Every time members of Twin Cities Museum Meetup get together—to visit museums, galleries and historical sites— Scott Heiferman feels he has helped to make the world a better place.
And every month, Mr. Heiferman’s business, Meetup Inc., collects a flat fee of $20 from the group’s organizers.
The 42-year-old and a co-founder started Meetup in New York 13 years ago, in the wake of a dot.com bust and two years before the launch of the social network Facebook Inc.
Their idea was to build a website that would help “get people together” after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The business charges a monthly “organizer fee” of $10 to $20 per group, depending on its size. In the case of the gatherings of the Twin Cities Museum Meetup in Minneapolis, Minn., for example, anywhere from 10 to more than 60 of its 2,488 total members tend to show up, and they can meet more than once a month.
With as many as 20,000 events on any given day, Meetup had more than $20 million in revenue last year, Mr. Heiferman said, adding that the business is profitable and cash-flow positive. He expects the number of Meetup users to surpass 25 million world-wide later this year.
Meetups range from parenting, health and fitness, arts and technology, and singles groups, to less defined events like “Silly People in their 20s Who Like Doing Stuff.”
One Meetup group for “Extremely Shy” people in Vancouver, Canada, has more than 9,000 members and had 2,050 total social events since 2011, for instance. Cuban entrepreneurs are now using the platform to boost the island’s startup scene. The White House last month hosted a “Tech Meetup” for computer programmers and coders.
Mr. Heiferman, a 1994 University of Iowa graduate, says his goal is to get people to leave their computer screens, to engage with friends, neighbors or complete strangers over shared interests—at a time when growing numbers of people are spending more time socializing on smartphone apps, rather than in person.
A challenge: mobile technology is making it easier for Meetup’s more nimble rivals to come up with new ways to facilitate offline encounters—from dating apps like Hinge, Tinder and OkCupid, to event planning tools like Punchbowl or Lifecrowd, to name a few.
Mr. Heiferman, who is Meetup’s CEO, recently spoke with The Wall Street Journal about how he hopes to use the Internet to “get people off the Internet” so they meet in person, and why most social media in fact discourages face-to-face interaction. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: Why not sell advertising to generate more revenue from the site?
Mr. Heiferman: We tried different business models, but eventually [in 2005] decided let’s just have a product that’s good enough that people will pay for it. Even so, we lost 90% of our activity in one day [after adding fees for event organizers.] It was a scary moment. We made [the fee] $12 a month to list a Meetup. That’s roughly what it is today.
We want to devote 100% of our energy to making the platform better and better, and not be distracted by having to serve advertisers. It’s funny that people just presume that online companies should be in the media business. We’re not a media business. We’re not in the advertising business. We help people find other people. And we’re building a big business around that concept. There’s a loneliness epidemic out there.
WSJ: That certainly seems true of big cities. But what about smaller towns, where people are more likely to know each other?
Mr. Heiferman: There’s little distinction between big cities and smaller towns, in terms of Meetup users—whether you’re in New York City and you don’t talk to any of your neighbors, or a smaller town and everyone’s locked in their homes watching Netflix
WSJ: What’s your most important gauge of growth?
Mr. Heiferman: We can measure how many people are actually going to a Meetup. The thing we cannot measure yet, but we hope to crack, is how many people are finding a job—or finding an investor, or finding a friend, or running a marathon—because a Meetup pushed them to do it.
The number of people joining Meetups is spiking right now, because we made the process easier, taking it from three steps to one step. Making something easy is hard. But making it easier makes more people join. That’s the story that plays over and over.
WSJ: How is the rise of smartphones and mobile technology changing the way you do that?
Mr. Heiferman: The Internet is a network of people, not computers, and mobile has made everything easier and more personal. It’s accelerating growth.
We’re proud that there are nearly 25 million members. But why isn’t that 200 million? People are using Meetup on their phone and we have to make it good.
Mobile is all about spontaneity. If a Meetup pops up on your smartphone, you may spontaneously decide to attend. When people connect, good things come out of that.
Write to Angus Loten at email@example.com