Scott Heiferman, the co-founder and CEO of Meetup.com, chatted with us about the state of Meetup in February 2012, after Betabeat had just finished going to seven random meetups in seven days straight. Here is the full transcript of the interview, with minor edits for length and clarity.
You started Meetup right after 9/11, and part of the inspiration was conversations with strangers. Can you talk about what some of those conversations were like?
On 9/11 and the days after, [I was] having random interactions with neighbors and people in the neighborhood and people in my apartment building and strangers on the street. People were more friendly and friendly to conversation. I actually discovered the book “Bowling Alone” in a blog post a week or two after 9/11.
I actually was looking back on my old Amazon—you know Amazon keeps the history of everything you ever bought so, it’s funny… I bought the book “Bowling Alone” a few weeks after 9/11 and I think the idea there was, the essence of what that meant to us, and what stood out, was this idea that there are these linkages between people interacting with strangers and trust.
Basically, the less you interact with strangers the less you trust strangers and the less yo trust strangers, the less you interact and by that trusting of strangers—really is a proxy for being happy or feeling that the world isn’t totally screwed up. Because if you walk around thinking like that everyone’s an asshole and you can’t trust anybody, one would think ‘oh, well as long as you could just go into your cocoon of friends and family…’ but the reality is if you don’t trust the world around you, you’re going to—it’s a vicious cycle that becomes coarser and nastier and less friendly world.
Someone told me you like to give copies of this book away.
Yeah. When someone’s hired at Meetup they get a copy of “Bowling Alone.”
I don’t have time to read the whole thing. Are there specific parts I should check out?
It’s okay, I didn’t read the whole thing either. I think what’s interesting is to look at all the pretty charts and graphs about the declining membership that a lot of these 20th century organizations have had. And you can ask yourself, okay, do we need to recreate your grandfather’s Kiwanis Club in order to have a neighborhood-y vibe in the 21st century? The answer is no.
The thing to scan in that book—and I don’t mean to paint it like it’s some bible for Meetup, but the question is not, who cares about the fraternal organizations and the VFW and all that kind of stuff—the question is more, what role did the fact that people were working together with other people and had this sort of opportunity to have an outlet outside of just work and family and friends, what role did that play in people’s lives? How did it relate to optimism and how did it relate to people feeling like they could be a whole person?
The foundation of that is embedded in some of what people do on Facebook and Twitter and how it has something to do with Foursqaure and all sorts of things. In our case we’re just hitting it dead on and saying that a city is a better city if there’s all these opportunities to do what you did over seven days [go to seven random meetups]. But those communities are now there and they’re in place and they’re welcoming and they’re friendly and how does it make a city better when those opportunities are available to people? And that’s some of what you should go fishin’ for in the book.
At the Meetups I asked people why they came. A lot of people said it’s really hard to meet people in New York. It’s a city with eight million people but it’s really hard to meet one. Have you ever experienced that personally? Are you from New York?
No, I’m from the Midwest. Grew up in Illinois, went to school in Iowa.
Yeah certainly. There’s a lot of different influences that inform why I started Meetup, but one of them is just the —there’s a band that’s no longer together that—I was really into this band for years and years and years and I saw the band—I probably saw 20 of their shows over the course of seven or eight years snd the joke was, it came to a point where a friend of mine, they were sick of this band and I had no one to go with. I went to probably half of these shows just by myself at Bowery Ballroom and other places and what’s funny is that I would see some of the similar faces time after time at this band’s shows and my entire experience of going out to see this band was, I would grab a bite to eat by myself and I would go to the show and I’d stand there and I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I’d stand waiting for the show to start, I’d be there for the show and then I’d filter out staring at my shoes leaving and—maybe it’s just being shy—or I don’t know what but there was no context for being allowed to talk to anyone that would have been awkward.
And so the concept of Meetup was, it’s not just find the people that have a similar interest because the other people that like that band were in the same place multiple times a year, but it’s more about giving them permission to talk to people, giving them license to talk to each other. I’ve sort of felt that, not only is this a city of eight million people, but this is a hardcore fanbase of a few hundred people and yet no one said I could talk to them.
What was the name of the band?
What kind of music was it?
Sort of post-Velvet Undergroundy New York vibe. I dunno. You can Google them.
When was that?
One reason why I moved to New York was because I liked this band and I said, you know, wherever they’re from is probably a good place to be and that was New York. This was like ‘95 to 2005. And I started Meetup in 2002
When you started Meetup, did you start a Meetup for this band?
Oh shit. I knew you were going to ask that. I did not and… I don’t know why. I used it for other stuff but—I really had that in mind. In fact one of the original mockups—wireframes and stuff that I designed for Meetup were using Luna as the example. You know what it was, I think they were largely broken up by like 2004. I don’t know why I never started that Meetup.
