NEW YORK–Scott Heiferman is perhaps the most unassuming CEO and co-founder you’ll ever meet in this city. For someone who runs one of the city’s earliest and most successful startups, meetup.com, which was formed 13 years ago, he still considers his company a startup. His company, he says, is older than most startups. It’s older than Google Maps, older than Facebook,– heck, older than Friendster and yet, he pauses to think if he’s still a startup.
Arriving at the StartupGrind meetup last September 16 at Pivotal Labs, the 43-year-old founder stands in a corner, waiting as if he’s part of the audience. People hardly notice him come in his yellow T-shirt, washed-out jeans and gray New Balance shoes. He’s fidgety, though, like Robin Williams-fidgety. As he’s announced and he speaks up, the manic energy is contained a bit by his pregnant pauses, as he carefully weighs every word as an empathetic speaker would.
He constantly doubles- even triple-checks himself, to avoid being arrogant or judgmental, even asking asking the audience to rephrase a question thrown by Peter Crysdale, just to make sure he gives the right answer–and in some cases, admits to not knowing the answer. People applaud his honesty and thoughtfulness.
We’re all used to seeing how interview subjects give one-on-one talks facing an interviewer, but Heiferman looks like he can’t sit for very long. This is because he’s always looking at the audience as if he wants to be part of it, to be the observer, not the observed.
And almost always, in every speaking engagement we’ve heard him, he looks like he knows what the questions are before they’re asked and saves the host the time by elaborating on thoughts that sometimes meander to details that may turn off some but not this particular audience.
“My dentist asked me why my teeth was strained. And I said I had 50 coffees,” he said, in explaining how the process of hiring a CTO meant enduring those many coffees to find the right candidate for a job. This writer is tempted to ask if drank way too much coffee for this interview.
Heiferman doesn’t know if he’s being funny, but he got the crowd chuckling, even he’s a serious guy true to his mission of making people meet offline by signing up online at meetup.com. “Raise your hand if you’ve had a friend,” he tells the crowd, who willingly obliges him.
Egging on the audience to talk to the person beside them, he says, “The person sitting beside you is smarter than you are (long pause) about something.” Minutes later, the room buzzes in a two-minute chat fest; he does this in any meetup where he’s the guest. He wishes there was a way for one person to meet his or her match in an event or meetup by just “pushing a button,” literally and figuratively, but not in a match.com way, if you catch our drift.
Heiferman believes the way to make money is to serve people. He recalls the time when he didn’t want advertising to “bastardize” his site and turn off people, which led to the idea of charging organizations formed on the site $10 a month.
When he implemented this fee in the early days, he said he saw how 50,000 members suddenly dwindled to 5,000, but he thought it was good, because it also weeded out those who were not serious in their organizations or community. In hindsight, it turned out to be a good decision. “Be adaptable. Be flexible,” he said. “Because you never know.”
Meetup now has 25 million people with the app proving to be the engine of his phenomenal growth. ‘Millions join a week compared to a year ago which was less than half of that,” he said.
Many say it’s also important to have the right team to succeed as a startup. That has been the default answer, but Heiferman cares to elaborate with gusto. You cannot have a team of contractors. You need partners who will work hard to make things easy. It’s really hard to make something easy–and making something easy is everything.”
It’s crucial the team shares your vision and culture, and for him, it’s still is about how his company should benefit the most number of people. Envision what would the world would be like with your startup years from now. “Paint it, smell it.” Listening to Heiferman speak is a visceral experience.