As a company, Meetup has long embraced its position as a small, mission-driven operation. While other social software companies from the Web 2.0 era, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, focused on keeping their users on their sites for as long as possible, Meetup’s purpose was always to get people off the internet. By connecting people to one another, Meetup would entice them to get offline and go walk their pugs together, practice speaking French, or organize for Howard Dean.
Jessi Hempel is Backchannel’s editorial director.
In the age of billion-person platforms that encourage users to make thousands of connections, it seemed quaint, even old-fashioned, and certainly inefficient. It was a lot harder to scale the act of organizing people—personally, around common interests—than it was to grow a company that focused on digital interactions, none of which required that people leave their couches. As those companies added users and sped toward initial public offerings, Meetup stayed focused and tiny. CEO and cofounder Scott Heiferman was never in a hurry. The last time he raised funds—in 2008—he selected patient investors like Pierre Omidyar and Esther Dyson, who believed businesses should also contribute meaningfully to society. “Our number one priority was independence and to live within our means,” says Heiferman. “Our number two priority was growth.”
So I was surprised to learn that Meetup has just sold itself to the poster child of hyper-growth: WeWork. After raising $4.4 billion from Softbank’s humongous Vision Fund, WeWork is now valued at close to $20 billion, putting it in league with Uber and Airbnb as one of the most highly valued private US tech startups. (There are new reports surfacing that WeWork executives traveled to Israel over the holidays to raise more money.)
WeWork’s cofounder and CEO Adam Neumann is rushing to build out a company that endeavors to control the future of physical space. Its executives talk in sweeping terms about an addressable market that encompasses every last square foot of office space in the world. (“Tokyo is a billion. New York City is 400 million. Kansas City is 50 million.”)
Ask Neumann what he’s building however, and he’ll describe a community-manufacturing machine—a startup that, according to its mission, is a place where people “work to make a life, not just a living.” “Community” is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around to describe everything from the people who use LinkedIn to the Mississippi church group that passed around clothing after a recent tornado. But in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, there’s a growing awareness that digital community—the links we make online through social services—don’t always augment the act of getting people together face-to-face to meet one another.
Real-life community, it turns out, is irreplaceable. It’s also a much harder thing to program—and few people know more about how to do that than the group of executives who run Meetup. “It’s the oldest thing in the world,” says Heiferman, describing a Jersey City single moms Meetup he’d attended recently. “It’s what it means for people to show up for each other.”
Inadvertently, Meetup’s contrarian approach to melding the physical and the digital may house the solution to this problem of emotional and intellectual disconnect that everyone is racing to solve. So while it makes sense that WeWork, in its goal to own work culture, would want Meetup, its sale signals something significant. It’s possible that the tools for creating genuine intimate connections through tech were here all along, and that Meetup is about to be part of a crucial arms race, as companies realize the value of—and endeavor to build—systems that help us create trusting relationships with one another.
Consider the ways that WeWork stands to benefit from Meetup. Though WeWork has been adding locations at a rapid clip—and currently boasts 170 offices in 58 cities across the globe—the office-space sector is crowded with competition, from the practical-but-boring old-guard companies, like Regus, to a new crop of startups, like Knotel and Grind, trying to elbow into the market. So WeWork has aimed to distinguish itself by offering an energetic work environment that appeals to millennials, in which people can bond casually over beers or at brown-bag lunch events. WeWork community managers attempt to get to know members, and even mark momentous occasions, in elaborately designed areas with slogans like, “Do What You Love.” WeWork recently acquired the New York-based coding program The Flatiron School, and led a round of funding in a coworking space and social club for women called The Wing. Both are businesses that prioritize culture.
But it’s not lost on Neumann that, despite these efforts, most of WeWork’s members clear out after hours. Those post-clock-out hours are important: We office workers usually fill them with the things that matter most to us. For me, one of those things actually is a Meetup—a grassroots group called GenderAvenger that focuses on getting awesome women more exposure at conferences and in the media. Participating in it builds my sense of purpose and connection. Why should that happen at, say, a Starbucks, when Neumann could harness that goodwill within the confines of a WeWork? Meetups would fill the space on nights and weekends and offer WeWork an opportunity to sell a new group of potential customers—Meetup’s 300,000 organizers—on its services by giving them memberships that include access to the space as well as a set of services that might help them lead their groups.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Meetup organizers who are monthly payers who are already doing a great job. We can give the organizers a lot of tools,” Neumann says. He believes that a lot of organizers are entrepreneurs looking to build out small businesses around their passions. WeWork’s current benefits, such as healthcare and office services, could help that group.
But Heiferman is no longer intrigued by the notion of remaining small. It’s clear to him that there’s an urgency to the problem that Meetup has long tried to solve. It’s also clear to everyone else, which means there’s now competition. Earlier this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would sink more resources into its efforts to build communities. It convened hundreds of group administrators in Chicago for a Community Summit. Zuckerberg attended and used the event to unveil a new mission for the company: “bring the world closer together.”
Zuckerberg said that groups are a critical part of someone’s Facebook experience, and that the company would focus on growing the number of users who took part in “meaningful groups”—which he defined as groups that command users’ attention while on the site—from 100 million to a billion. While Zuckerberg didn’t specify how many of these connections would take place offline, the implication was clear: He was suggesting Facebook was about to out-Meetup Meetup.
This means that the kind of slow-growth strategy in which Meetup adds a half million users every month is no longer a good option for the Little Internet Company that Could. Even before Facebook’s announcement, Heiferman had been searching for new ways to add urgency to the company. This is admittedly a difficult thing to do at a middle-aged, midsize internet company, especially one where nothing is all that wrong. How does one motivate employees to disrupt and reimagine the company’s core products so that it can grow faster and therefore help more people?
Last year, Meetup launched a redesign aimed at helping it appeal to millennials and embrace new machine learning techniques to better connect its members for more casual meetups. Heiferman knew he couldn’t grow the company on enthusiasm alone. This past summer, he began speaking to investors to raise money. In light of the urgent need for Meetups, he explained, he endeavored to grow Meetup to a billion members. Pronto. Investment opportunities gave way to multiple acquisition offers from what Heiferman calls “the usual suspects”—and an invitation to meet from an unusual suspect: Neumann.
Over a month of meetings that included a late-night ramble through Manhattan, they hit upon a strategy that would allow Meetup to remain independent, just as Instagram had at Facebook, or Waze had at Google, while benefitting from WeWork’s cash, resources, space, and ambition. “The sole question on the table for Meetup is, ‘How could we have more impact on the world?’” Heiferman says. “So this is a big bet on how we can make Meetup more of a global phenomenon.”
For now, Meetup will remain in its Soho offices, just a couple dozen blocks south of WeWork’s corporate headquarters. But starting immediately, the company will begin to hire. Product chief Fiona Spruill says Meetup will double its engineers. And that’s just to start. Meanwhile, Heiferman says he’s not going anywhere. The biggest challenge of his career is now set before him: to transform Meetup’s 35 million-member platform into a new type of billion-member social service—one that cements the intimate connections between people in a way that makes all of us feel more connected. The future of our society will ride on whether Heiferman or others like him can figure this out.
All Work and All Play With Career Coach Rashida Jones
Rashida Jones works. A lot! She took a break from acting, producing and writing to talk to WIRED about how to stay inspired at the office, good career advice and her fantasy jobs.
Backchannel is a digital magazine that delivers readers the most revealing technology stories in a single weekly dispatch: no fluff. Learn more here.
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