Yahoo killed Upcoming.org, but thanks to Kickstarter, a passionate founder and a surprising bit of generosity, the community events calendar is on its way back.
Before it fell apart, however, Upcoming had to be invented. It all began more than a decade ago in Los Angeles, where Andy Baio was inspired by weekly dinners with friends to come up with a site where like-minded people could meet offline. It was called Meaty. Unfortunately, after months of working on it, a little site called Meetup launched. Knowing there was no way he could compete, Baio scrapped the project.
However, Baio had another idea. "I had this recurring problem that was happening over and over again," he said. "I would hear about events and then I'd forget about them." At the same time, Friendster was taking off in a major way, but was only used for socializing and not for planning events. Baio's idea was to marry the two concepts -- event listings, but with a strong social element so you could figure out what your friends were doing in any given city.
Baio worked hard to get what was eventually dubbed Upcoming.org out the door. He did it in four months, purely as a side project that he worked on during evenings and weekends while keeping his day job as a site administrator for a financial website. Almost immediately, Upcoming.org found a small, cult-like audience, which in turn built the site's large database of venues and cities -- entirely from scratch. About a year into the project, Baio's son was born, leaving him little time to run the site on his own. That's when he brought in friends Gordon Luk and Leonard Lin to help him run Upcoming and add new features like tagging and private events.
Baio's idea was to marry the two concepts -- event listings, but with a strong social element.
When Yahoo bought Flickr in March 2005, things started to change. Caterina Fake, one of Flickr's co-founders, was tasked with finding interesting people and projects to bring into the company's fold.
"It was at a time that Yahoo seemed really interesting," Baio said. "Google felt like a giant robot. Yahoo felt friendly, like a community. ... It seemed like a cool place to be."
So when Yahoo offered to buy Upcoming.org, Baio didn't flinch. "I told my boss 'Yahoo acquired my website.' There's no counteroffer you could make for that." When asked how much Yahoo paid for Upcoming.org, Baio declined to answer due to a non-disclosure agreement, though Wired UK reports a $2 million price tag. Beyond the money, though, it was finally a chance to work on Upcoming.org full-time. The thinking was: Yahoo would finally give them more resources to build and strengthen the site.
And in the beginning, it was actually pretty good. Yahoo mostly left the team alone as the three-person crew spent time integrating Upcoming.org with Yahoo's existing network of Maps, Local and Search in addition to the company's ID system. Indeed, Baio said that the two-year period after Yahoo's purchase was when Upcoming hit its stride.
Vince Maniago, a former product manager for Upcoming.org at Yahoo, said that when it was acquired, the site had around 20,000 to 60,000 registered users. Two years into the purchase, as Yahoo integration became more automated, monthly unique users became more of a focus. At its peak, 10,000 new events were being added each day, with nearly 10 million users a month.
But even as the site thrived, Baio sensed a cultural clash.
But even as the site thrived, Baio sensed a cultural clash.
"Upcoming was always a niche community," Baio said. "Stuff that was popping up on there was like indie rock shows and weird flash mob stuff." The disconnect became apparent when events from Upcoming would show up on Yahoo Search. "If you searched for San Francisco events in Yahoo, from the Yahoo homepage, it would show you things like a pillow fight, a Vampire Weekend concert, DrupalCon or some indie Microformats meetup. ... The core Yahoo demographic's going to be like, 'What is this?'" It just didn't fit into Yahoo's mainstream crowd.
That, in addition to the day-to-day bureaucracy of working at a large company, led to Baio's departure in 2007 -- right when his two-year contract ended. Lin and Luk soon followed, leaving only a skeleton crew working on Upcoming. Slowly, the site lost the charm and magic of its early days. Baio said it began to rely more on event feeds or content from paid providers rather than community-generated content. Social features, like the ability to see which events your friends were attending, disappeared.
Soon after, Baio saw the writing on the wall. "I knew far in advance that it would not be around for long," he said. As indicated by a leaked slide, Upcoming was just one of many sites that Yahoo wanted to sunset or merge with other properties -- Fire Eagle, a geolocation service, and Delicious, the popular bookmark-tagging site, were also on their way out.
Right before Yahoo shelved the project last year, the Archive Team (the same folks who helped salvage around 900GB of GeoCities before Yahoo shut it down) came to the rescue to back up the entirety of Upcoming.org with the help of dozens of volunteers. Millions of events were archived, seemingly never again to see the light of day. For a year, the URL for Upcoming.org did not resolve, and Baio thought all was lost.
