Gowalla CEO Josh Williams on game mechanics, user experience, and competition

I'm always looking for a new social site to play with, and right now, all I can think about is Gowalla. I was lucky enough to interview Josh Williams, CEO of Alamofire, the creators of Gowalla.
Written by Andrew Mager, Inactive

I'm always looking for a new social site to play with, and right now, all I can think about is Gowalla. I was lucky enough to interview Josh Williams, CEO of Alamofire, the creators of Gowalla.

What sparked you to build a location-based social network?

Williams: About 2 years ago we launched a game on Facebook called PackRat. To this day its users are some of the most passionate, inspired people you'll find playing social games on Facebook.

This experience led us to ask the question: If we can use beautiful icons—digital collectibles or virtual goods, if you will—to incentivize a game on Facebook, can we also use icons to encourage people to explore the world around them.

This was the spark that led to Gowalla.

We want people to explore and share the world around them with their friends. We're simply using some lightweight game mechanics to get people out and about.

When did Gowalla launch, and how has it grown? Can you give numbers?

Williams: We launched a very raw "seed" version of Gowalla at SXSW in March. It had some GPS-related problems and didn't play well with Facebook, but it did allow us to work out the kinks with a small group of users. About 4 weeks ago we released Gowalla 1.2 to the app store. Since then we've seen our user base multiply times over.

Nearly 50,000 points of interest have been added to Gowalla in thousands of cities around the world. We'll announce some other numbers in the weeks to come. We feel blessed to already a very strong user community forming around Gowalla. This is going to lead our charge as we grow.

Location is the next big thing. How will Gowalla stand out among other services to be the best?

Williams: We're focused on building a really high-quality user experience. Our team has a strong design background, and we hope this shows throughout our products on the web and mobile devices. If we play to our strengths, take care of our customers, keep our service reliable, and continue to innovate, our future will be bright.

As an aside, we're very keen on exploration as well. I don't just want you to share your location with your friends. I want you to go some place special or remarkable because you want to tell the world about it.

Speaking of competition, who else is in your space? Have you learned anything from other startups pursuing the same objectives?

Williams: We really didn't jump into the location space to go toe-to-toe with anyone. We just saw an opportunity to do something WAAAY out there. Prior to creating Gowalla, none of us had regularly used the more established location-based services because we felt like there was little incentive to do so. We believed adding incentives (the pretty icons) would make sharing your location seem more real and fun, much like adding stickers to a suitcase or the back of your MacBook.

During this same time Foursquare has also come on the scene trying to solve a similar problem (incentives) in a bit of a different—yet still compelling—manner.

I think this is validation that this space has a lot of room to evolve.

I am dying to use Gowalla on my mobile device, but I'm stuck with this lousy Palm Pre. When will you build apps for other types of smartphones, or even a mobile version of your site?

Williams: Our goal is to support as many GPS-enabled devices as we can. Android, Blackberry and Palm are our top priorities after iPhone. We will be launching a mobile web version of Gowalla very soon to serve as a stepping stone to native applications. Unfortunately Palm blocks location to the browser, so this is slowing us down on our path to a solution on that platform.

And finally, how do you get all those sweet custom venue icons?

Williams: All of our venue stamps are designed in-house.

Several of us have a background in iconography and we're very keen on pretty little objects. Our goal is to design custom stamps for the usual suspect sort of landmarks around the world, but we also look for a lot of feedback from our community on what places we should feature next. This has led to custom artwork for oddball locations like the Fremont Troll in Seattle or the Moon Towers in Austin.

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