Meetup.com co-founder explains how a little website idea made it big

Anna Starasts

May 4, 2012

In April, the gdR team attended SproutUp, Sprouter’s monthly social event for entrepreneurs, startups and Sprouter fans.

What I was most curious to see at the event was guest speaker Matt Meeker, who co-founded Meetup.com in 2002. Meeker’s tale of success was not without a few bumps in the road: blowing their first $15M of funding without much to show for it (!), stubbornly refusing investors (until eBay founder Pierre Omidyar asked if he could invest enough times that they finally accepted), and taking lots of flak from users when they moved from a free to a fee-based model.

Two things stuck out for me from his story.

First, moving from a free to a fee-based model didn’t kill Meetup’s business, it actually improved their offering. While there was an initial dip in users, business actually increased the following month. One reasons Meeker gave was that the revenue stream, a small monthly fee paid by organizers to maintain a group, actually served to weed out the serious organizers (who were willing to pay) from the not-so-serious ones (who were not). The people that were really enthusiastic about Meetup remained loyal users, and new organizers still signed on despite the fees.

This is a good lesson for startups. Many startups grapple with the fear that layering on a revenue model to a previously free app will alienate their users. Meeker’s story suggests that if the intention is to improve an app with a good core following, then moving from free to fee doesn’t have to be a lethal move.

The second point that stuck out for me was that the Meetup concept is actually really, really simple. But it’s absolutely brilliant in its simplicity.

The idea for Meetup stemmed from a book Meeker was reading at the time – Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Decline of American Civic Society.  The book’s central point is something like this: in the mid-twentieth century Americans were very civically engaged, but now they no longer participate in the wholesome community activities (like bowling clubs, the PTA and Rotary) that strengthen social fabric and enrich democracies.

With this in mind, Meeker and his co-founder Scott Heiferman decided was that they would create a site where people could meet other people who lived in their city and had similar interests. Meetup would then point them to a monthly event where they could congregate. Bowling lovers didn’t have to “bowl alone” anymore.

The premise is so simple and intuitive it makes you wish you had thought of it first. People like meeting other people. The Internet is great at connecting people. But there was no trustworthy platform at the time could connect groups of people who meet online and give them a shared sense of community that translated into the offline world.

His story reminded me of the concept behind Instagram, which was so well articulated in a recent article in Fast Company. Just like Instagram stepped in to connect our habit of sharing pictures on social media with a newfound proliferation of smartphone photos, Meetup stepped in to bridge shared interests with the internet’s amazing potential to facilitate community-building.

And just as Instagram made anyone with an iPhone feel like an amateur Annie Leibovitz, Meetup gave five strangers all crazy about their pet German Shepherds the ability to meet and bond over their shared passion. It also gave them a sense of belonging and legitimacy that they didn’t have before. They were now a “German Shepherd Lovers of Downtown Toronto Meetup.”

Did you see Matt Meeker at SproutUp April? What did you think of his talk?

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