The Problem with Tackling Problems that Aren’t Actually Problems

We built Oh Hey World in 2012–2013. The product is largely Foursquare, but at the city level for travelers. Check-in to the city you’re in, and share that with your dad, mom, best friend, Twitter, Facebook, and your travel blog (and find like-minded people on the other side of the click). The idea came from a summer in Greece, and realizing there is a severe lack of transparency to traveler locations that could be used to make amazing connections in person. While we solved a inconvenience — updating the “current location” module on travel blogs — for the travel blogger / digital nomad crowd, the vast majority of travelers only travel 2–3 times a year — and have zero need for a better way to share their safe arrival in a new city.

Turns out, we solved a problem that wasn’t actually a problem in the first place. (which is why we pivoted / re-branded to Horizon, and focused on helping find trusted places to stay/live — which is a massive problem for virtually everyone).

When talking about check-in apps, the elephant in the room is of course Foursquare. But let’s be honest. Like Oh Hey World, Foursquare solved a problem virtually no one ever cared about. Tracking which local establishments I visit, and sharing that with my friends is not something that people ever needed solved. Sure, finding friends nearby is cool (when it happens), but the scale of engagement needed to actually deliver that possibility with a high frequency is insane.

Checking in was “fun” (and still is, for some).

That said, we all know things that are “fun” eventually lose their appeal. Eventually, people get bored and move on to something new. In today’s attention economy, there’s certainly no shortage of places to spend your free time on the web/mobile. People are bored of Foursquare.

I’m one of the few who still (occasionally) checks in on Foursquare ( now Swarm since they split the apps in two last year). Why, you ask? I honestly have no idea. I guess it boils down to thinking that data may come back to help me in the future. Maybe. But probably not. The truth is it’s basically just for the hell of it because I’m geekier than most.

Most people have zero desire, or incentive to checkin everywhere they go. Changing consumer behavior is a massively hard proposition that takes years and years to execute.

That’s the reason, 10 years and 162.4 million dollars later (via Crunchbase), they’re struggling for user engagement and revenue. That they are struggling is based on anecdotal evidence, both numerous articles I’ve read and hundreds of conversations with people over the past few years (foursquare comes up virtually every time I talk about Oh Hey World). I applaud them immensely for what they have accomplished. Their APIs are widely used. They’ve gotten millions of people onto their app. That’s not easy. But I wouldn’t say they have proved there is a large business sitting inside a product which requires massive user engagement to be valuable.

There are a lot of similarities between Oh Hey World and Foursquare. Namely, both are check-in apps that solved problems…that weren’t ever problems to begin with. Rather than open source it, we could have kept iterating on Oh Hey World, but I’m convinced the only viable path to growth would have been raising a boatload of money, and buying distribution channels. Hotel check-ins. Conference check-ins. Flight check-ins. That would take millions and millions of dollars, and years and years — and still might not have reached large enough scale to deliver community everywhere. I thought pivoting to something that addressed a large problem was a better strategy. I’m fairly convinced the only viable path for Foursquare is also to buy distribution — via billing/payment systems at local businesses. Consumers HAVE to go through the payment process at every visit, and sharing that more broadly is something more people would do if part of a required activity (payment).

Solutions to real problems grow organically. Solutions to make believe problems…don’t.

So, the question for start-up founders is — are you solving a real problem?

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