A conversation with Scott Heiferman, Founder & CEO, of Meetup

Meetup Founder and CEO Scott Heiferman on Making Bold Moves and Re-envisioning Your Company

Spero Ventures
Dec 5, 2017 · 6 min read
Scott Heiferman, Founder & CEO of Meetup

When Scott Heiferman, Founder & CEO of Meetup, began talking to WeWork cofounder and CEO Adam Neumann, the opportunity began to crystalize. Scott says, “The sole question on the table for Meetup is, ‘How could we have more impact on the world?’” That question was answered last month as Meetup was acquired by WeWork. Ultimately, Scott says “this is a big bet on how we can make Meetup more of a global phenomenon.”

To better understand that bold vision, it’s helpful to dive into the origins of the company. Meetup was born in response to the September 11 attacks. Scott was living just two blocks away from the Twin Towers. As he watched the cityscape crumble from his roof, he met his neighbors for the first time. Scott was moved and inspired by the feeling of community created in this time of terrible loss between people who were until that moment strangers. He brought his fellow cofounders together a few days later to start building the first version of Meetup.

From those early days rallying friends and neighbors after 9/11 to the worldwide person-to-person connection platform Meetup is today, the thread of community remains as strong as ever. In the 15 years since Meetup launched, the world of technology and community has changed dramatically. The iPhone, Facebook, and a great number of other social and messenger platforms have transformed the way we experience the world. Still, Meetup remains the platform to bring new people together face to face to create thriving communities.

Scott sat down with Omidyar Network venture partner Rob Veres for a wide-ranging discussion captured for the Founder’s Corner podcast. During their conversation, Scott recounts the origins of Meetup and talks about the growth opportunities that drive the organization’s internal directives as well as some of their stumbles on the way to success. Listen to the episode to hear Scott’s advice for evolving a late-stage startup while staying true to the mission of connecting people face-to-face.

Making room for marketing

Scott took some time to reflect on missteps made during Meetup’s early days. At the top of the list was an intentional disregard for marketing. Scott explains that although the company put a lot of thought into what’s going to attract people, it didn’t do a lot of external marketing. As he puts it, “Honestly, I came from an era of the Googles, the eBays, and the Craigslists of the world, where frankly, organic growth is everything, and almost anything else is not respected.”

These days, the company’s approach to marketing is considerably different, and it’s a sign of the times. Scott says, “Now we’re in an era where you see that the big startups like the Lyfts, Ubers, and BlaBlaCars of the world methodically think about how to take off faster in a city. So I actually do regret not paying more attention to marketing earlier.”

After a recent brand relaunch and a renewed energy around the culture of thoughtful, analytics-driven marketing, Meetup is all in. As Scott puts it, “We find ourselves here in 2017 at Meetup being crazy excited for the first time ever about actually going out and promoting Meetup more.”

Championing diversity on the platform and in the office

Over the past few years, Meetup has made a point of bringing more diverse perspectives and experiences to the table when it comes to leading and running the organization. After all, Meetup is built for all kinds of people, across all geographies, interests, and backgrounds. So a few years ago, the company began an initiative to slowly move away from the homogenous internal culture. When asked about the organization’s decision to focus hiring attention on inclusion, Scott filled us in: “There’s certainly the social justice and social impact side of things, which is very important to us. But also, from a purely rational economic, company-building perspective — if you have a team where everyone looks the same, when someone comes along who is really talented and looks at your team and doesn’t see anyone who looks like them, they’re out of there.”

As Scott explains, like most diversity initiatives, it boils down to finding the best people from any part of the world and any culture. Scott says, “At the heart of it is that the most talented people in the world come in all shapes and colors and sizes and orientations, and that’s just a fact. And so when we found ourselves with a leadership team that was all white guys, I basically knew that we’re going to miss out on the most incredibly talented people in the world, because you’re just going to continue to attract the same kind of people. You have to really get out there and insist to people that you’re welcoming them and that you want them. It’s not good enough to just say, ‘Well, no one of color applied,’ because what’s going on behind the scenes is they’re looking at you, and they’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to be on a team that is sending signals like that.’”

Scott admits that Meetup wasn’t always sharp when it comes to matters of diversity or inclusion, but today the company is learning from its past mistakes and righting them and trying to do better every single day. Scott states proudly, “Today, there’s a majority of women on the executive team and the whole management team. What was a formerly a negative has become a positive loop.”

Moving forward in the face of backlash

As a long-standing pillar of the social networking startup community, Meetup has faced many a fork in the road. Those product and business strategy decision points can often be burdened by the need to keep current users happy while building new ground to welcome more people to the platform. Not moving because you fear user backlash is not an option, but overcoming that block can be easier said than done. Scott recalled one such moment, “We’ve certainly made bold moves that have upset our base. We went from free to fee and obliterated 90 percent of our activity, which was a scary moment. However, we stuck with it. And one of the main backers and supporters of that big decision was Pierre Omidyar [founder of eBay and early Meetup investor]” Scott continues, “I remember the moment where we were about to pull the trigger, and I said, ‘Pierre, you know, I’m worried that our members, our community, and our users are going to have really high expectations when they’re paying.’ And he said, ‘Exactly.’”

Those kinds of critical moments benefit from bold minds in the room, supporting those forward thrusts of momentum. But these choices also, as Scott notes, create “systemic structures and ecosystems that are about reinforcing what the mission in the organization is and aligning things properly.” In the end, reaching beyond its initial concept has served Meetup well. Scott concluded, “Here we are a dozen years later, and we are much, much, much bigger than we were when we were free, serving millions and millions more people every month.”

To hear all of our conversation with Scott, check out his episode of Founder’s Corner on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Overcast, and learn more about Meetup here. Join the conversation with Rob Veres and Scott Heiferman on Twitter and at @OmidyarNetwork (#ONFoundersCorner).

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