Many people think social media drives us apart, but Scott Heiferman–founder of Meetup–remains a software togetherness visionary, who thinks opportunities for tech-based connection remain large. He also has ideas for how the tech industry can do better.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
David Kirkpatrick: So Scott, I would like you to join me on stage, we’re going to go straight into our first conversation with the great Scott Heiferman. Scott founded Meetup but I want to just give you a couple more datapoints about him.
Scott Heiferman: Oh, no.
Kirkpatrick: When he was at the University of Iowa, he actually had a radio show that was like an anti-consumerist radio show. So he comes from a sort of not typical entrepreneurial tech place. Then he came to—he said, he told me this morning, he saw a mosaic for the first time when he was at the University of Iowa, then he came to New York and in 1995 started I-traffic which was one of the very first digital ad agencies, he sold that to Agency.com in 1999. But, this is the kind of guy he is, after he sold that first company, instead of just going, you know, sailing around the world or spending his money, he decided to go to work at McDonald’s for a few weeks because he wanted to get back in touch with the real world.
Now, this is, to me, the kind of thing that you wouldn’t hear somebody say in Silicon Valley. In fact, I would be curious to know if anybody knows of any Silicon Valley entrepreneur who took that kind of approach. This is why New York is different, we have people like Scott. So, then, after 9/11, he decided something like Meetup was necessary because—maybe you can explain that in a minute, but not only did he start Meetup in 2011, he also started a photo sharing service called FotoLog which he ran simultaneously and later sold for $90 million dollars.
Meanwhile, Meetup has become a huge phenomenon, it’s now owned by WeWork. One of its investors is Pierre Omidyar who is somebody we have tremendous admiration for and I’m hoping we’ll get to talk about him a little bit. But—so, maybe you should first start by saying why did you start Meetup.
Heiferman: Well, yeah, I mean, this is an old story now but basically my experience on 9/11, on that day I was living in SoHo and went to the roof of my building just after that second plane hit and basically experienced that day, talking to my neighbors, as I hadn’t before in my apartment building and in the days and weeks after, found myself, you know, being friendly with my neighbors and that felt good. And so this question of in a world that can be scary and difficult and life is a struggle, this idea of how you bring people together and how do people come together, how do they support each other and help each other. You know, are we headed towards a world where people are just—where people are ripped apart or are we headed towards a world where people are brought together?
So, Meetup is just an idea to say how can you use the internet to get people off the internet.
Kirkpatrick: So, concretely, all the way back then you were thinking is that—what can the internet do, yin or yang kind of thing.
Heiferman: Absolutely, yes. And we all—like, the internet’s a network of computers or is it a network of people?
Kirkpatrick: And what do you think about this question right now? Where do you come down on this?
Heiferman: Yes, will tech save the planet or will tech destroy the planet? Yeah, so, I don’t know. But it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time that we are definitely—you know, it’s beyond tech. Software is eating the world. What is tech anymore? Everything is tech.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, you work for a real estate firm.
Heiferman: Yes, I’m part of what some people think is a real estate company but it’s very infused with tech and has this whole network effect and so—but, no, this world of—I feel and not unlike most of you that we’re in a really critical moment in culture and society. And I know every generation thinks that, “Oh, this is the important moment.” But, really, the 2020s, the 2030s with the combination of climate change and wealth and income disparity and a lot of dysfunction and all kinds of problems, again, there’s always been problems, there always will be problems but I don’t have to explain to this audience that it’s a critical juncture.
And so either—and one big piece of it that I think doesn’t get talked about is this question of the fundamentals of are we ripping people apart or bringing them together? And so I am—and so here we are in 2019, you have a company called Facebook that has a really wonderful, important, good mission and I believe, I mean, one of these days, I don’t write anything but if I were to write anything, if I knew how to write like you do—
Kirkpatrick: Write it for Techonomy.
Heiferman: I would write, I would say, “In defense of Mark Zuckerberg,” that—
Kirkpatrick: Okay, why?
Heiferman: Well, because for all the flack and all the deserved flack and real issues there, the fundamentals of how communities and groups and communication and the systems by which people can—I mean, everyone in this room might say, “I hate Facebook,” but at the same time you use their products and while it might annoy you and the ads might annoy you and the addiction might annoy and all this ripping apart stuff, we’re not going to, in the future, do without the connective technologies, the software that brings people together.
