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  • 04.30.04

The People Behind the Pages

Scott Heiferman is cofounder of Meetup and Fotolog. His GEL talk made the case that business people should be in the people business. What follows is a partial transcript of his remarks:

Scott Heiferman is cofounder of Meetup and Fotolog. His GEL talk made the case that business people should be in the people business. What follows is a partial transcript of his remarks:

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There’s an old book called Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy. I used to be in the advertising business. I used to be an advertising man. I started a company called iTraffic back in ’95 and now it’s part of Omnicom. So I titled my presentation “Confessions of a Recovering Ad Man.” In the ad business, you fall in love with companies. Isn’t Hershey’s a great company? I realized that I don’t love companies. I don’t really care about companies. I care about what companies do.

After leaving the ad business, I realized that I’d spent too much time with investment bankers. I needed to see what customers were really like. So I got a job working behind the counter at McDonald’s. This was during their smile campaign. Their logo said smile. The ads said smile. But my manager never once told me to smile. In training, I wasn’t even told to be friendly.

What you’re there for is beyond the metrics for this month. I decided that whatever I did next, I wanted to make sure that it was about people. Companies don’t matter much; it’s how they impact people. People matter the most. What you’ll appreciate the most when you look back are the relationships you have and the connections you make.

I thought I wanted to get into the photo business because I wanted to do a blog, but I’m a crappy writer. I posted a picture on my blog every day and called it a photoblog. So we made Fotolog, which lets people upload pictures and keep a buddy list. Now there’s a half million people who keep a Fotolog, and every week there are a million photos uploaded. The buddy list is a way to keep up with friends and family.

The point here is that Fotolog focused not on whether it would sell stuff but whether it added value to people’s lives. Right around Fotolog, 911 happened. There was a feeling where you looked at people a little differently. You made eye contact. You were neighbors. Around the same time, Douglas Rushkoff gave a speech saying the capitalists had left and we needed to use the network to find the others. The Internet isn’t a network of computers, it’s a network of people. Local means something.

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I came across the book Bowling Alone, which addresses the decline of community in America. A double-digit percentage of Americans for decades went to some kind of monthly meeting. Now, it’s nothing. Robert Putnam’s theory is that when you don’t know neighbors, when you don’t connect with your community, you become more distrustful. But if you’re living a life where you’re less isolated and more interactive, you can learn that people aren’t so bad.

People used to gather in groups. Then TV came along. Because TV’s were expensive, people used to gather around the TV. It was a group thing. Now TV’s are cheap and cable come along. People watch TV by themselves now. Then there were computers. At first they weren’t connected. Now they are. And people can IM at home. The idea behind Meetup was to get back to the beginning.

Can you get people in a room together? No speaker, so chairs, just get them in a Starbucks and get the hell out of the way. Would it be anarchy? What would people do? Over a million people have signed up. There were 5,000 Meetups in April. The best part of building a platform like Meetup is that you don’t know how people are going to use it. It didn’t cross our minds that a language Meetup would be a great thing, but here’s an Italian Meetup in Philadelphia. There are expat Canadians Meetups all around the world.

What are you doing on April 5, 2014? If you’re a pug owner, you can go to a local pug Meetup. Like Hallmark, we create a holiday for every known interest. We are America Offline. Meetup is a good experience, live. We are all about the face-to-face stuff. Why is GEL in a room? Real life is messy. Mark’s a smart guy, but he’s got to deal with tea. What a headache.

Some things communicate best face to face. People are also more friendly face to face. It’s easier to bitch someone out on the phone. It’s easier to send a nasty email. When you talk about good experience, it’s a good idea to keep customers in your wallet, not just have your customers’ wallets. When you see the faces of the people using your products, you become more benevolent. You can read a complaint in your email, but if someone showed up in your office, you’d make sure things got done.

Look at your customers’ faces. Why do companies exist? A bunch of people get together, call a lawyer, and they’re a company. Why? To make a profit? Jim Collins says that’s not the point. The world’s a better place when people help people. Whatever you do in your job, if you look at it in terms of helping people, you can make the world a better place. It may seem like I’m echoing Seth a little bit. Look at Merck. They say they’re in the business of preserving and improving human life.

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The simplicity of that notion is often forgotten. That’s why the customer experience people are the soul of an organization. If you discover a new way to sell stuff, ask yourself whether people really want the stuff. I’m not laying morals on you, but way too often, you get so locked into moving product and making the company successful.

Who cares about the business? You are in the people business. Wanting to help a client or company is like wanting to help a chair. They’re lifeless. Help people. What does your company help people do? That should get you up a little easier in the morning.