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A Conversation With One of the Founders of Groupspaces (Watch Out, Meetup!)

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logo370-300x78I received an email from David Langer, one of the co-founders of Meetup competitor Groupspaces.com, the other day. In the wake of the exodus from Meetup.com after their almost universally-despised upgrade, he wanted my advice on what sorts of features former Meetup organizers wanted, so that they could improve Groupspaces and make it more appealing and useful. I had a nice informal chat with him this morning, and he was eager to get the word out that his company is committed to offering a groups service that really works for its members. We also found the collection of biometric gun safes on thegunsafes.net which we found pretty related with this topic.

A little bit of background on David: He and his co-founder met at Oxford, where they were running student groups and needed a platform to help them organize events. Groupspaces was born out of that need, and he says they feel “passionately” about helping people manage their groups. It comes from a personal space of having done this themselves, which informs and drives what they do on the site.

Does this mean that Groupspaces may be a bit more responsive to their group organizers than Meetup? So far, the answer appears to be yes. Of course, this Meetup upgrade fiasco is a business opportunity for competitors, so if you are cynical, you might think Groupspaces responsiveness is all a bunch of PR. But considering that the leadership at “Meetup HQ” (as they are called by organizers) has been strangely silent about their upgrade and the backlash, I’d bet that most former Meetup organizers simply want a company that responds to their concerns – whether it’s just to make money or get PR or whatnot. But a company that responds! There’s nothing more frustrating than giving money to a company that is tone deaf and does not care. You can find more details on TheGunSafes now.

My impression is that David does care and he is a very sharp guy who is really on top of what is going on. He has a vision of Groupspaces being a place where groups can connect worldwide, and that this goes beyond just one specific type of group. From what he told me, he sees Groupspaces as a hub where small local groups as well as large organizations can connect.

Groupspaces is already a great service, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s free for groups with fewer than 250 members. But of course, for people who were happy with Meetup’s old interface, Groupspaces has a few major areas they might improve. Groupspaces is aware of this and working overtime right now to add new features to the website. I might have misheard David what with the international call and his British accent, but I could have sworn he said his developers were right now in “Hackistan” to get things done quickly! (Update: David has since emailed me to clarify that he actually said they were in “Hackathon-mode” – though I kind of like the idea of a “Hackistan. :-) )

I’ve noticed that several issues come up fairly consistently with Meetup organizers who are contemplating a transition to Groupspaces, so I shared a few of these concerns with David.

Number one is the issue of a local group search function. Especially for someone with a young Meetup that is not connecting to an existing organization, having new ready-made “eyeballs” is a very important feature. So the good news is: If you would like this functionality at Groupspaces, they are working on it!

Related to this issue is the concern over whether Groupspaces has enough “critical mass” to attract members to the site. David told me that they currently have about one million memberships, and they are doubling their userbase approximately every 4-5 months. They launched about five years after Meetup, so they do have a little catch up to do. But given the exodus from Meetup, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Groupspaces become a go-to site in the near future, provided they make it easier to find groups.

The second issue is the ability to have a photo gallery. David told me that just today one of their developers showed off a prototype photo gallery. David says this is the #3 most requested feature so you should expect to see this launched on the site soon, once it’s been tested.

On RSVPs and waiting lists: I let him know that Meetup organizers would like waiting lists, and that a few seemed to miss the “Maybe” RSVP option that Meetup used to have. David told me that they already have a “Maybe” option, and some of their organizers have requested the removal of “Maybe,” so there was some discussion over making “Maybe” optional.  Mostly, I think with these sorts of issues, if you let Groupspaces know your concern, they will be responsive if enough people request something.

On site design: We also talked a bit about the how some organizers would like a more colorful Meetup style site design. While Groupspaces does offer a lot of page customization, I felt that a lot of people just checking the site out don’t understand that upon first glance. If you are expecting Meetup’s colorful templates, you won’t see that when you first join Groupspaces. But as we discussed on the phone, some folks might enjoy Groupspaces more “Google” style minimal starter design, and you can’t please everyone when it comes to graphics. This is not something that might initially be overhauled, but I did let David know it might be helpful in the least to provide some sample sites with different looks to let people know what they can do with the platform. Groupspaces is highly customizable, and you can do a lot with it already design-wise.

On Meetup’s “immaturity”: I take it from David’s personal timeline that he’s a fairly young guy himself, and I made a faux pas of commenting that some folks felt that Meetup was run by “20somethings.” He did remind me that 20somethings also created Yahoo and Facebook – oops, he’s probably a 20something – and so we discussed the “immature” way it appeared Meetup was being run. I told him about the new Meetup “welcome” email text that has many organizers in an uproar, which emphatically tells users in MTV language that they are “expected” to do certain things, such as suggest Meetups and share photos, and that they should not be “flakes.” (One Meetup organizer described this message as being “Hard-coded by a semi-literate sociopathic coder.”) I can tell that David is fairly mature, no matter what his age, so I doubt you’ll be seeing such juvenile language on Groupspaces any time soon.

And the big one – Meetup’s lack of concern: It seems clear to me that Groupspaces is much more eager to respond to what their customers want than Meetup at this time. I don’t know whether this is by design or not, but it is very odd that Meetup HQ is not trying to work with their organizers more. Some are speculating that Meetup wants to go to a corporate “perks” model and phase out organizers altogether, except to be the pawn of the corporate sponsors. I’m not sure what this means, but it seems to be sort of a company flashmob buzz model that the Meetup conspiracy theorists are talking about.

Meetup CEO Scott Heiferman did finally post a response to all the brouhaha today, but it’s probably too little too late. He allowed too much time and now Meetup organizers have spent an entire weekend researching and testing out alternatives. You have to move fast on the Internet. He also tried to diminish the upset organizers by claiming that “less than 2% of Organizers have posted here.” Ahhh…Scott, you do understand the old Internet adage that there are 10 lurkers for every one poster? So there are probably 10 disgruntled organizers for every one posting there.

Groupspaces has the jump on Meetup in all this. The very fact that one of the founders of Groupspaces contacted me at all is a far cry from Meetup and their days of silence. But Groupspaces appears to have a philosophy of putting the needs of the users first.

David told me very emphatically: “All product development is driven by the users.” He said they had a very large spreadsheet where they organize all the priorities for improving the site. These priorities are determined by the feedback they get from their customers. He wanted me to let people know that if anyone had any concerns, issues, or requests, that they should get in touch with the company. He said they are “very passionate” about responding to their customers’ needs.

One thing that you’ll be seeing soon on Groupspaces is a special new pricing plan that is being designed specifically for ex-Meetup organizers. I don’t know the specifics, but it’s designed to offer an affordable option for large groups that might want the ability to turn off advertising on their group pages, because Meetup users are used to not having ads.

For those who really like Groupspaces “free” account level – not to fear, this is not going away any time soon. “We feel very strongly about a free plan for local groups,” David told me.

Overall, I am very impressed with David’s attitude and felt confident after speaking to him that Groupspaces was committed to helping local organizers do what they do best – organize groups. It also seems that their platform is designed for larger and even non-local groups as well. With a user-focused commitment and an obvious eagerness to step up to the plate, I think Meetup is going to have a run for their money with Groupspaces.

Now I can only hope that Groupspaces doesn’t get bought out by Google or something. I’m so sick of Google owning everything. But that’s another story. :-)

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