For the most part, the Internet is a democratic place. It has connected billions of people, made publishers of us all, and has played a (debated) role in revolutions across the globe. The Internet still costs money to access conveniently, and the digital divide remains a reality, but few can contest that on balance, the Internet’s forces have been on the side of inclusion, rather than exclusion.
Bucking bravely against this egalitarian trend is IvyConnect, a social network predicated on the idea that you might just not be good enough to join. According to its website, IvyConnect aims to establish a “dynamic private members community across 50 global cities, with 10,000 hand-selected members in each location.” Currently live in New York, with roughly 2,000 members and what one employee calls “a healthy waitlist,” IvyConnect brings together a young urban professional elite for parties, excursions, and TED-style talks.
IvyConnect co-founder Beri Meric says he always liked connecting people. While working at Morgan Stanley years ago, he introduced a service called “analyst connect,” which connected company analysts who didn’t know each other via email and suggested a time and place to meet for lunch. While at Harvard Business School, Meric met his co-founder Phillipp Triebel. The two began spitballing ideas, and the result was something called Date Harvard Square. That service initially connected Harvard men with single women in the area; the site later expanded to allow Harvard women, gay men, and lesbians to join, too.
Date Harvard Square soon evolved into IvyDate, an elite online dating network live in multiple cities across the world. As a dating site alone, IvyDate was compelling enough for investors to cough up about $1.5 million in a series A round last summer. But Triebel and Meric soon found themselves facing the same dilemma as many other dating sites: by successfully serving its users, it loses them. “That’s bad business for dating sites, but for IvyDate it’s much worse because we have such excellent people,” says Meric, who has a hand in selecting those people. The duo decided to build out the IvyDate network into a full-blown digital country club of sorts. “IvyConnect is supposed to be for life,” emphasizes Meric. “It’s a way to constantly meet new people without having to go to grad school again.”
Last November, IvyDate blossomed into IvyConnect in New York, where the company is headquartered; events like a midwinter “Après Ski” and a “Great Gatsby Valentine’s” have proven to be enough of a hit among members, who pay $500 annually to belong, that Meric and Triebel have plans to add IvyConnect status to new markets soon, springboarding off the IvyDate base in each city. “Now that things are stable here in New York,” says Meric, “there’s lot of demand in places like DC, Boston, LA, London, and Hong Kong.”
Facebook famously began its life in a Harvard dorm, and made a point of expanding to other elite schools before opening up to the hoi polloi; a lingering feeling of exclusivity was the very thing that helped it conquer the globe. Democracy is usually good for business: most technology tends to make its real money on volume, and there’s no word that gets a VC salivating like “scale.” IvyConnect, though, is part of a spate of new sites and services (FoundersCard is another) that take self-restraint as a lodestar. Smaller is better, goes the logic–as with many an elite college.
Despite the name, IvyConnect does not limit its membership pool to graduates of Ivy League schools, explains Meric. In fact, the site has waitlisted Ivy Leaguers and admitted plenty of graduates of other colleges. Rather, it uses the word “ivy” as a shorthand for the elite image it wants to cultivate. The company shelled out an undisclosed sum for the URL Ivy.com; “it was worth the price,” assures Meric. “It’s a word that in world culture, and not just American culture, conveys excellence, prestige, and some kind of intellectual depth,” he says, adding that it stands for “heritage” and “history.”
It’s a curious feature of the Internet, of course, that being so new, it has neither heritage nor history. That’s true for any startup, for reasons evident in the term itself. IvyConnect claims no official connection to the Ivy League, but it seems to have taken a page from the playbook of those schools, whose carefully crafted images remain key to their influence, even as the Internet transforms the way they do business, too.
The gothic architecture of Yale was made to look older by an architect who ordered the edifices splashed with acid, it is said. A gesture with more chutzpah, even, than conjuring an exclusive club out of ones and zeroes–and yet it seems to have worked out fine for Yale.
[Image: Flickr user haleysea]