Today is my last day at Meetup as the CPO. The journey was shorter than I wanted, but for an important reason.
A Personal Note
Sometimes executives say they are taking “time off for family” as part of leaving an organization, but in my case it is true. Before diving into reflections on my time at Meetup, I want to talk for a second about anxiety and depression in teenage girls. Rates of self-harm have risen significantly, and while our society has thankfully gotten more open about mental health issues, I’m not sure we have good solutions for this problem. Growing up has never been easy, but at least in prior generations, we didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have the ability to compare ourselves against the entire world. We didn’t have sophisticated tools of social manipulation for cruelty. I don’t think the Internet is the only root cause, but I think it plays a big part. (Note: if you are thinking about self-harm, please call a hotline or reach out to a community like 18percent)
I keep on waiting for society to develop antibodies to the dark side of the Internet, but it hasn’t been happening fast enough, and I think teenage girls are the most vulnerable. I don’t have broad solutions. What I can say is that I’m pulling back from full-time work to invest in my two kids, help my son grapple with Tourettes, and help my daughter through some dark days (she has given me permission to write that). It will come with financial sacrifices, but my wife and I looked at our mutual careers and decided mine was the one that could handle flexibility and re-invention. As an entrepreneurial type, I’ve had to do that multiple times already. I’m very aware of how blessed, and indeed privileged, we are to able to do this.
My daughter is smart, quirky, funny, and brilliantly creative. She just hasn’t accepted these things yet (yeah, I didn’t like myself yet at her age either). Her anxiety can be a real prison. It didn’t help that she went 14 years without being diagnosed as highly dyslexic. We’ve had to change schools a few times. We’ve worked out a good home schooling program that seems to work with her learning style, and I’m feeling optimistic. My job is to help her believe in herself, because there’s a lot to admire.
I write all this because when I grew up, mental health was something to be ashamed about. Something to be hidden. But that is a load of bullshit. The human condition is a rough one, and we’re far better off acknowledging how hard life can be, supporting each other, and allowing ourselves to be supported. So I wanted to say something out loud, because I’m proud of my brilliant, complicated kids and love them very much.
(The remainder of this post is some musings on the past year at Meetup. These are personal opinions and not representative of the company or its future strategies)
As I write this, Meetup is an independent company once more, and has been for a few days. I’m glad of that. Meetup serves an important purpose in the world, and I hope the company thrives. It has certainly been through enough twists and turns over the last several years, including the acquisition by WeWork, change of CEO and all the consequential culture changes from such a move, spin-off from WeWork, and lots and lots of employee turnover (both layoffs and otherwise). I joined Meetup having been an organizer for many years. I had lived the frustration of being a customer. By the late-2010s, I felt like the main product had gotten worse over the years, not better. One cause was the overwhelming amount of technical debt that had built up in the 17-year old company. As my former colleague Yvette Pasqua, a brilliant CTO and a big reason why I joined in the first place, once said, “Meetup is carrying four to five times the amount of code that it should for what it does.” But, as is often the case, the problem was not solely technical. There was an enormous amounts of design debt that increased the complexity of every change, as well as a need to improve how the teams were actually setting goals and going about their work.
We made progress on some important things. We created a roadmap that better aligned business and product strategy. It took longer than we wanted to get started, but then changing directions is always hard, even with only 200 people. I’m a big believer in anchoring a roadmap in a small number of key strategic principles. My #1 principle, rightly or wrongly, was that Meetup needed to think of itself primarily as an aggregator (to use Ben Thompson terminology) of consumer demand for events and community. This is in contrast to thinking of itself as a provider of tools for community organizers. As a two-sided market, we needed to do both, but one does need to prioritize a side. I see the true value of Meetup as connecting people to collective experiences. That mission is essential for both sides, because when a community stops getting new people, it tends to fade away.
