When it comes to startups, timing is everything. You don’t want to be too early to market, or too late to the game. Meetup co-founder Matt Meeker knows the consequence of bad timing better than anyone – he started his company right after the tech bubble burst in early 2000. “We started in early 2002, one of the least popular times ever to do an internet startup,” he says. “We didn’t have the resources and opportunities many startups today have. Things like great co-working spaces, accelerators like YCombinator or TechStars, and an ecosystem of people willing to share their experiences with you.” He says it wasn’t just a matter of resources, it was also a lack of services. “We also didn’t have many of the building blocks like Amazon’s web services, etc. Everything took longer, cost more, and that was only 9 years ago.”
Like many fellow entrepreneurs, Meeker says he always had the traits of an entrepreneur but didn’t immediately classify himself as one. “I don’t think I consciously ever thought, ‘I’m going to be an entrepreneur,’ but I always wanted to create new things for the world and run my own businesses,” he says. The original idea for Meetup.com came from unlikely sources – a book and post-9/11 New York City. Co-founder Scott Heiferman read a book called Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam which talks about the decline of American community in the last half of the 20th century. Heiferman and Meeker were also spending a lot of time together in the weeks after 9/11 in New York City, and noticed there was a change in how people were interacting with each other. “Strangers would look you in the eye and say hello, and it was genuine,” he says. “People really cared how others were doing, and that was a powerful feeling. The city felt closer. When we faced that feeling on a daily basis, combined with the science from Putnam’s book, we knew we had to get people away from their screens and meeting in the real world.”
But a desire to bring people together and actually getting people on board was two different things. “One of our biggest hurdles initially was making it acceptable for people to meet in real-life, people who they had met online,” he says. “Big media was training people to be afraid of their neighbours and we were a young startup without a voice, so that was a tough hurdle to overcome.” Meeker says sentiment changed when candidates for US President (including Howard Dean) started encouraging people to use Meetup.
Meetup is now the world’s largest network of local groups. The site has over 7 million members, gets over six million monthly visitors, and hosts over 250,000 monthly Meetups. Meeker left Meetup in 2008 but remains an advisor. He says his advisory role means he’s a resource for anyone internally who wants a fresh perspective on something they’re working on. “Usually it has to do with an interpretation of what the metrics are telling us, or trying to recall a test we ran in the past and what the results were,” he says. “I’m a metrics geek and an institutional memory. Oh, and I’m a cheerleader for the company!”
While Meeker is no longer working with Meetup full-time, he says he’s most proud of the people who are a part of the company. “Our board included amazing people like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Esther Dyson, and Andreas Stavropolous of DFJ. We’ve also been fortunate to have several advisors that taught us so much and made Meetup a better company,” he says. “And then the people who work for the company are incredible. I think I’m most proud to be a co-founder with Scott Heiferman, Peter Kamali, Brendan McGovern, and Greg Whalin.”
Meeker is now an entrepreneur-in-residence at Polaris Ventures, and an involved member of the NYC entrepreneurship community. He says his opinion of the NYC startup scene can be summed up in a quote from Esther Dyson: “it’s easier than ever to start something, but as difficult as ever to build a lasting business,” Meeker says. “That stuck with me and I think that’s how I’d describe the NYC startup scene. The costs of starting something new are so low that it’s become viable and attractive for people to build a product, put it out in the world, and see what sticks. It’s a great way to test if your idea is commercially viable.” He says it’s brought a lot of life and new people into the ecosystem, and with that, many more resources. “I’m really interested to see how all of this early stage activity gets translated into more real businesses emerging,” he says. “There are a lot of resources aimed at helping people start something, but not many at helping them build a real business for the long-term. I’m trying to do more of that.”
As EIR at Polaris Ventures Meeker gets to work with 16 early-stage startups on a daily basis through their incubator program Dogpatch Labs. “It’s a thrill to help them be successful and give back some of the wisdom that many others passed on to me,” he says. In terms of up-and-coming NYC-based startups, Meeker says he’s biased to the Dogpatch Labs companies, including Artsicle and TutorSpree. “Outside of those, a favourite of mine in NYC is Skillshare, which is a community marketplace where you can learn anything from anyone in the real world, not online. Of course I love any effort to move people from online to offline, and I’m also a huge fan of marketplace models. Skillshare has taken an old ‘business’ with education, and made it possible for anyone to teach their expertise outside of the confines of a rigid school or university structure. And finally, Mike and Malcolm are great founders who I like a lot.”
When it comes to important qualities for founders, Meeker says the key is looking for people who are steady and don’t get too high or too low. “Also, people who have big visions they see very clearly, have the ability to execute towards that vision, but are flexible enough to adjust their roadmap and ideas to be successful. They’re great listeners and are empathetic to the people they’re serving.” And Meeker says it’s all about the people. “Your success will depend a great deal on who you partner with as co-founders, who you hire, who you surround yourself with as advisors & mentors, and who you bring in as investors. When it comes to people, be uncompromising. Resist the temptation to work with people who are “pretty good” or “might be a good fit”. It will make all the difference.”
For the time being, helping startups in his role at Polaris will take up most of his time. “Polaris has been great in giving me the chance to learn the venture business and gain exposure to many different opportunities. I may continue on in the venture world, build a new company, or join a team that I really like.” Who knows, maybe he’ll discover his next project at a Meetup – many others have in the past 10 years.
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