Josh Williams liked to travel, and explore, and he wanted others to embrace that same spirit–and what it means–in a social and sharable way. So in 2007 he started Gowalla, a location-based social network, which has grown fast, and now has over 600,000 active users and a team of 25 employees based in the new tech hub that is Austin, Texas. Josh talked with Fast Company about technology as a tool for change, how Gowalla got started, and told us just what the life of a 30-year-old tech CEO with a wife and two kids is like …
What’s your big idea?
Inspire people to keep up with their friends, share the places they go and discover the extraordinary in the world around them. Put simply, let’s get people to go out and explore.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
Passports. Over time, when you travel, your passport fills up with stamps. Each stamp tells a little story about a journey that you made. The same goes for that souvenir you bought at the ski area or the ticket stubs you save from the baseball game. The value is not in the item. Its in the story that goes with it. Our generation, perhaps for the best, is not as prone as previous generations to collect stuff for collecting sake. That said, we still want to share those stories–regardless of whether or not there’s a tchotchke to go with it. So how can we give people a way to record and share the places and stories that are important to them? So Gowalla is like a passport for your phone. We make it easy and fun to collect those stories then share them with friends. Then–and this is where the magic happens–we use the stories that you and your friends are sharing to inspire you to go someplace new.
What problem or issue did you first try to answer?
Initially we didn’t have any database of places. Honestly, I didn’t even know where to go to license that sort of stuff. So simply gathering this information was going to be a chore. We decide to build a feature in our mobile app that let the Gowalla community add their favorite places as they traveled, in turn edited and improved by the most active people using our service–somewhat Wikipedia style. It worked. 18 months later people have added over two million places to Gowalla in 170 different countries.
What was the first milestone you reached when you knew that it was going to work?
It was probably the first time we saw over 100 people, none of whom we personally knew, check in at the same event with Gowalla–in this case an Austin hippie festival known as Eeyore’s Birthday.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
Honestly, I think we simply want to make going out and discovering the world fun. So much time is spent sitting at desks or on couches in front of screens. Our goal is to get people to go.
How did your goals change over time? And what’s your goal today?
Our primary goal hasn’t changed. With every new feature we release we ask ourselves how is this going to inspire somebody to exploration because Gowalla helped them see the world through new eyes? A personal goal for me is to see Gowalla encourage more people to travel abroad. According to the State Department, only 22 % of Americans have passports–even with legislation created in the last decade requiring a passport to travel to Canada and Mexico. How do we change this?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in around Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas–but spent a significant portion of my childhood in northern New Mexico. Taos is a very important place to me personally. There is a beauty in the simplicity of the desert mountains, and I often find myself drawn back to them when I need inspiration.
What occupation did your parents have?
Both of my parents were remarkably creative and entrepreneurial. While my mom had a degree in Medical Illustration and Photography, she gave up the hospital hallways and started a landscape design company and retail garden center with my father.
I grew up watering plants and pulling weeds in the greenhouses. My weekends were largely spent watching the masses peruse through my parents’ garden center to purchase seasonal flowers and shrubs. Eventually the growth of big retailers like Home Depot forced my parents to close the retail garden center to focus solely on landscape design work. There was a healthy balance of creativity and manual labor involved with all of it.
What college did you go to? Major/minor?
My mom passed away suddenly of cancer when I was 18. I basically ended up running the landscape company in her absence. It was definitely an education. Just not a normal one by any means.
What’s your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?
When I was in 5th grade we moved to New Mexico for a bit. We lived in Taos County, which is surprisingly home to some of the best steep skiing in the country. At the time the closest middle school was about an hour away from where we lived, so my parents decided to homeschool me. It was great. I could cram through my schoolwork in the mornings then hit the slopes in the afternoon.
My parents were both very in tune with my interests. But my mom was especially keen on tailoring my education to my strengths. In a pivotal moment during my teens she helped me purchase a used and busted Mac IIFX for $3,000 so I could get into graphic design. A friend of the family taught me how to use Photoshop and Pagemaker–and another buddy, an early Internet entrepreneur named Joel Comm, encouraged me to learn HTML in the mid-90s. This was really a pivotal moment for me. The foresight of my mom to throw fuel on the fire played a huge role in where I am today. She was a very strong, opinionated person. There are still times I wish I could bounce ideas off of her.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow?