Over the year, we healed the rifts between engineering, design and product. I learned some lessons in how hard it can be to change an entrenched culture, even when people are seemingly open and willing. But we made real progress in how Meetup builds product. We rebuilt the mobile team and mobile technology. We paid down a lot of tech debt the engineering team had been dying to kill. But I would say the real star of the show was our data/ML team, led by Ben Schulte (now at Instagram). That team built a new search engine (which is finally now getting gradually released), helped clean up the worst of Meetup’s emailing sins (still more to do there), and made incredible strides on the matchmaking algorithms that get the right people to the right events. All the while managing a data architecture that handled over a terabyte of data a day.
Of course, there were also frustrations. I had been hoping to improve the product through the existing tech stack, but by July/August 2019 it had become clear that the pace of development was simply intolerable. The team did an amazing job debating and deciding on a change in our technical strategy. Just as we started moving out on that decision, WeWork’s IPO crisis hit and that caused a lot of things to stall (and triggered a round of layoffs). The change in tech strategy also forced us to abandon/delay an effort to replace 8 different, archaic methods for how organizers communicated with their members with a single, modern chat-based approach. It was heartbreaking to put this half-done work back on the shelf (to be clear, I bear the responsbility for that call) and I hope Meetup can get back to that soon.
What I really wanted to solve was the misalignment around Meetup’s revenue model. I saw this problem as the root cause behind a lot of Meetup’s challenges. To explain my perspective: currently, organizers pay a monthly fee, and pretty much everyone pays roughly the same amount. All of the burden of being part of the service is placed on the organizer, and they are already doing most of the work! And when meetups are free, people are lackadaisical about showing up. Most organizers who have been doing this for a while know to expect less than half of RSVPs to show up, unless you charge a ticket, in which case you get a much higher percentage. The poor show-up rate creates an incredibly unpleasant experience for organizers, both emotionally and often financially as they incur costs for food, space and supplies.
To get abstract for a second, I believe that a good business should have a way to become more successful as it makes its customers more successful. You want value to be additive and aligned. This is very hard to do with Meetup’s current revenue model. The upside to Meetup’s current approach is that it is very stable with a healthy recurring subscription business. The downside was that it is very hard to grow, and very hard to see ROI from improvements. This explains some of the things the company has done over the years that made organizers really scratch their heads. While most people are obsessed with subscription models these days, I think marketplaces do better with transactional or hybrid subscription/transaction models that fuel a healthy flywheel of activity.
In the summer of 2019, we ran lightweight tests on a pricing model where members would pay to attend an event, and then get money back for showing up. We knew it wouldn’t fit every community, but saw that it could work well for many. However, we had just teed up a small experiment to run in Delaware in August when a landing page was shared on social media and people jumped to the conclusion that Meetup was making a wholesale policy change, which was not at all the case.
It was an unfortunate black eye for the business. The real problem wasn’t the experiment, but rather that the company was lacking in a way to communicate with customers what was going on. It was a painful reminder that product leaders need to ensure that a solid product marketing practice exists, and prioritize building it (and navigating the politics of that) if it doesn’t exist. I can happily say that Meetup now has a blog were it can be more transparent again with customers.
I still hold out hope that Meetup can and will evolve its pricing model. Such a thing won’t be without controversy, but I really believe that there are better models that will make life better for both its customers and the company. Whatever the answer is will not be one-size fits all, but it’s in organizers’ interest to have a strong, innovating Meetup.
Lastly, I felt really lucky to get to work with truly wonderful and intelligent people at Meetup. I know how cynical some organizers are about the company, but believe me, the team really cares. They are frustrated, too, at the pace of improvements, and working so hard to change that. I want to thank everyone who worked with me during my time at Meetup. We took on a lot together. We made the best decisions we could, with the constraints we had. I’ve never worked at a place where people were more authentic and empathic. I did my best to earn my place with these great people.
While I won’t be in the trenches anymore with the team, I hope this next chapter of ownership for Meetup is a really good one.