Image courtesy of Julien Tabet

Meetup to the People: How a Zebra could Rise from a Unicorn’s Fall

By Jennifer Brandel, Astrid Scholz, Mara Zepeda and Nathan Schneider

If you’ve been paying attention to WeWork’s aborted IPO, you might have noticed that WeWork is not the only company hanging in the balance. During its bid for “unicorn”-style market dominance, the company bought up other startups. Business Insider reported in late September that WeWork was looking to unload three of those businesses, including the exceedingly vital, civic-society-strengthening company Meetup.

As WeWork confronts its demons, there’s a chance to rescue Meetup through the very mutualism that the platform enables. Rather than becoming another hot potato for investors, Meetup could finally live up to its true potential and emerge, phoenix-like, as a zebra.

The Magic of Meetup

Even if you’ve never been to a Meetup, chances are you have at least heard of the company. It has provided over 44 million people from all around the world the opportunity to connect in real life, in their local communities, about topics that matter to them. It’s estimated that there are about 13,000 Meetups per day, in 2,000 cities in 190 countries. From voting and civic engagement, to outdoor activities and writing workshops this technology platform has done something so many have failed to do: generate substantial, meaningful, and long-term benefits for communities around the world by getting people off of their computers and into three-dimensional relationship with one another. (If you want a full appreciation of what this looks like in real time, check out their live RSVP ticker).

We at Zebras Unite have been long-time admirers of Meetup and consider it one of the oldest examples of a Zebra company that sits at the intersection of for profit and for purpose. Its founder, Scott Heiferman, exudes the values he built into this powerful platform: a belief in the good of humanity, a sense of possibility in bringing people together, a commitment to staying mission-focused, and a love for the serendipity that happens when passionate people align. It’s a rare example of how a technology platform can have outsized, catalytic positive impact in local communities.

Meetup was born in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Scott was living in New York, and the attacks brought out his neighbors and instilled a sense of community that hadn’t been there prior to the shared crisis. He started Meetup a year later, and writes about his vision beautifully in, “What Happens When A Billion People Meet Up”:

“Over the course of human history, people have done atrocious things when they come together, but it is also true, and more frequently the case, that when people meetup, they achieve the best things humanity is capable of.”

The road to making a powerful and break-even company took more than a decade, and the team members Scott attracted to his company were committed to the mission and the way he grew it. Unlike the WeWork dream-that-never-was, Meetup became a company that actually works. Meetup was even profitable before WeWork ate it, earning revenue not so much from mysterious data-brokering or manipulative ads as from the honest fees of its users themselves.

As most tech companies have to do these days, Meetup raised money at various points in its growth trajectory. On one of those occasions, funding conversations turned into merger and acquisition conversations, and WeWork won the day. In 2017, WeWork officially acquired Meetup. It was an acquisition that seemed to make strategic sense: a lot of Meetups were happening in WeWork offices, and WeWork wanted to benefit from the community strengthening power of Meetup.

But then … implosion

We take no pleasure in WeWork’s current difficulties. To see a company raise more than $12 billion and never generate a profit hurts the whole startup ecosystem. We can’t help but think about what other, less risky and more impactful, companies and founders that funding could have been invested in. We can’t help but feel compassion for the staff about to be laid off, for all of the people who will be scrambling to make ends meet. They no doubt felt like they had chosen the right horse, and likely were making lifestyle changes to match what appeared to be its growing value.

If things go the way they normally do, acquired companies like Meetup will be part of the collateral damage. They can be stripped for parts to lessen the losses of WeWork’s investors. For anyone who has ever loved attending a Meetup, as we all have, a prospect like this is painful.

The possible outcomes

As WeWork looks to shed its acquisitions, it’s likely going to look for the highest bidder and the easiest money. This could mean a private equity firm, whose goal may be to further downsize the staff, make it profitable, and optimize for whatever business model will churn out money. This option could result in the spirit and the civic heart of Meetup being pushed down the list in priorities, or eliminated altogether in favor of profit at all costs.