In the Old Testament there’s this guy, Nehemiah. He was a cupbearer for the Persian king. Upon learning that the walls of his home-town Jerusalem were torn down and that the city was in disarray, he asked the king to send him back to rebuild the walls. He overcame extreme obstacles and adversity to unify a people and accomplish this goal, ultimately serving as the governor of the province. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from him. More recently, Tony Hsieh of Zappo’s is an example of someone who put it all on the line to overcome some ridiculous adversity to follow his dream of building a customer service company. If you haven’t read Delivering Happiness, go grab it now.
Regarding leadership style: If you like hot dogs, you don’t ask how they’re made. For me, this means surround yourself with talented people equipped to do their job. Then get out of their way.
Whom do you seek out for advice?
While I’ve made it a point to surround myself with some solid, level headed folks to go to for advice, first and foremost I value the feedback from my wife. She had a keen intuition about people and a knack for calling things as she sees them. I talk with my dad a lot as well. They both keep my head on straight.
How is your life different now than it was before you started this project?
Well, it’s a lot busier, that’s for sure. Right as Gowalla was taking off our second daughter was born. Startup life is both a sprint and a marathon at the same time. Adding two young daughters to the mix and I have a very full life. I get to travel a good bit as well. Seeing the world through the eyes of others around the world is one of biggest perks Gowalla has to offer.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
Culture warring and an entitlement mentality are likely the greatest dangers my generation is facing, especially in America. Both have the capacity to derail our society. On the flip side, the energy and creativity of my generation is driving remarkable innovation. We also seem to be less attracted to a lifestyle of consumerism than previous generations embraced. There is an authenticity in the air that is refreshing.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him?
I’d ask him what he plans to do after his Presidency. He’s relatively young and has the capacity for greatness well beyond the Oval Office. I’m curious and excited to see his impact on the world once he’s off the clock, so to say.
How has technology and social media affected your work?
The iPhone was certainly a catalyst for what we’re building. Every time we release an update to Gowalla, I feel like we’re pushing the technology of today’s mobile devices right to the edge. What we’re building today wasn’t even remotely possible 3 years ago. It’s exciting to creating a service in a space so new and fresh. And of course, Gowalla is all about sharing. Facebook and Twitter are key ingredients for our service.
What was or what is your biggest challenge?
Surrounding myself with the right people. It’s one thing to find talent. It’s another to find like-minded people passionate about changing the world. You certainly need competency. But you need character and chemistry as well. I work with an amazing team of nearly 30 people. There is very little management. Everyone comes prepared to play hard and solve problems. Flexibility and humility are valued in the same way as and boldness. We’ll often pass over dozens of qualified folks before making a hire simply because we haven’t found the right culture fit. It requires a great deal of patience at times, but the rewards in the end are worth it. It makes the work so much easier when your co-workers are also your best friends.
What assets or challenges do you have or face because you’re young?
Oftentimes it’s the little things, like simply getting taken seriously by others. A businessman from a nearby office once stopped by and asked if he could lease one of our conference rooms for a while because his “grown up” company likely needed it more than we did. Just because we wear jeans and TOMS to work, doesn’t mean we don’t take this very seriously. I also have a young family. My girls are the spark that keeps me going. Balancing time with them during travels and heavy work schedules requires a lot of communication. I certainly wouldn’t be doing this without a lot of help from and sacrifices made by my family.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
We’d have patriotism and national pride without being skeptical of other cultures. America is likely the best place in the world to be an entrepreneur and the freedoms we are afforded here are unparalleled. That said, there is so much we can learn from our friends around the world. I cannot help but be inspired by the people I’ve met abroad in places like China, Latin America and the Middle East. I guess I’d say that I’d like to see the return of a civil “public square” where people from varying backgrounds and walks of life can debate differences peacefully, improving the whole by listening and learning from one another.
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be …
Starting up something else. Probably in a foreign country. Or a ski bum.
Anything else we should know …
If you’re ever in Austin, you need to grab a doughnut from Gourdough’s. Trust me.
Follow Josh on twitter @jw.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.