Have you ever wondered if someone nearby has the same hobbies? Pod is a new social network designed to help its members meet offline. Instead of just connecting online, Pod wants you to meet potential contacts and friends in person. Coming out of stealth today and launching on Android and iOS, Pod hopes its AI will eventually help you connect with people based on shared interests and proximity. You can download Pod now from Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Based in Manhattan Beach, California, Pod was founded in February 2019 by CEO Dr. Jo Webber, who has served as CEO of various fintech, cybersecurity, and scientific software companies. Prior to Pod, Webber founded youth digital payment startup Oink, which she exited in 2014. Webber and her partner Ira Lubert, an Oink investor, jointly poured $2.2 million into Pod.

Webber sees plenty of potential use cases for Pod. Say you’ve got an hour to spare at an airport, and a game is on. You can see if any other supporters of your team want to watch with you. “Or maybe you’re a tax lawyer, and you say, ‘I’m going to be in this Starbucks for the next two hours,'” she told VentureBeat. “‘And I’m happy to talk to anybody about the upcoming changes in the California Tax Law and how they can affect your business.’ It’s just a great way of helping people. Maybe I’ve just moved to town and I want to go kite surfing this weekend. So I need to find somebody who can go with me. I want a photographer to come and take shots. All of those kinds of things. I can connect easily with these people online, and then ping them, and suggest a physical meeting.”

Putting people on the map

Pod claims to be “the world’s first social networking platform that puts people on the map.” That’s not true, of course — Facebook and Snapchat both have mapping features. Still, the interactive map (powered by Google Maps, naturally) is central to Pod’s experience.

With Pod, you create a profile, just like any other social network. But unlike the competition, Pod also asks you to list your interests and skills, and then connect with people nearby. It’s a mix of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Foursquare’s Swarm.

“Our thesis, which not everybody will agree with — some people probably think we’re crazy — is that people really do want to meet each other,” Webber explains. “That people will make themselves visible on our map. That they will be interested by having these connections and growing their network by real-world meetings.”

To avoid the creepiness of a map displaying everyone’s avatar, Pod users are set to invisible by default. You can then Go Live to broadcast your location on the map or launch a Pod to state you’d like to meet in a specific location. People can check out your profile and decide if they want to Ping you. You can also initiate a Ping yourself by searching or looking at the map. If someone reciprocates your Ping, you can chat, call, and suggest a meeting called a Pod. The app saves each Pod, so you can always look up who you met at a later date.

5 million members to start

Network effects make social apps difficult to disrupt — and for the same reason, difficult to start. Pod is going to struggle to get off the ground if new users sign up and there’s nobody on the map to interact with. The plan seems to avoid that by starting with a built-in user base.

In the same month they founded Pod, Webber and Lubert acquired Refer.com, which had previously acquired Referral Key. It was Referral Key’s user base that most interested the duo — 5 million members with 55 million connections on a web platform. It’s a business network of consultants, graphic designers, real estate agents, lawyers, accountants, and so on. Every month, the web app sees 200,000 new connections between its existing users, and some 10,000 new users join.

Pod is putting all these users on the map based on their zip code, not their exact location — again, users will have to Go Live to offer that level of precision. If you message any of them, they’ll receive a notification on the original web app as well as the mobile app. Both apps will exist for the next six to nine months, but Webber is confident the mobile app will prevail. Over 50% of existing users are already using the web app on their mobile devices, “even though it’s frankly a horrible experience,” Webber said.

Monetization

Pod offers free and paid membership tiers. The free membership lets you create a custom avatar, search for connections with shared interests, and access the interactive map. The premium option costs $10 per month and makes you a verified user who can send a “Super Ping.” Although a Ping requires recipients to Ping you back before you can message, a Super Ping can include a message from the outset.

The platform will also support a form of advertising. Small and medium businesses can advertise to their followers — say, a real estate agent promoting an open house. When you create a Pod, you will be able to boost it in the hopes of getting more attendees.

“Let’s say a graphic designer decides to hold a Pod event and invite people to come,” Webber explains. “Maybe a free seminar on how to get better social media results with creative graphics. Then when he goes to submit the Pod, we show a message letting him know how many people are around him and offering him the opportunity to boost the Pod for 30 minutes for $5.”

AI and ML

When you open the map, Pod uses machine learning to show you people you may want to meet based on proximity and common interests. It’s largely just basic pattern matching, but over time, based on your likes and dislikes of people, places, and events that you choose to go to, Pod hopes to learn and offer better suggestions.

“As we get more into AI, we’re going to be really looking at your behavior, how you use our app,” Webber explains. “The events that you like to go to, the time that you like to go to an event, the people that you’d like to meet, the ones you don’t want to meet. All that information helps us really better analyze and understand how to serve your interests.”

The hope is that Pod will be able to learn, for example, that you’re more likely to meet people related to your professional interests during the day and personal interests in the evening. On day one, Pod will start collecting the data it needs to make these improvements. The AI-based suggestions will then start rolling out around November or December.