Another option might be that one of the existing major tech giants scoops it up, using the loose change it has in its proverbial couch cushions to make Meetup its own. This option could result in a massive corporation becoming more massive, acquiring even more user data, and using our communities for whatever serves its shareholders. In so doing, these decisions could also weaken the fabric of Meetup’s community-first mission and raise antitrust concerns.

There might be other outcomes too. But as WeWork scrambles to put out fires quickly, the future of Meetup will depend on whoever can provide it a quick and easy exit.

What Zebras Unite would do with Meetup

Since 2017, we have been building Zebras Unite as a network that connects founders, investors, and communities who want to see a more sustainable and inclusive kind of startup ecosystem. In contrast to the winner-take-all fantasy of the unicorn, Zebras build startups that are diverse, practical, and accountable to the people they claim to serve. We do not believe that genuine diversity will come from more diversity programs in status-quo companies; it requires rethinking how startups work, how they are funded, and what and who they are built for.

We cannot help but dream a different dream for Meetup’s incredible platform and community. Here’s a short take on what we would do with it:

  1. Exit to community. Rather than longing for another exit to acquisition or IPO, what if Meetup exited, at last, to community ownership? We would like to see a group of aligned investors help transition Meetup into the largest ever platform co-operative — a company owned by and for the people who are already paying to use it to meet around their interests. The news that Meetup was testing payments for RSVPing to events went over like a lead balloon. There are lists of alternatives being circulated, like this one, and Meetup appears to be losing users in the wake of that announcement. Patronage of the platform need not be extractive. In our vision, organizers and individual members would help shape the pricing structure, and be rewarded for the paid use of the platform by receiving dividends. With an exit to community, as per Nathan Schneider’s analysis, Meetup would share value with the people who create that value. Think of it as REI for community gatherings.
  2. Pioneer a democratic model of data ownership. We would evolve the Meetup product to allow a radical reversal of the current, advertising fueled business models of the internet. In short, rather than paying with their data for the free use of services, we would build the features that allow users to get paid for their data and decide to whom they want to lease it. Data is sometimes called the new oil, and the futurist Jaron Lanier estimates that the data currently being extracted from a family of four through their use of social media and other “free” platforms is worth as much as $20,000 a year. There are a number of technological ways to bring about this data sovereignty, and in our vision, Meetup becomes the pioneering platform to demonstrate this data sovereignty.
  3. Build for the community, by building on it. What other interests do we share that would benefit from a collective platform? While using Meetup to meet in person around shared interests, we could also use it to organize a range of goods and services that would benefit from collective provisioning. The Freelancer’s Union is already demonstrating how distributed members of a collective platform can benefit from insurance and other offerings. In our vision, we see Meetup as another such platform that could build collective power. It could also establish partnerships across industries like journalism and media to re-inspire meaningful and actionable civic exchange.

To these ends, we at Zebras Unite would love to hear from anyone who is intrigued by our vision.

The graveyard for dying unicorns

WeWork is not the first distressed unicorn, and it will not be the last to shed assets acquired when the venture capital was flowing indiscriminately. If we can do right by Meetup, maybe we can point the way toward strategies that others can use in the future. When we consider how much money, time and talent goes into these gigantic companies, and the accountability crises facing so many of them, society should demand better options. In thinking about how Meetup could evolve post WeWork, we see a path for more zebras to rise out of fallen unicorns and emerge as companies that are grounded in the communities they serve.

Conversations about Meetup’s future are moving fast, and we’ve spoken with many people and organizations who have strong feelings and creative ideas for the future of the company. We want to spark a national dialogue about what it might take to #ExitToCommunity. Do you have ideas? Email us, share them on this thread in our Zebras Unite community, or Tweet your thoughts with the #ExitToCommunity hashtag. We want to hear from you!

And if you are a Zebra founder, please take our Zebra Survey and share your experience.

Jennifer, Mara, Astrid & Aniyia

Written by

Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz & Aniyia Williams are the founding directors of Zebras Unite

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