Now, at Meetup, and the We Company, to some degree, it’s really taking it seriously, as in understanding that—whereas 10, 20 years ago we—all the people consumed with digital and all this stuff, it was a very simplistic notion of digital versus concrete or bits versus atoms or whatever you might call it. You know, we’re now in and heading more into a world where it’s a lot more—everything is more integrated and Amazon has physical stores and all this stuff.
But the fundamentals, I actually want to—I know I’m rambling here—
Kirkpatrick: No, no, it’s good.
Heiferman: If I could just wrap with one last thing, you know, I realize a lot of what I’m saying is the common just talk that people might have on stages like this but I think the fundamentals of people feeling lonely, people struggling with opportunity, people—you know, the levels of depression that are up, suicide, the difficulties in every day, in people’s lives around the world is totally separate from discussions of like, “What’s the future of blockchain and what’s the future of AI?” I think zeroing in, this is—you know, Meetup was zeroing in on questions of people’s lives and I think today you still have to do that. And while the autonomous cars will replace the Lyft and Uber drivers, maybe that’s fine, that’s natural but the questions of—what brings me great kind of hope is that I see that when people Meetup, whether it’s a book club Meetup or a running Meetup or a hiking Meetup or a coding Meetup, that the need for people to have opportunity and to feel a sense of togetherness, belonging, the dignity associated with all that stuff, that’s like very much the real deal of real lives and I hope becomes more of the conversation in these kinds of gatherings.
Kirkpatrick: Well, we try to make it a large part of it here. And it is kind of, I think, good parallelism that we’re starting today with you and we start tomorrow with Doug Rushkoff who just wrote a book called, “Team Human,” which really in an almost philosophic way explores these questions very straightforwardly with a lot of concern.
But, so, you would defend Zuckerberg even though you’re saying that we need to think more about people’s emotional, economic experience as a community. So, you think that they’ve done that? I don’t want to dwell on Facebook, even though I often do, but do you really think that they have given that sufficient thought?
Heiferman: Yes, I think if you actually read the Zuckerberg sort of manifesto from 18 months ago, two years ago, yes, maybe two years ago, before they got quite distracted with all the chaos that’s gone on, I think that, yes, the fundamentals of—listen, I don’t want to—I don’t believe in psychoanalyzing Donald Trump or psychoanalyzing Mark Zuckerberg, I really don’t care about these people as individuals, but the question of does a mass network that helps people connect and communicate, is that important and good for society and advancing that? And, by the way, we’re at the like—you know, what’s amazing is that we’re still at the early, early, early stages of what it means—like, we can press a button and make a car show up right now but you can’t press a button and make people show up.
You know, we’ve been hacking on this idea of Meetup and, okay, it’s wonderful that millions of people are going to a Meetup this month and there’s 10,000, 20,000 gatherings every day but that’s nothing, that’s nothing, if you want to—let’s say you’re a woman who wants to run, prepare for a marathon or something, and you have little kids and you wanted to run at night with a pack of other women because it’s safe on weeknights in your neighborhood and you run at this pace, I guarantee you there are probably a half a dozen other women within three blocks of you who would want to do that same 9:00 p.m. run with you but how would you find them? How would you hook up? How would you connect? Why aren’t pharma companies connecting the people who are taking the same drug in the same neighborhood if it’s has actually been proven, which it has, which is health condition by health condition by health condition, if you’re a part of a healthcare support group, if you’re a pregnant woman and you meet with a bunch of other pregnant women, monthly, regularly in a properly facilitated situation, you have a 30% some chance of not having—a 30% less chance of having a premature baby. Diabetes, similar kind of story.
What’s my point, my point is that there’s—okay, we can psychoanalyze Mark Zuckerberg, like, “Does he understand humanity, does he, he doesn’t, is he lost, is he—,” I don’t give a shit. All I know is that the world is filled, just like people didn’t realize that you can press a button and make a car show up or you could press a button and rent someone’s apartment and you could rent your apartment to someone else, there was this marketplace opportunity to connect people, that’s all these things are is they connect people, people who want to ride, give a ride, have an apartment, want to get an apartment, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Well, there’s still vast opportunity to connect people and connecting people is the cure.
Kirkpatrick: So, it sounds like you’re coming down on the positive side of how tech will function in society going forward, quite strongly.