And then the impossible happened. "Someone I knew from Yahoo kind of intervened in the domain auction, and offered the domain name back to me for a nominal fee," Baio said.
But in the wake of Upcoming's downward spiral, Baio turned down multiple requests to build it again. "I did that already! Somebody else can do that!" he said. "But the thing was, nobody ever did."
As indicated by a leaked slide, Upcoming was just one of many sites that Yahoo wanted to sunset or merge with other properties ...
Sure, Facebook Events exists, but it was its own thing. "You have to buy into the Facebook ecosystem to make that work, and it's not something I'm a part of and I don't care about it," Baio said. Further, Facebook Events are usually in a semi-private state where you either have to be invited or know someone who's going. "You can't just go and see what are the most interesting things that are happening in New York," he said. Upcoming.org, however, filled that hole. Scott Beale, founder of Laughing Squid and creator of an early Bay Area events mailing list called The Squid List, echoed the sentiment. "Upcoming was great for discovering events when traveling [...] After all this time, you still can't do search for events by city using Facebook," Beale said.
So after some thought, Baio took to Kickstarter to bring Upcoming back. The initial $30,000 goal was mostly a barebones baseline for developing Upcoming on his own, to get it out the door. Additional funds would give him more flexibility to develop a functional revenue model to keep it sustainable. Within 90 minutes, he had reached his goal. Right now, as the Kickstarter nears its final end date of May 30th, backers have raised nearly $100,000. Baio was shocked, not realizing that so many people wanted it back. Still, Baio's built up enough of a reputation with his other projects -- an arts and technology festival called XOXO and a longstanding blog called Waxy.org -- that he thinks people probably trusted him implicitly to take care of it.
He already has plans on how he wants to fix Upcoming.
"If Upcoming existed now in its current state, it would be a disaster," Baio said.
"If Upcoming existed now in its current state, it would be a disaster," he said. "A lot of the friction that existed in the past is easily resolved now. There's Twitter Auth for the network graph and identity, Foursquare for venues, Open Street Map for mapping. Already so much of what was hard about Upcoming can be solved." He also wanted to differentiate Upcoming from the rest of other event startups. Most of them, he said, go with the Facebook model, where they have a Facebook sign-in and pull in contacts that are friends and family. For Upcoming, he says it makes more sense to follow the Twitter model, where you're following people. "You'd have people in the community who just have good taste, so you'd follow them just for that reason."
There's one thing that he wants to keep about the old Upcoming, and that's every event is added by the community. "It means at least one person in the community cared enough to add it," he said. "This means it'll have a higher signal-to-noise ratio. Every other event site pulls events from a feed -- every sports event, every YMCA class, every community college class, every museum tour. They would all be on there." He wanted Upcoming to take a much more editorial approach, similar to how the weeklies would do it, except with your own individual spin.
That said, Baio cautioned that Upcoming would likely never be as big as it once was. And he's perfectly fine with that. "Events are super weird. It's really hard to make it into a big growth startup," he said. "If it's outside of a place where you are, it's not really of interest to you at all." Contrasting events to venue listings like Yelp and Foursquare, he said, "Imagine a Yelp where in two months everything goes out of business. Why do I want to know what was happening a month ago? The moment's over; that's it."
"To me, it represents a chance to make things right."
Instead, Baio is positioning Upcoming as a smaller, more independent entity. "It's my hunch, and it's the thing I'm betting on, is that it's a viable, long-term, slow-growth, sustainable, independent lifestyle business. It's not a big thing to throw $30 million at," Baio said. He hopes to make money through patronages, like dedicating a region to an interesting project, or letting event organizers pay a fee to promote on the site.
Baio estimates that he'll have the new Upcoming up and running by next year, around April 2015. Backers will get access to everything before that as he's developing it, and it'll have flaws. "They can help shape what it ends up becoming," he said.
To Baio, bringing Upcoming.org back is more than just reviving a past project. It represents an opportunity to finally fix a mistake -- the mistake of selling out. In stark contrast to most startups that intend to sell just to make a quick buck, Upcoming is more than just a business to Baio -- it's one which he has a strong personal connection.
In a recent blog post, Baio puts it thusly:
"To me, it represents a chance to make things right. I miss Upcoming. I miss the community that made it great. And I won't sell out again."