Meetup's Scott Heiferman on Connecting Communities
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
As a fresh-faced entrepreneur in the late 1990s, Scott Heiferman dove into several tech-focused ventures, including online ad firm iTraffic, which he sold in 1999. There was little that kept the 20-something's attention for long.
What a difference a decade makes. Heiferman, who turns 39 this month, is now more community evangelist than flitting entrepreneur.
"I never thought I would do anything for more than a year or two, because I would get bored, but I'm more interested now than ever on what the soul of my company is about: collective action, movements, revolution, community," he says.
Shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, the self-described introvert became more compelled to speak with his New York neighbors than ever before. The sudden interest in face-to-face connections quickly became a singular obsession. He set out to bridge the gap between strangers everywhere and create a way for people in local communities to connect online to meet offline. Meetup.com was born just over nine months later.
The New York-based company, which Heiferman launched with four partners, has morphed into a behemoth network of 9.2 million users. There are more than 60,000 Meetups that cover just about every interest or concern in any given week -- and 30 Meetup RSVPs every minute.
When Heiferman sat down for this interview with 'Trep Talk -- wearing a Meetup T-shirt and carrying a stack of Meetup stickers to hand to passersby -- his eyes brightened when he spoke about inspiring communities to create movements. Edited interview excerpts follow.
Who inspires me: The 20-somethings who will change the world in a way that baby boomers and Gen-Xers never did. Boomers and Gen-X failed. Twenty-somethings are seeing the world in a fresh way, and with much less respect for the status quo.
How to start a movement: Turn your customers into a community. Have people really connect with each other in a real relationship that has a purpose. Community is not strangers on the same message board or people who live in the same neighborhood if they haven't met their neighbors.
Favorite quote: 'Everyone is organized but the people.' ~John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause
Words to live by: Be useful. It's really easy to go through life being a consumer, audience member, spectator or passenger and not really be powerful in any way.
On having 'six parents': My four siblings were all in their 30s by the time I was 10, and we were all very close. Each one was very different, so from the brain surgeon to the artist to the business people, I was really lucky, because I got exposed to a lot, and hopefully it made me curious about lots of things.
Early entrepreneurial payoff: I paid for my first year in college through a business I started in high school. It was a local coupon package for a surrounding town. My dad makes fun that I grew up always saying: 'I've got a great idea.' They probably weren't great ideas; they were harebrained schemes.
If I knew then, what I know now… I would not waste time doing stuff that doesn't matter.
Recommended reads: Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben and Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher. For the really practical stuff, Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, the founders of 37signals, is very important for the entrepreneur.
An entrepreneurial myth: A lot of people think entrepreneurship is just about reading stuff and talking to people. No. You also need to build, make, design. Meetup was started by me locking myself in a room and sketching, sketching, sketching.
One rule I keep: No phone or laptop in the bedroom, or else I'll wake up in the middle of the night to check email and Facebook. If there's a device in the room, I just won't sleep as well.
Three people I'd like to invite for dinner: Google's marketing head in Egypt Wael Ghonim, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama. They're all community organizers extraordinaire.
On the next Oprah: The person who emerges to fill Oprah's shoes is going to say, 'Hey audience, don't just connect with me, connect with each other.' If Oprah were starting today, her Angel Network wouldn't just be a donation thing, it would be bands of local viewers in 1,000 towns being really powerful together. The Oprah of the 21st century is going to have local chapters.
Parting advice: Something worth doing might take a while, so really flesh out the potential of the business and be honest about whether it's worth doing. If it's not a $100 million company in five years, maybe it'll take 10 or 15 years. If you're doing something that has a universal, timeless need, then you need to think of the company in a timeless way.