Heiferman: I think that it’s complicated but, yes, yes. I think that—so, we stand here, here we are, it’s May, 2019, fast-forward 10 years, May, 2029, again, with this disparity and disfunction and climate change and the impact of AI and all this stuff. And all the kind of brokenness, including the effects of Facebook like things that rip people apart and addict them to screens, the fact that the greatest minds of like generations are focused on getting people to click on ads and making all this financial infrastructure and, dare I say, even tech infrastructure, I mean, I’m fascinating by blockchain and crypto stuff but, frankly, I don’t give a shit. You know, we need to be thinking about how do you bring people together, the practical applications of that, and unleashing all the positive impacts of that because we are still—it’s like we’re in a caveman era on people not being brought together.
Kirkpatrick: Well, we’ve gone right to the central issues here, I guess the question that that would lead me to ask then is what besides tech entrepreneurship would we need to see that start to happen? Because I think that that makes so much sense, it’s, in a way, self-evident, the question is how do you—turn toward the camera, by the way, because this is being live-streamed and we want to record this, but how do we get from here to there? That’s what I don’t really understand in what you’re saying.
Heiferman: I don’t know, I’ve got some ideas but I don’t have like the grand answer.
Kirkpatrick: Well, then, let’s hear it. Give me an idea.
Heiferman: Listen, I’m a fan of the—well, first off, I’ll mention two quick things. First off, and not to just—I mean, I can talk about—sorry, let me just simplify here. The movement, very early movement around platform cooperativism is really fascinating to me. What platform cooperativism is, is that, especially some of those from outside the U.S., you know, co-ops, co-op as a structure for organization is a huge part of business, a huge part of business in a lot of countries. And the idea of you have these marketplace platforms, these Ubers of the world, that have enormous valuations based on the idea that they’re going to extract value from these transactions between riders and drivers. And platform cooperativism says, hey, what if there was a much thinner layer at the platform or infrastructure level with the ownership being distributed to the actors in that marketplace? So, in other words, at the end of the day, it’s like if you pay $50 bucks for an Uber ride, why isn’t more of the money going to the driver and, frankly, why isn’t that actual platform not just owned by mostly Wall Street as opposed to owned by the drivers or the other actors in that network.
So, that may sound like—an esoteric notion. But I think, like, we have to think about what’s the world we want to live in and, again, we’ve come so far, it was only a dozen years ago there was no such thing as a smartphone and 20 some years ago there was practically no web. So, this question of what’s ahead in the next 10, 15 years, I think that a move—when I say bring people together, I do mean that quite literally as, like, physical bring people together. And it’s fascinating with the We Company, WeWork, how the idea of the physical, social network is really interesting.
But just more broadly, the idea of being together in the form of, hey, we’re not just consumers or audience members in part of—in this economy, but how do more people become an active owner and participant in a less extractive, more, to borrow from Douglas Rushkoff, a team human–centric world. I apologize for those of you who are thinking, you know, “What the hell is this guy talking about? Just, the questions should be what are the next VC funded thing and what’s going to happen to Uber stock.”
Kirkpatrick: No, I would be embarrassed if that was the question this audience was asking. But, you know, you mentioned addiction and you also made a very concrete decision at Meetup at a certain point not to pursue an ad-based model but to pursue a pay model and it actually ended up working for you. Although, you didn’t get to be as rich as Mark Zuckerberg. Just quickly talk about that and then I want to hear questions and comments from the audience.
Heiferman: About going…?
Kirkpatrick: You know, I think Wall Street’s control of these companies—
Heiferman: I couldn’t get past that point of I’m not as rich as Mark Zuckerberg.
Kirkpatrick: I don’t blame you.
Heiferman: I was just thinking, would I want—why would I want to be?
Kirkpatrick: I don’t blame you. But Wall Street’s control and influence over these companies has a lot to do with their profit potential and the advertising model that has come to be the primary way that these companies are “monetized” and you chose not to do that which also—and there’s a deep connection between the ad model and the addictive properties of these platforms.
Kirkpatrick: So, I just want you to talk a little bit more about that and then hear the audience.
Heiferman: Yes, yes, I mean, listen, you know, we can all understand and respect this idea of, hey, if you want to provide a service to the world because it’s the network effects are valuable, not just to the company but to the people, then you’ve got to provide this free service and that’s supported by ads, fine. We—you know, as Netflix and Spotify are proving, you can have a very low priced subscription model and provide great quality to the world but more broadly speaking, I think that these things are all interconnected and so, you know, how—yeah, we made a conscious choice at Meetup to—we built a sustainable, successful business out of—without ads and the model is that a small portion of the 100 million people that have signed up pay for the organizer features and things of that sort. And it works.
