The coming of “New Meetup” means the site you see today could soon be referred to as “Old Meetup.”
And Meetup is old—about nine years old in fact. Meetup is like the grandfather of the New York tech scene, and that’s how cofounder Matt Meeker talks.
Back in Mr. Meeker’s day, when Meetup was just getting started, the internet was a vastly different place.
The memory of the dot-com bubble’s spectacular burst was still fresh in investors’ minds. Top-tier technical talent could be had on Craigslist for promises of equity. There were no lightweight programming languages and if you needed data from another company, you had to get your business development people on the phone with their business development people. You couldn’t start a social network or a daily deal site for less than $10,000; you needed $250,000.
Startup kids have it so easy these days.
It was 2001. Mr. Meeker had just left a startup that had been given $15 million to build a credit card-sized e-reader for email and text messages.
At the time, SMS was only available within networks; AT&T customers could only text other AT&T customers.
The company might have been doomed from the start. “I remember seeing some people sending emails around about this thing called a BlackBerry,” Mr. Meeker said last night.
He was speaking at the Inside the Founder’s Studio Meetup, held at Meetup’s headquarters in SoHo, telling the story of how he and Scott Heiferman ended up starting a website that was social before social — and websites — were cool.
Well, websites had sort of been cool. “Classmates.com, I think that was the hot thing,” Mr. Meeker said, laughing.
Classmates.com survived the tech crash and the recession at the beginning of the aughts, but many startups didn’t. Mr. Meeker’s $15 million company went bust without ever releasing a product; he kept going to the office for a while before he realized it was time to move on.
He started getting coffee with Scott Heiferman, with whom he’d worked at the online ad agency i-traffic, and the two started talking about startup ideas. They had lots; Mr. Meeker remembers a plan for a high-end, luxury set restaurant that only served breakfast cereal. “We actually went really far with that one,” he said.
But they kept coming back to Meetup, and there were two major reasons why. One was Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s book about the collapse of community in America. The other was that something had changed in New York: Strangers had started saying hello. It was after September 11, and people seemed suddenly aware of each other. There was a yearning for community, Mr. Meeker said. Meetup.com was needed.
So Mr. Meeker and Mr. Heiferman raised some money from friends and parents and set about looking for a technical cofounder. They found the perfect guy: a talented developer who fit the company culture they wanted Meetup to have. He said no.
They persisted. He said okay, but he needed six months to do a consulting gig in Paris. They begged him. He changed it to three months. They followed him to Newark Airport and pitched him as he waited for his flight. When it was clear he intended to get on the plane, they bought tickets and joined him. They stayed with him in Paris for three weeks, talking about the design for Meetup. He said okay, I’m in.
Success! Mr. Meeker and Mr. Heiferman flew back to the States to prepare for the launch of Meetup. But soon, they got a phone call from Paris. Their would-be technical cofounder wanted another week. Fine, they said — after all that! — we’ll find someone else.
To Craigslist! Mr. Meeker and Mr. Heiferman put up an ad for a technical cofounder. “The ad was obnoxious, it was rude, it was all wrong,” Mr. Meeker said. But this was still post-bubble times, and they got 400 resumes. They whittled it down to 60, and started interviewing candidates — one per hour.
“I took a page of notes for each one. I had a legal pad and I literally wrote a page of notes for every one,” Mr. Meeker said. “For Peter, I just wrote ‘Peter K. — great.'”
That was Peter Kamali. Mr. Meeker and Mr. Heiferman ran Kamali through a gauntlet of interviews with their technical advisors. “The CTO of Barnes and Noble said, ‘You should hire him, because if you don’t, I will. He knows things he shouldn’t know,'” Mr. Meeker remembered.
It was March, and it was time to move. Mr. Meeker and Mr. Heiferman scared up a round of angel funding, which closed thanks to the release of a hot new device that everyone was trying to get their hands on. Mr. Meeker bought some of these devices — the company that made them had just opened a store in New York — and called up investors who had been giving him the runaround.
I have an iPod loaded with music, he said. I’ll bring it to you wherever you are if you give me the check.
Success again! Money in hand, Mr. Meeker asked his new cofounder how long it would take to launch the site.
June 13, Mr. Kamali said.
Meetup.com launched on June 12.
The launch was a near-immediate success, thanks to a clever marketing campaign cooked up by Mr. Heiferman. Meetup scoured the internet for groups—Yahoo groups, blogs (they were called “weblogs” back then) for pug lovers, beer lovers, Wiccans, hockey moms, the works. They sent out emails notifying these groups of an upcoming made-up holiday—International Pug Lovers Meetup Day and International Witches Meetup Day, for example—and instructed them to go to the website to find out where to meet in their cities. “We got back a very enthusiastic response,” he said. “People were like, ‘Great! Thanks for letting me know!'” Today, there are 40,772 members of 194 Pug Meetup groups around the world.
Then Mr. Meeker told the story that every new Meetup employee hears on his or her first day.
“Join your local Howard Dean Meetup”
It was 2004, and an uppity low-level employee named Will, 23, was nagging Mr. Meeker about pitching Meetup groups centered around politics. No, Mr. Meeker told him repeatedly. The youngster, his efforts frustrated, went outside to have a cigarette and read The New York Times, which carried an article about a fiery Democrat from Vermont who was running for president: Howard Dean. Will promptly went inside and called the governor’s office for a meeting. Then he asked Mr. Meeker for money for a train ticket.
After presumably chewing his young employee out for insubordination, Mr. Heiferman joined Will to meet with Mr. Dean, and his advisor Joe Trippi to talk about how the governor might make use of this new website. The men connected immediately, each side impressed by the other’s mission. “We have no money, we have no organization,” Mr. Dean said. “But if you will support me I will say ‘join your local Howard Dean Meetup’ after every speech.”
Of course, Mr. Dean’s campaign took off at the grassroots level in an unprecedented way. He lost the nomination, but he’s credited for pioneering the use of the internet for grassroots political organizing. The deluge of press won Meetup national attention. By April 2004, the site had more than 1 million members.
Meeker left Meetup in 2008. He’s now the entrepreneur-in-residence at Dogpatch Labs, an incubator backed by Polaris Ventures that sponsors 15 companies at a time, giving them free space and mentorship with no strings attached — no stakes, no “first look” promises. He’s bullish on the New York tech scene. “It’s in exactly the right place,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bubble. The companies leading the way are real companies with real revenues.”
One of those companies is Meetup, now nine years old and still going strong with 7.2 million members. Mr. Heiferman, now CEO, said at the January New York Tech Meetup (the largest organization in the New York tech scene, with more than 15,000 members) that 2010 was the company’s first profitable year—revenue comes from the fees organizers pay to start groups. “And we did it without losing our souls,” he added.
But Meetup’s story isn’t over, and on Monday we’ll find out what the next phase of its history will be.
Meanwhile, check out 10 New York Meetups that Sound Amazing.
ajeffries [at] observer.com | @adrjeffries