Helping to find 30 million past pals: Classmates.com

The Bellevue-based company can help you get in touch with old friends from high school. An online reunion is just...

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to your old high school prom date or even that great computer programmer from the start-up you worked at back in the 90’s, you don’t have to wonder anymore. Thanks to the Internet’s top reunion site, Classmates knows how to connect you to about 29 million of your closest friends from 130,000 schools!

Bellevue-based Classmates.com is ranked by Media Metrix 12th in the “Top 50 Web and Digital Media Properties,” based on unique visitors.

While its name implies it is one of the nets top destinations to visit with old buddies from your school days, Classmates has expanded its service to help you seek out your past acquaintances in even more places with the roll out of Military and Workplace version of Classmates.

We caught up with Michael Schutzler, the CEO of Classmates.com, to talk about one of the few online communities facilitating authentic conversations and how his company is bringing people together.

Q: Give us a little history on Classmates?

Schutzler: I was hired two years ago to turn it around. It was going the route of other start-ups that had preceded it. The company has been around for seven years. It was founded in 1995 by an ex-Boeing engineer who was looking for a high school buddy of his. He was looking for his friend on both AOL and Prodigy, but failed to connect and thought “There has to be a better way.” He came up with the idea of a “lost and found” for high school people.

Q: Found a need and jumped on it.

Schutzler: Right. Like so many entrepreneur stories, he literally started out by plugging his computer into the wall of his basement and seeing credit cards happen! Now it did take a good five for the company to reach a point where it had a reasonably sized database. It’s a story of very slow growth compared to other Internet companies.

Q: Tell us about the core services Classmates offers.

Schutzler: In essence, the core of the company has not changed. It is a great big “lost and found.” It is no longer just about high school – it’s also about college, military and workplaces. So anyone who you’ve ever connected with in the past who you have perhaps lost touch with, you could potentially find at Classmates. It’s an opportunity for everyone on the Internet to put their name into some form of past organizational affiliation, give some indication of what they’re currently doing, and reconnect with friends.

Q: Seems like you’re tapping into a basic need of people to find lost friends. That probably fueled the growth and why you’re here today.

Schutzler: Indeed. The great thing about Classmates is we did not invent a new business model. It’s an old business model called a subscription. We didn’t try to train customers in a new form of behavior. All we were doing is making it easier to do something people were already doing. It’s a great use of technology for something that is already a basic human need.

Q: How many members do you have now – and how fast are you growing?

Schutzler: We have 30 million members in the database. And the growth rate is about one million new members per month, about 50,000 new members per day.

Q: Are there any nice love stories that you’ve heard that Classmates has been a conduit for?

Schutzler: Oh, gracious! We literally get a thousand to two thousand e-mails from members – recognize that we have 30 million people – thanking us for connecting them with one person or another. The typical love story is two folks that were dating in high school, went to the prom together and, as they very often do, it turned out to be the last date those two people were on because it wasn’t quite that good of an experience after all. Then they go off to college, get married and another 15-20 years go by. And they’re both sitting there, reminiscing, after a failed marriage each “That person I took to the prom – that really was my only true love.” By golly, they sign up at Classmates and they’re just kind of curious to see if they’re listed. They are and they e-mail each other. They realize they’re only a few seconds apart in Internet time, so therefore they’re able to reestablish that connection – and very often they get married, or at least establish a very strong friendship from that point forward.

Q: Didn’t you launch a workplace version of Classmates?

Schutzler: This is a really exciting new aspect. We’ve always been associated with either school or military in the past and have done those successfully. With ‘Workplace’, not only is there this affiliation with two people who worked together at IBM in Munich, Germany in 1984, but what’s really cool is the professional networking aspect – going to find that engineer you worked with just a few years ago, or that accountant that really knew this particular issue; experts, if you will. With the amount of job churn and e-mail churn that’s going on these days, how do you find the people you worked with just a few years ago? It’s a great new form of network for professional purposes beyond just social purposes.

Q: What’s your core strategy for reaching these people?

Schutzler: Well, the real beauty for us is we don’t have to purchase targeted advertising. Our demographic is: “Are you on the Internet?” and “Have you gone to school at some point in your life?” The only thing that I will say is a true differentiators between us and every other online community is Classmates is quite different in that you’re exposing your real name and you’re disclosing information about yourself in a public setting. So people at Classmates are the ones who are willing to participate in authentic communication. There’s no posing, no screen names, no role-playing going on. This is real people having real conversations.

Q: That brings up the question of privacy. Maybe someone connects with you that you don’t want to connect with. Does Classmates ever step in or is that just between the two people?

Schutzler: First of, if you get contacted by someone at Classmates, they don’t have access to your e-mail. We don’t release e-mails to anyone. They’re contacting you only by name. If you don’t want to talk to that person, simply don’t respond and they have no way of getting hold of you. That makes the communication safe, especially if you haven’t spoken to someone in twenty years. Now if someone were to irritate you and send you many e-mails, then you could easily contact our member care organization and we would be happy to step in and help smooth that situation.

Q: Can people get into the site for free?

Schutzler: Correct. Registration is free if you want to check the site out and want to be contacted, put some information about yourself, what you’ve done with your life. You can do all that for free. But if you want to communicate with members, either through the e-mail service or the message board service, you need to be a paid subscriber.

Q: Would you say you are the largest paid subscription service?

Schutzler: That’s the claim we make. We don’t know of anyone that is larger. We have over 2.4 million paid subscribers to date. The only other numbers we know that are public are the Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports online services.

More information on Classmates.com is at their web site at www.classmates.com. The full audio interview with Michael Schutzler is available for listening anytime at webtalkguys.com.

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