Even 15-year-old tech companies need to worry about giants stealing their market share.

That was the key takeaway from Inc.'s Startup Bootcamp live chat on Wednesday with Scott Heiferman, the CEO and co-founder of Meetup, the New York City-based online service helping people connect in real life.

While his company has been around since 2002--and has attracted more than 30 million users in 182 countries--it is hardly immune from the vagaries of competition. Enter the biggest, baddest behemoth around: Facebook.

Yesterday, Facebook launched its "Groups for Pages" feature, which allows the 70 million Pages on Facebook to create their own feeds and communities. "If you are an artist, a business, a brand, or a newspaper, you can now create fan clubs and groups centered around your superfans," wrote Facebook's chief product officer Chris Cox, in his announcement of the new product.

The new feature serves as a key tenet of Mark Zuckerberg's latest mission for the San Francisco-based social networking giant. "In our civic discussion we most often focus on our social safety net, but I've found that our communities are often just as important for taking care of us, and we need to focus just as much time on building them," the Facebook CEO wrote in a post from yesterday. "One of the most important things we can do right now is bring people closer together through communities."

Last month, the company held its first Communities Summit in Chicago, where this idea was fleshed out in even more grandeur. There, Zuckerberg detailed his plan to get 1 billion people involved in "meaningful communities" on Facebook.

Naturally, Heiferman, whose business has long touted these goals, is concerned. "We take it seriously. When the fifth biggest market-cap company in the world basically restates [its] mission to be most of the same words of your mission--and they do so with an earnestness that I believe they have--watch out."

Action steps.

Even so, Heiferman isn't just sitting around. Earlier this year, Meetup set in motion an action plan to drastically revamp the company, which is continuing to take shape. Besides redesigning its app, Meetup is working on structuring meet-ups to focus less on groups and more on activities. Instead of searching for communities, designer Farah Assir told Fast Company in 2016, "You get to say, 'Here's what I want to do,' and meet [like-minded] people along the way."

Even more ambitiously, the company is working on an artificial intelligence tool that will take the notion of community even further. Heiferman cited a really specific example: "Imagine you're going to a breast cancer meet-up and there are like, 50 women meeting up Queens." If 12 of those women happen to live near each other, the tool can then make a recommendation that those women meet up locally, to perhaps avoid making a longer than necessary trek.

"To use an artificial intelligence to say, 'Hey, we see the patterns of how people behave, and why isn't there a meet-up that's closer to 12 of those women, as opposed to having all 50 come from possibly far away?'" That's the essence of self-driving meet-ups, says Heiferman. "To use what computers can do, which is to see the patterns and learn, to help people out."

Cautious optimism.

Of course, Facebook can do this too. Its workforce of roughly 17,000 dwarfs Meetup's 180-person staff. It has millions in sales and a market value roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Poland. Plus, it could do all of this without charging a cent. By contrast, Meetup's revenue is mainly derived from organizers who pay a subscription fee to use the service.

Heiferman isn't deaf to the challenge, but he is optimistic--choosing to believe Facebook won't in fact block out the sun for everyone in the space. "As long as we stay focused on what people want, how people behave, and how we can spark meet-ups, and focus on innovating like hell, we'll do our own thing," he says. "It's not a winner take all."

Published on: Jul 20, 2017