Foursquare’s Noah Weiss on The App Split and Becoming a Product VP That Founders Can Trust

Foursquare’s VP of Product Noah Weiss is a friend from my Google days. They made a bold choice last year to split the Foursquare experience into two apps, one focused on local discovery and the other on social check-in. It was – and continues to be – debated widely. Foursquare’s been an easy company to root for but one which is working its way through the evolution from darling startup to larger company. I asked Noah to reflect a bit on the role of product management and the app split…

Hunter Walk: How would you compare Foursquare’s style of product management vs Google?

Noah Weiss: I think the type of product managers we hire are very similar: technical, data-driven, strong product insights/strategy. People who are productivity nuts, great writers, and team-builders.

The biggest differences comes from scope and time horizon. At Google, a typical project at this point is something like the visualizations in AdWords’ reporting interface. At Foursquare, PMs have end-to-end use cases like our entire push recommendations effort or the whole local search experience. You trade scale of users for scope of project. This means PMs at Foursquare have a whole slew of responsibilities that PMs at Google rarely touch like product-level roadmap planning, owning and driving company-level growth metrics, and working directly with marketing on user acquisition. It’s much more transferrable to founding and running your own company one day than growing great at getting layers of exec buy-in at Google.

On time horizon, Google is one of the few companies who can have a 10+ year runway for a project. I’m jealous of that now. At most other firms, Foursquare included, long-term thinking is usually 6-12 months out. You are building on a much wobblier foundation, which means you have to constantly reopen the most painful of existential questions for a PM: “Are we investing in the biggest impact projects given our limited resources these next 3-6 months?”

HW: The app split into 4Sq and Swarm. Pretty controversial among some of your users. Was it equally debated internally or did everyone just say “yeah, we need to try this?”

NW: Internally we still debate whether we figured out the perfect plan! It’s hard to ever know whether we made the right decision on what service got the Foursquare brand. We decided to give the bigger addressable audience service — personalized local recommendations — the existing Foursquare brand since the brand had (relatively) huge consumer awareness, even though we knew we would have to adjust people’s expectations. We debate whether social or search should have been split out into a second app, though the logic of giving local search a jump start and moving our stickiest check-in users

a separate app still makes sense. There are counterfactuals you can never answer everywhere you look.

So yeah, it was controversial then and the tactics are still interesting to debate now. I wrote a post on the “Lego Block Exercise” we did when we were in the throes of figuring this all out. The decision to split the app was the least contentious part of the plan. There was a smoking gun stat that only 5% of sessions had both social and search actions. Two dedicated apps for these very different use cases seemed obvious.

HW: Dennis [Crowley, 4Sq founder/CEO] has been working on location products for a very long time. As product lead, how do you introduce new ideas that maybe run counter to his POV?

NW: Dens came up with and owns our product vision. As he often says: “Someday, hundreds of millions of people will carry a piece of software in their pocket that will tell them all the great things to do around them, help them find their friends, and save money.” Everyone in the company has rallied around this and it guides all the features we work on.

Product strategy is how we get from where we are today to that future. Dens is really focused on the vision and the little big details of the features we ship. The spectrum of product work in between is something I take a more active role in leading, along with our other eng/product/design leads. Our job is to devise a route for the features we need to build get us to his north star.

Because we all buy into the vision and because Dens trusts me guiding the roadmap after 4+ years, we rarely disagree on the big things. We often disagree about the little things — does that button really need a label, or are these the right default search filters — but these matter very little in the end. We are both usually happy to concede to whoever has a stronger (and more informed, hopefully) conviction in a direction.

HW: You guys have a pretty amazing Board of Directors. Any advice you recall that particularly stands out?

NW: I think just one of our investors puts us in the 90th percentile of startup boards. All of our investors combined — Albert, Barry, Ben, Bijan, Bryce — must put us in the 99.9th percentile. We are lucky to have them, their advice, and their patient capital.

One of the most memorable pieces of advice was back when we first started monetizing the service in 2012. Ben said something to the effect of, “You are one of the rare companies where the ways you’ll make money don’t need to hurt the consumer experience, and should often help it.” This has guided a lot of revenue efforts, where we have invested a ton of people and technology into making in-app ads relevant by powering it with the same signals as our organic recommendation engine. Our vision is to build tools to connect businesses with people who would love them and drive real foot traffic. The board’s advice has also led us to focus on ways to monetize the service outside of our app, such as through our rapidly growing off-network advertising efforts and our data licensing business.

HW: How does someone fresh out of undergrad break into product management as a career?

NW: Start by taking a wide-range of classes, not just computer science. Get technical, but know being the best engineer won’t necessarily make you the best PM. I’d recommend classes in design, economics, stats, cognitive psychology, and strategy/operations. Learn to write. Seriously. Especially after your first few years, the difference between good and great PMs often comes down to how succinctly and convincingly you can communicate in writing. I took two fiction writing classes at Stanford, which grew my writing in ways no other classes did.

Avoid PM internships. Good ones are very hard to find, and you’re better off getting your hands dirty as an engineer or UX designer.

For your first job, I think more established companies with strong PM functions provide a great paid form of grad school. PMs aren’t born; they aren’t even really taught at university. They are grown. Find a place that will invest in training you. Avoid early stage startups where you’d be the first product person. You will have a ton of responsibility, but will be immediately underwater with no one to mentor you. If you have an idea you are passionate about and would work on for the next 5-7 years, then by all means try starting your own company. But you have your whole career to take that plunge, so keep a high bar and bias toward making your early and often mistakes at a company where you have much less on the line and much more support.