Note from Jimmy Hua: More tips from another CEO.
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Little more than a decade ago, Scott Heiferman — now the co-founder and CEO of Meetup, a social network for local groups — never saw himself as someone who cared much about regional communities. Having previously held roles as “interactive marketing frontiersman” with Sony and as founder of an online ad agency, he believed the Internet was going to make geographical boundaries irrelevant.
Then the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took place. Heiferman, already established in New York City at the time, found himself talking to his neighbors more than he had in years. He began to start thinking about the importance of maintaining connections within one’s community, and he began considering ways to provide people with a chance to “self-organize” on a local level.
That’s how Meetup, a site that now has 7.2 million members, came along. More than 75,000 local groups — featuring everyone from fashionistas, businesspeople and parents to specialized clubs like the Barefoot Hikers of Connecticut — coordinate meetings via the site.
Heiferman admits he never really wrote up a business plan or extensively thought about funding during the initial days of forming Meetup, but he does credit some of the following ideologies for contributing to his startup’s success.
1. Focus on Solving One Puzzle at a Time
Heiferman says a good company asks itself one question when it’s getting started: “What puzzle am I solving?” He feels it’s important to stay focused on one task at hand, even when founders aspire to form a company that will offer a variety of services.
“It always shocked me when I saw startups trying to solve two puzzles,” he says, recalling the days when he ran the New York Tech Meetup. “They’d be like ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this awesome geo-mobile thing, and it’s going to serve advertisers really well!’ ”
In such cases, Heiferman says presenters would then go through the ways in which advertisers could benefit from such a product. But often, it’s more important to create a product that people want to use and to make sure that you’ve established that user base first.
“You need some real strike of lightning and luck to get both at the same time,” he says, adding that major companies like Google and Facebook didn’t exactly start out with ready-made plans for a great advertising medium.
2. Build for Surprise
When Heiferman initially thought of forming Meetup, he never had any idea how diverse the site’s user base would become. Suddenly groups of witches, pagans, ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses — and even supporters of political candidates — began popping up. This included a then-obscure Illinois state senator named Barack Obama, who had decided he was going to run for the United States Senate.
Obama’s team wound up creating a website — with Meetup’s logo located on the side — where it was stated that he would be campaigning via meetups.
“Now we never thought that this would be used for politics,” Heiferman says. “It didn’t cross our minds. We didn’t think that way. But most of how people used Meetup were ways we didn’t think they would, and most of how we thought people would use it — they didn’t.”
Because of this, Heiferman says it’s important to leave room for surprises while forming one’s business. Ultimately, it’s about what the people want and what uses they’ll be able to find for it.
“If the product is good, and if it taps emotion and it taps a feeling, and it taps needs — hopefully it spreads around,” he says.
3. Work on What’s Most Fascinating to You
It’s less important to get caught up in the fervor of forming a startup and more important to work on a project that truly appeals to you.
“I have never said to myself, ’I want to start a company; what should I start? I want to be an entrepreneur; what should I create?’ It just so happens that the things I wanted to be a part of didn’t happen to exist,” Heiferman says.
If anything, he suggests going to work for a startup that’s doing something you want to do.
“If there was a Meetup when I was going to start Meetup, I would have gone to work for them, not started it,” Heiferman says, pointing out that there are also sometimes opportunities to found a particular division within a company even if you haven’t started the overall operation yourself.
“I think one of the most fascinating founder stories in months and years ahead are going to be the internal founders of important projects within companies,” he says.
4. Be a Maker and Builder of the Product
Heiferman spent the early days of Meetup sketching plans and implementing informal user tests. He was less focused on business development, investors, partnerships or public relations. He believes knowing his site thoroughly, from conception to launch, helped the final outcome become much stronger.
“I’ll put it this way — if you’re starting a fashion label, you’re coming up with breakthrough fashion,” he says, emphasizing that one must truly know the project he or she is starting. Otherwise, he thinks it’s a huge mistake.
“I see so many Internet entrepreneur wannabes who are doing anything but making. You’ve got to be a maker and builder of the product.”
5. Form a Killer Team
The team is key to supporting a product that will succeed. Heiferman pulled together a crew after considering a few points: what he wanted to accomplish, why he felt it was needed and what it needed to come to life. He assembled a team after talking to new people, while also relying on some longtime colleagues. In the end, he chose those he felt would help him with his goals. One longtime colleague was fellow co-founder and CFO Brendan McGovern, someone Heiferman had worked with since his days interning at Sony.
“You need a team that’s going to care about this thing as much as you do,” Heiferman says. “There’s a fine balance between trusting those you have a relationship with and the convenience of people you have a relationship with, with being discerning about talent.”
And a team does not refer to those you might outsource to get certain projects done.
“I mean a team that you’re going to be the band of brothers with, together,” Heiferman says. “And sisters.”
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