It's lunchtime at third age headquarters in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch. Guy Kawasaki, world-renowned evangelist for the Apple Macintosh, is on the couch. Standing or sitting around him are the company's consultants, contributors, and staff members. They run the gamut from programmers fresh out of college to a designer who has just become eligible for Social Security. The range of experience is equally broad: The group includes a former ballerina, a former White House official, and a four-time Emmy Award winner.
The couch is an icon at Third Age. It's where the company holds staff meetings every Friday afternoon. It's where the company's directors and advisers - figures such as Mort Meyerson, Melinda French Gates, and Kawasaki - share knowledge and exchange views.
"Trust begins here," says Founder and CEO Mary Furlong, a vibrant 49-year-old on leave from the University of San Francisco, where she is a professor of education and technology. "It's not like we're in an industry where there's an accepted business model. We're in an industry where everyone has to listen to and learn from each other every day. You can't build community in cyberspace if you don't build community in your workplace."
The Web is haunted by the ghost towns of "virtual communities" that promised rich interactions and profitable transactions. Furlong believes that she and her colleagues are inventing a business model that will allow Third Age to succeed where so many community-oriented startups have failed. Plenty of high-powered investors agree. Third Age's financial backers include Advance Publications Internet, a part of the Newhouse publishing conglomerate; Japan's Softbank Holdings; and MediaOne Interactive Services, the new-media arm of MediaOne (formerly a part of US West).
Third Age is a translation of the French term Troisième Age - the stage of life after children have been raised but before the onset of senior citizenship. Think Mick Jagger, Hillary Clinton, Bill Cosby. "We don't stop playing because we grow old," Furlong says. "We grow old because we stop playing. Part of our challenge is to identify the qualities that define this generation: passion, adventure, romance, engagement. We're not just building a company. We're creating a generation. I'm not Martha Stewart. This is more like MTV."
MTV is a good analogy. Back in 1981, when the cable channel was launched, it won the loyalty of a demographic group that conventional TV was ignoring. First it gave its underserved audience a place to congregate. Then, over time, it invited that audience to become part of its programming. As a result, it has become a cultural phenomenon - and a business juggernaut.
Replace twentysomethings with fiftysomethings, one-way cable TV with two-way Web communication, escapist entertainment with worldly advice - and you've got Third Age. "We're redefining the concept of community-with-commerce," Furlong says.
The obvious question: If the business opportunities on the Web are so robust, why have so few online communities turned into real businesses? "The biggest mistake that companies make is trying to build community top-down rather than bottom-up," she replies. "This is about creating piazzas, not shopping malls. A piazza is a place to hang out and a venue for events. What's there? People. But what's around it, on the periphery? Commerce. There's a very natural connection between those two things. The average 55-year-old guy doesn't have a clue about what to get his wife for Valentine's Day. He fails year after year. If this guy could go to a romance-oriented venue that also handles Hallmark cards, 1-800-Flowers, and Victoria's Secret, he'd be in heaven. He'd have the best Valentine's Day ever."
Third Age's virtual piazza has many of the attributes of a Web community: discussion forums, advice columns, chat rooms, online events. But two things distinguish this community from others: the intensity of its connections, and the urgency of what's discussed.
"Real communities address real needs," Furlong says. "The biggest social ill in this country is alienation. There are more 50-year-olds living alone today than at any other time in our history. How are these people going to meet each other? How are they going to deal with life issues: 'I just found out that my father has cancer'? That's why romance, intimacy, and loneliness are such important issues for our members. This community gives them real friends."
To serve this community, Third Age staffers must form a communal bond of their own. "We're building community inside the company every day," Furlong says. "We want to make this a place where people produce, create, and grow."
There's a tough-minded logic behind Furlong's soft-hearted observations. Every fast-growing Web company struggles to recruit great people. Third Age faces a special challenge: How to persuade hotshot twentysomethings to work at a company tailored to the needs of the 50-plus crowd. The team at Third Age includes rising stars from CNet, Microsoft, Genentech, and the New York Times.
"We recruit plenty of Gen-Xers," says Furlong. "But we like to team them with people for whom, as a friend of mine from Montana says, 'this is not their first rodeo.' We took Harry Marks, who is in his sixties and who was our original creative consultant, and teamed him with a graphic designer in her twenties. We took [former U.S. Senator] Bill Bradley and teamed him with a 26-year-old associate editor."
Third Age's commitment to bottom-up community also applies to its extended business community - the directors, investors, and advisers who act as the company's brain trust. "Mort Meyerson once said to me, 'Make your board meetings fun, because if they're not, nobody's going to want to come,' " she says. So last October, when the company's second round of financing closed, Furlong joined the company's board of directors and its advisers for a sailing trip on Puget Sound. In December, a Third Ager in New York City took board members, investors, and potential partners on a private tour of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by a private reception at a club. Sure, it was fun. But it was also serious business: "We probably did more business in two hours at that club than we would have done in five standard business trips."
The effortless mixing of business and pleasure is the essence of Mary Furlong's personality. Her business instincts come from an entrepreneurial father. Her social instincts come from her mother, a woman "who understands Southern hospitality at its best." But her maternal grandmother provided the real inspiration for Third Age.
"She lived near a park in Richmond, Virginia," says Furlong. "Her front porch was the favorite place in the neighborhood for people to stop by. She had this great 'gathering sense' about her. I saw how important it was for people to invest in each other - to follow the ups and downs of their lives, to celebrate, to cry, to laugh."
Furlong's initial attempt to re-create that community took shape when she was a professor at Catholic University in Washington, DC. A friend approached her about writing a book to be called Computers for Kids Over Sixty (Addison-Wesley, 1984). Furlong agreed to do it. To begin her research, she went to a Toys "R" Us and bought six Commodore computers. Then she rented TV sets to serve as monitors, made some cookies, and visited a local senior center.
"It was a life-transforming experience for me," she says. "They were the most impressive students I had ever seen."
So Furlong launched SeniorNet, a nonprofit computer-training organization for older adults. The organization grew to encompass 125 centers, and it became a much-celebrated force in the field of computer-driven social change. It also provided Furlong with her first serious exposure to the power of online communities. "We did lots of grief support," she says. "And we had 15 marriages."
The idea for Third Age began germinating in 1995, when Furlong attended Microsoft's launch of Windows 95. "I saw so much energy around this online thing," she says. Investment bankers saw something else: the founder of a successful nonprofit sharing the spotlight with Bill Gates, an exemplar of computer-age capitalism.
Furlong's phone started ringing. She formed Third Age in July 1996, launched the site in June 1997, and closed a second round of financing in October 1997. Today she continues to forge strategic partnerships and sponsorship deals with a remarkable collection of organizations and companies - from Toys "R" Us to E*Trade, from Renaissance Cruises to Yahoo!
But Furlong understands that Third Age is still in the homesteading phase. "Every seven seconds," she says, "someone in America turns 50. And every four seconds, someone posts a new Web site. If we can connect those trends, then Third Agers will have the same kind of community that my grandmother had in Virginia."
Eric Ransdell email@example.com , a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in San Francisco.