In the wake of September 11, Scott Heiferman felt the need to find new ways to build community. He knew that Americans no longer belonged to bowling leagues and Elks Clubs in the numbers that they once had, but he didnt feel that electronic chat rooms and Internet personal ads filled the void. “People still live in the real world, the real non-cyber world, where they want to be face to face,” he says. “The idea was, How do you use the Internet to get people off the Internet?”
So in early 2002, he assembled a five-person team to build a database and develop software that would help people organize themselves. People sign up at the Meetup.com site, indicating where they live and what topics theyre interested in, and when a certain number of like-minded people in the same area have registered, the site announces a meeting. About 190,000 supporters of Howard Deans presidential campaign used Meetup.com to organize in the months before the Iowa caucuses, giving his campaign early momentum. About 170,000 people are now registered for meetings of Democracy for America, an organization that grew out of Deans campaign. Today, Meetup.com has more than 1.4 million registered users, and revenues at the privately funded company are seven times what they were a year ago.
Heiferman can get passionate about his theme of bringing people together, invoking de Tocqueville on the importance to Americans of forming associations and even citing an evolutionary imperative. “Were a species who was optimized for face-to-face interaction,” he says. Meetups innovations, he adds, are “as much in social engineering as software engineering.”
Heiferman has been an entrepreneur since about age nine, when he founded Scotts Slave Service to market menial tasks to his siblings. And his sense of community engagement began to blossom the next year, when he wrote what he calls a “pointless letter to every U.S. governor, major-city mayor, and Fortune 100 CEO.”