Nowadays they’d have a forum.
They all did. That’s the other thing. Any kind of active online forum always had people saying ‘who on this list is in Chicago?’ or ‘who here is in New York?’ They did have online stuff going on but no one had the guts to propose something Meetup-like.
You asked me if I ran into a lot of people scouting for someone to date. That bugs you?
No, it bugs me when it’s sort of dominant in Meetups that aren’t. [Many] Meetups are singles-focused and it’s great—those can be great. It’s when people have an experience where they are not looking for that and that’s what some people bring. We hear it occasionally and I hear it occasionally and I always ask the question, whenever someone goes to Meetups, was that what it was? And most of the time it’s no.
When people hear about Meetup for the first time, and it’s outside the context of a tech Meetup and it’s outside the context of a mom’s Meetup or anything like that, [to] kind of make sense of what the hell it is, they think that it must be some dating thing, because why the hell would you want to meet people if not to hookup or get money? ‘Why on Earth would you want to talk to anybody that you don’t already if not for sex or money, I don’t get it,’ is the feeling.
Does Meetup look different in NYC versus the rest of the country?
New York is the biggest Meetup city so you get a really good things happening by [virtue of the fact that it] hits a tipping point of the density of everything going on. We have these anomaly cities like Raleigh-Durham, NC. You have per capita almost three [times] the number of meetups and peole in meetups than even in New York. So there Meetup is this very, very popular and common. You just see things working better because more Meetups get a critical mass and all that.
The other thing that’s—we used to have a joke—I’ve met with Meetup organizers in about 35 cities around the world. If I’m going to a city we’ll do an organizer meetup where we invite the organizers and I’ll meet 20, 50, 100 Meetup organizers, and we’ve done that in New York and the interesting thing was always that New York organizers always sort of brought out this—and this is early in the days of Meetup—really extreme characters; whereas in other cities they were not so extreme.
Just really eccentric—and eccentric can be beautiful. I like eccentric—but just eccentric in anyway you can imagine. Very passionate—I don’t know how to describe… Here in New York we have five or six thousand Meetup organizers. I’m talking about back when there were maybe one thousand so many it’s shifted.
That said, the similarities [of] New York and other cities is kind of remarkable also. You’ll see how the community cell-divides and spawns new communities so the way in which New York has hundreds and hundreds of mom’s meetups—the stay at homes moms of this neghborhood and the working moms of that neighborhood and the Jewish, black lesbian moms Meetup of this neghborhood—I’m making that one up but the way in which they divide, city by city, you see it mimic the similar divisions. The different kinds of hiking Meetups and the different kinds of parenting Meetups and all these different things and you say ‘wow, what a distinctive way in which they’ve cell-divided and formed this whole network in New York.’ You look at L.A. or London, you say ‘oh my God.’ A lot of the same frustrations that different people have had have created the same sort of varied and interesting mix of Meetup groups.
I would imagine that one thing unique to Meetup in New York is how specific some of the Meetups are to the point where they’re hard to describe. Do niche meetups like that happen in other cities?
Absolutely. I don’t know if this is a dirty secret or not but a lot of that often comes out of the frustrating expereinces that people will have going to this one and they say ‘you know, this is fine but what we really need is something where it’s for these people and not those people’ and so they create that. It’s a really interesting, almost Darwinian ecosystem. And yeah the get really specific. I started a Meetup group just a week or two ago. Even though in my neighborhood there are over 50—I’ve got a one year old and even though there are over 50 parenting meetups in my neighborhood, the perfect one that I wanted didn’t exist and so therefore I wasn’t able to get what I wanted. I want just nine-16 month olds who just live in this part of the neighborhood and so I had to create. And Saturday I had eight babies on my living room floor.
I know you’re a part of the New York City Dads Meetup. What other Meetups are you a part of?
That’s on the public site… There’s a bunch that I’m active in.
How many Meetups are there in New York, on average, each day?
I knew that, let’s see. I think about 3,000 a week so four or five hundred and probably about half of those are at a critical mass point… so there’s probably 200-plus that have at least four or more people signed up.
What do you mean by critical mass?
Internally we refer to something as a “SMUG” … which means successful Meetup group or successful Meetup. We know that if a Meetup has four people singed up it’s probably ging to be a good experience. If less than four people signed up it will probably suck.
We also know that if a group has had a Meetup with four or more RSVPs, if they’ve had an event in the past month with four or more RSVPs we know that it’s likely to continue going and growing well and if they don’t then the group will probably fail.
