Is Waze overvalued or is Foursquare undervalued?

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 18, 2013

From The News Desk

If Reid Hoffman really were a Saint of the highly-valued niche social network, he'd be smiling down on last week's $1 billion-plus acquisition of Waze.

When reports were swirling that Facebook was interested in Waze, it was called an Instagram-like bid for more users. But that's not really what either of those deals was about.

Waze's users would barely be a rounding error for Facebook -- or Google for that matter. And really, what are the odds that people who are using an early adopter mobile traffic app aren't already users of either Internet titan?

No, this was a deal done despite relatively modest user numbers of less than 50 million people. While it's true that Instagram didn't have much more than that at the time of purchase, far more of them were in the US and contributing content. And it was on a steep growth rate. And really, Instagram wasn't about sheer users either. It was a defensive move to keep a large social network centered around photos out of a competitor's hand, and a way to solve Facebook's "mobile problem."

Waze on the other hand was a deal about data. It was about making maps something more dynamic and social than fixed points on a grid. It was about taking human beings and using their insights to create a more dynamic, accurate and useful map of the world.

Sound familiar?

Yesterday we brought you a clip of investor Fred Wilson talking about how the value of Foursquare isn't about check ins, rather it's about "maps with people in them." Okay, Foursquare doesn't have real time traffic updates. But you could -- and I would -- argue that the data Foursquare is collecting on where people go and what they do is potentially more varied, rich, valuable and usable for different applications. That's particularly the case when you factor in Foursquare's API which is also used by Path, Instagram, Uber, Evernote, Garmin, Vine, Magellan, and -- you guessed it! -- Waze.

Right now there are some 40,000 developers building on Foursquare's API, and while a lot of that data never comes back to Foursquare, a lot of it does and that makes Foursquare's maps even richer and more dynamic than their four billion checkins would have you believe.

You add to that the fact that Waze and Foursquare aren't too far apart on user numbers. Waze claims some 47 million users, but most are outside the US and only about 70,000 submit information around traffic. By comparison, 35 million people use Foursquare, and sees some 50 million people per month. And it gets location data about way more places and people through its widely used API.

You can argue how much more valuable US users are, or the value of a user that contributes data on places versus one who just consumes it. But ultimately, the numbers are similar enough that a big question emerges: Is Waze overvalued or is Foursquare undervalued?

Earlier this year, Foursquare experienced well documented struggles matching the valuation of it's previous round of venture capital. The company decided to do a debt round, largely to put off the topic of valuation for the time being. Should Foursquare prove a big breakthrough is around the corner, it's a brilliant move. If not, the inevitable is only delayed.

Given the gamble, Foursquare can't help but be encouraged by the recent weeks since that $41 million fundraising was closed. Tumblr -- the other big New York based tech company that was facing a slow road to monetizing -- was worth more than $1 billion to Yahoo, and now Waze -- a company that uses data to create more dynamic maps on mobile using Foursquare's API -- is also worth more than $1 billion.

I even see a link between this theme of dynamic maps and the surging popularity of Snapchat -- another company rumored to be raising money at a valuation north of $500 million. Even if those prices bear out, a venture valuation isn't remotely the same thing as an acquisition. Still, Snapchat has tapped into a new, distinct way to communicate.

Recently, my husband and I have started using Snapchat to communicate with each other throughout the day more than we use email or text. (Get your mind out of the gutter. We're not sexting. I just had a baby for Christ sake.) Rather Snapchat allows you to send messages in a more visual, whimsical way. It's similar to how people are hand writing out status messages to communicate in text over Instagram. Just as Twitter helped compress time and space by letting you know what your friends were doing at any point in time, Snapchat has allowed my husband and I feel closer. It's the little seemingly disposable moments that create intimacy. Showing him something I know he'd roll his eyes at if he were with me or seeing a photo of wheels down rather than a text that says "landed" just makes you feel more connected.

Wilson and I spoke about this as well last week, and he talked about how Snapchat isn't really a social network as some have said. It's more of a messaging app. And again, during the Q&A section our talk, he noted that making utilities on the phone more fun meant they were used more. It strikes me that Foursquare is a more fun maps app at its core; the way Snapchat is a more fun and engaging messaging app. As phones become the core of our Internet-enabled lives, we use them dramatically differently than we used feature phones. But many of the central utilities like address books, texting and even dialing haven't changed much. Why shouldn't it become more enhanced, smarter, more social, more useful and more fun in the process? Given how much mobile has changed to we really expect these core utilities to stay static?

I'm not arguing that Foursquare is worth more than its already-rich last round valuation of $600 million. I had a few interesting conversations about the business while I was in New York last week that made me think it could be, but it's hard to know enough about the inner workings of a private company from the outside.

Regardless, one thing is certain: Either Waze is dramatically overvalued or investors aren't giving Foursquare enough credit. I wouldn't count Dennis Crowley out just yet.