Germany where if you checked in, a free dog treat would get automatically dispensed. Someone else was using a check-in to unlock his apartment door.

We had a hack day here at Foursquare and one of the really interesting ideas was something this hacker built called “Foursquare and seven years ago.” Every day it will send you an e-mail about what you did on Foursquare exactly a year ago. So you can relive that day–maybe you went to the grocery and then a fancy restaurant. That kind of taught us how to make your history more useful. Recently there was a KLM promotion where if you checked into KLM locations at the airport, they would find you and reward you with a package to prevent you from getting homesick. It was an example of an innovative customer loyalty program. That’s what’s great about being a platform–we can let other people experiment and find out what’s really cool. And when we hear that people are changing their normal behaviors to earn something on Foursquare—like people who go to the gym every day to get the gym rat badge—that’s really rewarding.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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