On an average day we have about 10,000 meetups worldwide and about five to six thousand of them have four or more people. Some meetups are four people. some are 400. There are about 100,000 people going to a Meetup on a heavier day.
We crossed 500,000 New Yorkers a few months ago. Just the City. [and New York is the biggest city]
Are you familiar with the people who are sort of “Meetup addicts?”
Do you have an in-house slang for that?
Not that I can say…
There’s one guy… For all I know he could be a member of a thousand Meetup groups and he goes to all of them. No he doesn’t. He’s a really great guy, given us great feedback through the years.
Do you think there are people that Meetup doesn’t work for? For whom Meetup is just not relevant?
The reason why I’m gonna be working onthis for many years to come is because we haven’t yet proven that this kind of community can be good for everyone. And when I say everyone, I don’t mean most people, I mean literally everyone. The people who say that, ‘well I don’t have enough time’ or ‘I have enough friends’—I’ve had enough situations where people who initially looked at Meetup and they said ‘oh that’s really nice, oh that’s great.’ This common thing—almost like an NPR perspective.
Anyone can look at Meetup and say ‘oh that’s really wonderful, that’s really good. and you say ‘what about you?’ and they say, ‘well that’s not for me. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t have those kinds of needs. It’s not right for me.’ A photographer I talked to said it looks really great but not for him and then I said ‘well you know there’s Meetups for professional photographers’ and he said ‘yeah, I don’t know’ He said he ended up joining this photographers Meetup and it was really good for his business—oh and by the way he said ‘I don’t really like people’—and the thing is is that I’m of the belief that most people have no interest in meeting people. In fact, the last thing they would want to do ever is have to talk to anyone. A Meetup is the last thing in the world that they’d want to do.
But even for those people, for their careers, for their lives, for whatever these things that are important to them. In the case of the photographer, he could use his photography business to be better. He said, ‘no it was great. In this Meetup they trade leads, they trade vendors, they trade help and they work with each other on projects and gigs’ and he said that it’s just been really, really great for his business. And then he goes, ‘oh and the people are really great too.’ It’s like, speaking of the Midwest, there was an old restaurant chain that said, ‘Come for the food. Stay for the pie.’
What we’re saying is, people are going to come for the benefits and maybe stay for the people. So we’re Meetup, but I don’t think people want to meet up. I think that they want all this other stuff. To learn what they want to learn, improve their careers, start businesses, grow their business. They want to stand up for something important, they want to run a marathon and all that kind of stuff. No one goes to Weight Watchers or AA because they really want to hang out with people, no it’s because they want to lose wieght or they want to deal with their alcoholism. If you think of Meetup as the thing where you want to meet people, that’s great and there are millions of people who will do that but a lot of where we are and a lot of where we’re going is around trying to make easier and better this thing that would actually help everyone, in different ways, at some point in their lives.
What do you mean, it’s like an “NPR thing?”
“I think people start these Meetups where it’s like, ‘we’re going to have trans-partisan discussion where Republicans are going to talk to Democrats and we’re going to talk it out and we’re going to have this great experience of finding commonality amongst our differences.’ This do-gooder concept—anyone can look at that and say, ‘oh, that’s really great, oh, that’s really nice’ but you know, those Meetups fail. You know why? Someone… is going to look at that and be like ‘Okay, do you want to go on Thursday night to a trans-partisan Democrat-democracy discussion town hall where we Democrats are going to talk to Republicans?’ No, they don’t want to do that.
What’s more interesting, and Esther Dyson, one of our investors, she put it really well she said she’s more interested in the mom’s Meetup where Democrats and Republican women are there then the Democrat Meetup or the Republican Meetup because the natural way people will find these bridges—my point is, it’s not a just a flyover concept, what I’m saying is it’s the difference between people saying they should go to a Meetup and they actually will in their real life.
What we’re basically saying is no, actually, community is a cure for a lot of things in a lot of people’s lives—or it can be. We are on a long-haul mission to spark that and what I think we’ll find, and this is over the course of a generation, in the years ahead it’ll become pretty obvious and normal that people in the world are collaborating and cooperating and actually just finding benefits to themselves by not being hermetically sealed in their Facebook filter bubble.”
You said you don’t think you’ve succeeded yet. What has to happen?
We need to make it so much easier and so much better and then it just has to hit more and more natural tipping points where Meetup is more of a household world and the idea of solving a problem in your life—When you think, ‘damnit, this year I’m going to run that half-marathon,’ that you don’t just watch a video about how to train, you don’t just read a webpage about how to train for that half-marathon, but that it just feels natural to say, ‘oh I wonder if there’s a Meetup in my neighborhood on Saturday of people who are running the half-marathon… because we’ll be more likely to succeed.’