But, you know, maybe I didn’t think so deeply about it at the time, but, you know, listen, if we’re going to get on in society, if you’re going to reach sustainable development goals, you have to think sustainably and holistically and I feel like, you know, there aren’t sort of shortcuts or free lunches. And so does that mean, oh, the whole world should be paying cash money to Facebook to be using Facebook every month? I think that the reality of people—if your core business is to get people to stare at a screen, then you’re going to get people to stare at a screen. And we need to, as individuals, people building stuff, people making stuff, and just as people in the world, be—you brought up Pierre Omidyar, I have this—when we—Pierre Omidyar is the founder of eBay and he was on Meetup’s board for a long time and when we were going to go from free to fee, here we were, we were this business, we had to figure out what the hell our revenue was, we decided we were going to go this not ad-based but fee-based, you know, like Netflix and Spotify, and I was worried, I said, “Pierre, what if people don’t pay and their expectations are going to be really high.” And he said, “Exactly.”
Kirkpatrick: Good. Okay, well that was a great answer. Okay, could we get the houselights up and I want to see anybody in the audience with questions or comments. Okay, right here. That’s a good person to start with, Tony, go ahead. The mic is right behind you, come hold it. Okay, we’ve only got four minutes so this has got to be really telegraphic.
Tony: So, you mentioned the We Company and you talked about cooperatives, is there a bigger picture for physical, social networks through the We infrastructure to create more of those type of cooperatives? Because when I go to a WeWork, there’s serendipitous interactions that happen between the different organizations that are in there. Is there a bigger picture of it being an infrastructure to enable that kind of cooperative?
Heiferman: Anything’s possible. I am not at liberty to speak about that but you can be assured that there’s really progressive thinking throughout the We Company.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, how about back there?
Selman: Hi, there, Justin Selman. I mean, simplify—
Kirkpatrick: Yes, identify yourself please.
Selman: Justin Selman, I am actually in transition, I’m moving to Dallas so my full-time job is finding a job. Anyway, so, just a simple question, can you talk a little bit about how We and Meetup have interacted and what you’ve seen from a positive standpoint?
Heiferman: Yes, so, listen, I sold the company to WeWork, the We Company, because Meetup was doing well and growing just fine but there was—but we weren’t on pace to like really make a huge dent in society at the level to really, really make a difference and things seemed to be going south in the world at the end of 2016 when we started working on that deal. And so, how’s it been? You know, we—and being a person in this industry, you see every decade there’s a couple few rocket ships and you always—I don’t know how many of you think the same, but you always wonder, like, what would it have been like to be a part of Google or these other, these few rocket ships and to kind of be on the inside seeing how that—seeing what that’s like.
So, the combination of the alignment and the mission and their belief and what’s happened is that they continue to double-down on the Meetup mission. And the view, in getting to sort of see a rocket ship from the inside, you know, when we did the deal, WeWork was maybe a couple thousand employees and now it crossed over 10,000 employees in just—I think that’s public, in just the past—in over just an 18 month period or so. And so, yes, I’m lucky. Their mission continues to kind of refine and be really aligned with this idea of being the only company in the world that is thinking about physical, you know, physical in real life community and space, with community and bringing people together and doing that through the lens of offices and the lens of services like Meetup and all kinds of things.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Over here.
Kurdakul: Hi, my name is Sheri Kurdakul, I’m CEO of VictimsVoice. So gentrification of a lot of areas is a thing, definitely. Has the We Company and Meetup ever thought about doing subsidized office space with Meetup supported intentional collaboration for job training and entrepreneurship support to help that non-1%?
Kirkpatrick: That’s a very specific question, but an interesting one.
Heiferman: Haven’t thought of that. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to send me something. I would just say, again, the—WeWork is proud that compared to a lot of office alternatives, it’s less expensive. And it’s certainly not—WeWork and the We Company is not a service for the 1%. And Meetup, we’re proud that the vast majority of people use it for free. But happy to chat.
Kirkpatrick: Good. Sorry, we have to wrap now because we are really—we have a lot happening in this conference and this is a conference for people who want to think because we put a lot in front of you. And also, Scott has to catch a train. So, thanks, Scott.