Booking reservations and buying tickets with friends can be a pain: finding the right events, exchanging myriad links and emails, coordinating schedules. "And then one person always gets stuck footing the bill for everyone else, and has to worry about collecting payments and cash from their friends afterward," says Jared Hecht. "It ruins the experience."
Enter GroupMe, the startup Hecht cofounded in 2010 with Steve Martocci, which enables users to easily classify offline social networks into online groups (friends, coworkers, yoga buddies), and share messages and media. Today the New York-based company (recently acquired by Skype, which is now owned by Microsoft) unveiled its latest feature, Experiences by GroupMe, a service that showcases curated events and streamlines the planning and payment process. "In addition to building a platform to help create these private social networks, we wanted to help [users] get together in the real world, to help them make better decisions as a group, and ultimately to help them buy things together," Hecht says.
The process is simple enough. To check out the service, users can head to GroupMe's Experience website (now in private beta) and browse through a list of curated events (private dinner at Le Cirque, beer festival at Brooklyn Brewery). After selecting an event, the next step is to "rally friends" to join—using the social networks you've already created with GroupMe. (Users can also share events via Facebook, email, and other means.) From there, GroupMe automatically splits the bill among a group's users, and takes a small cut of the sale. "You don't have to worry about the hassle," Hecht says.
Adds Martocci, "It leads to a better experience than we've seen in this space—it's all about having that communication tool underneath the hood."
The brilliance of GroupMe has always been its finely tuned social networks. While others in the space have attempted to mimic its intimacy—Google+ Circles, Path—few if any have captured its nuance. I personally have evergreen groups for college roommates, for college roommates just living in New York, for coworkers at Fast Company and FastCompany.com—not to mention a number of one-off groups created for vacations and the like. It's a fast way to keep my contacts fresh—actively updated rather than passively curated like on Google+. (At GroupMe headquarters, the nuance has reached unique heights, with office groups created for sales and bug reports, one network for sharing soup-eating habits—which features the nickname "French Onion Martocci"—and even a group called "The Champagne Room." No word yet on what goes on in that room, though we've heard rumors before of at least one thing not occurring there.)
That level of social specification is especially conducive to events. Though services such as Groupon and Living Social also offer curated experiences, none are inherently done with groups or completed socially. "This isn't like 50 random people you're buying a deal with," Martocci says. GroupMe has social baked into its core, as Hecht explains, so users "can plan events, coordinate once they're there, and share with each other after they've had that experience."
The trick for GroupMe will be to make sure its experiences are tailored for groups, and that the booking and payment process is as seamless as, well, Seamless. In other words, the startup has to be careful not to undergo Groupon-ification, with lasik surgeries and dental cleanings becoming the norm—experiences which are not geared for groups. Additionally, a prix-fixe dinner might make the bill easier to split evenly among friends—but what happens if a meal substitution costs the group an additional fee? These are issues GroupMe will have to consider going forward, on top of building up a library of experiences of quality and quantity.
But the team promises that it's still early on in the product's life, and that we should expect many more features to come. Martocci ticks off a list of potential features he envisions: letting users create their own experiences, introducing a peer-to-peer payment system, and so forth.
"We have a long roadmap," says Martocci, the thoughts of new product ideas bubbling in his head—not unlike a hot bowl of soupe à l'oignon.
[Image: Flickr user Phil Plait]