NEW YORK — NEW YORK - Meetup.com has made headlines as a political tool for presidential candidate Howard Dean and others, but what's less well-known about the year-old New York startup is that it's almost ready to turn a profit.
While the 100,000 Dean supporters who have signed up as Meetup.com's biggest individual group grab much of the attention, the Web site boasts a total of 500,000 members who use the site for free for a plethora of other meetings.
Meetup.com is a factor in Dean's current status as the leading Democratic presidential candidate in terms of money raised - much of it from the Web traffic and foot traffic generated through Meetup.com's technology.
"Meetup gives us the people and the volunteers we need in order to get things done locally," said Susan Savage, a Dean supporter.
Other political candidates have also become involved with Meetup.com, as well as a rising tide of Harry Potter fans, foreign language students, Elvis impersonators, and dozens of other interest groups that frequent the Web site.
It all adds up to money for Meetup.com's three revenue streams.
The company collects flat fees and event fees from venues such as bars, restaurants and cafes eager to draw business from meetings. It also charges users for premium services on its Web site. And it collects fees from promoters of specific events.
David Perlman, owner of Essex Restaurant in Manhattan's Lower East Side, said he's had about 100 Meetup.com events, which more than cover the cost of his listing fee as a Meetup.com venue.
Meetup.com founder and CEO Scott Heiferman said the company is close to turning a profit after collecting $1.3 million in venture funding and operating with only 15 employees.
"We're getting to be sustainable," Heiferman said in an interview in his New York office, decorated with giant name tags and a chess set made up of characters from the Simpsons TV show.
"We really look up to companies like eBay and Google that have a simple, good product, no flashy ads or things that just waste your time," he said. "We're focused on a service that people like."
While the Internet has long connected people via instant messaging, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and self-published Web sites, Meetup.com brings people together in the real world, where they spend money on beer and coffee, he pointed out.
The Dean craze took Meetup.com by surprise, he said.
"I'm no political expert and I dare you to find one political science major in this office," Heiferman said. "We didn't build it with politics in mind, and all of a sudden, people are saying that we changed the political landscape. It's really a thrill."
Heiferman, who sold his previous business, I-Traffic, in 1999, was inspired by the book Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, which charts the decline of the American community.
Locking themselves in a room, he and the other co-founders built a technology to help bring people together and launched it in the dot-com gloom of 2002.
A Meetup.com employee then came up with the idea of listing political candidates as potential Meetup topics.
Before long, Howard Dean supporters started mushrooming on the Web site.
Draper Fisher Jurvetson invested in Meetup.com in December, and since then, Meetup.com's revenue has grown by 12 times, faster-than-expected, said Andreas Stavropoulos, managing director of the Redwood City, Calif., venture firm.
Another investor is Esther Dyson, whose Edventure firm took a stake.
"Of course I hope to make money, but I also enjoy working with a company that is changing the dynamics of politics as well as how people get together around other topics," Dyson said in an e-mail interview.
Quizzed about an IPO, Heiferman said he's instead focused on running the business, with no immediate plan to go public.
"We're in a great position," Heiferman said. "We don't have to worry about our cash. And so we're focused on building this into a real business."