Big fish in aSmallWorld: Erik Wachtmeister

A rarified online community, aSmallWorld is the brainchild of Erik Wachtmeister. An investment banker by trade, this brilliant web 2.0 concept came to him while on a boar hunt in 1997.

By Lauren Price
Photography by Scott Rudd


 There are probably about 500 social networks out there in cyberspace, but clearly-they don’t operate at this level

Internet geniuses like Steve Case of AOL and Jim Clark of Netscape will go down in history for changing the way the world communicates, using their web 1.0 platforms. Erik Wachtmeister, on the other hand, will go down in history for his brilliant creation of aSmallWorld-the most exclusive web 2.0 platform on the planet.

Established for the sole purpose of bringing together a very elite, intimate group of what Wachtmeister calls “like-minded individuals”, this son of a former Swedish ambassador to the United States opened his private company’s virtual doors for business in 2004.

“I was in a German forest and there weren’t any boars around for a bit,” he tells us with a good natured laugh, “so there I was with time on my hands and I found myself taking a good look at my life, thus far. Everything I had done up until then was financial … more investment-focused, but I grasped, in that short amount of time, that the notion of establishing an exceptional networking community was very appealing … where answers to one’s specific need, no matter how ordinary or specific, could be met in a fast, reliable manner.”

Wachtmeister draws on a well-known hypothesis to explain further.

“It’s said there are only six degrees of separation between everyone in the world,” he tell us. “But I’ve put together a platform where a definitive group of people are only separated by three degrees.”

Further, Wachtmeister says his mission was to aggregate the most interesting people with the most interesting information around the globe. Successful in that mission, the end result is a membership made up of privileged (and always remarkable) individuals intermingling within a trusted circle of friends who benefit from getting reliable, spam-free information very quickly.

There are probably about 500 social networks out there in cyberspace, but clearly-they don’t operate at this level, Wachtmeister points out. He also believes it’s next to impossible to lure aSmallWorld members away to a copycat site at this point in time.

“We replicate private real life, interconnected relationships … as opposed to random connections one finds at the other web 2.0 networks,” he says. “And the more information we correlate, the more indispensable it all becomes. We’ve always expected an influx of copycats, but we weren’t that concerned because we made our “land grab” very early on.

Another difference is that aSmallWorld is actually connecting people with people they’ve previously established face-to-face relationships with-and if they haven’t, they have close acquaintances in common. Another huge difference is the average age of the membership. Nine out of 10 members are older than 24 years of age. Nearly every other online community has the reverse numbers, Wachtmeister says.

To further explain, Wachtmeis-ter mentions author Malcolm Gladwell’s references to connectors (those with a wide social circle) and mavens (those who are knowledgeable information collectors) in The Tipping Point.

“I define aSmallWorld as collective intelligence,” he tells us, “made up a superior group of connectors and mavens.”

All content is produced by members who trade personal knowledge (be it a rave or a head’s up) on everything from where find an A-list roof to put over their heads in Paris to a Shanghai babysitter-all evaluated through a bona fide rating system and all pretty much on the money.

With a methodology that can only be described as groundbreaking, he’s put together a 150,000 by-invitation-only group of the most well-heeled, well-bred movers and shakers. Though membership names are essentially a guarded secret, we know the ranks are filled with the likes Diane von Furstenberg, Ivanka Trump, Naomi Campbell, Quentin Tarantino, Robert W. Pittman-even Frederic Fekkai and Paris Hilton.

Like other networks, aSmallWorld features member profiles, private messaging-even forums for selling used items (in this case, perhaps a vintage Bentley only driven by someone’s sweet dowager grandma within a five-mile radius of her Palm Beach mansion or a hip-hop star looking to ditch some bling). There are city-based reviews of fancy pants eateries, tips on how to score a table in August at Les Caves du Roy in St. Tropez-even the skinny on where to buy one of those new Audemars Piguet Millenary MC12 Tourbillon and Chronograph watches before they hit the stores. Another popular feature is the ability to hook up with old boarding school chums one has lost track of. But best of all, members can get business advise or join a somewhat casual think tank forum with some of the world’s most brilliant business leaders.

Getting invited into this inner circle is not easy and there’s a secret “evaluation system” made up a dozen or so variables-but Wachtmeister isn’t sharing what that just might be. Nearly as difficult, is remaining a member of this elite group. Bearing in mind that aSmallWorld has created a path to trusted and very proprietary information-its staff continually monitors (tracks) the network, seeking out unworthy social climbers, abusers and frauds.

“If there’s a lot of background noise, so to speak, the signal goes away … so it’s very important that we remain vigilant in maintaining our integrity,” Wachtmeister notes. “Obviously, this was something we needed to implement right from the start.”
Wachtmeister tells us that his staff is very good at kicking wrongdoers out, initially exiling offenders to aBigWorld. A less elite version of aSmallWorld, that site is a 2,500-member network made up of mostly students that found their way onto aSmallWorld early one, but were considered a bit too young. (aBigWorld members have very limited access to aSmallWorld, and cannot interact among its membership.)

“We’ll move you over if your emails to other members are often declined or ignored,” he says. “When you request a connection to someone … that someone can either accept, decline or ignore. It can be as little as two declines and a few ignores that will lead to the end of your ability to access the site. Also, our members can report messages they might find offensive or otherwise, by a simple mouse click.”

So how involved are members? Are they checking in at all hours of the day, much like they would for email or voice mail? Wachtmeister tells us that on any given day, some 30,000 members log on to the network.

This past spring, Harvey Weinstein (on behalf of the Weinstein Company, which was established after he and his brother Bob left Miramax Films) approached Wachtmeister regarding a hefty investment-and though aSmallWorld was but two days from inking a deal with a highly-regarded venture capital firm-the two teamed up. But two days out? OK, we know that Harvey is the networker of all time, but that had to be one of the best presentations ever.

The Weinstein Company also owns Miramax Books and Niche Media, a publishing group. aSmallWorld is their first Internet venture. Also noteworthy is a proclamation made by Harvey this past May aboard a yacht in Cannes with a correspondent from CNBC’s On the Money. It was during that interview that he announced plans to take the Weinstein Company public before the end of 2007.

“I absolutely could have gone the financial route … or I could have taken the strategic route,” Wachtmeister explains. “But I felt this great synergy with Harvey from the start. It was quite amazing. I’m an investment banker by trade, so my vision for aSmallWorld was always about making it valuable. The Weinstein deal allows us to get to the next level faster because of the resources they bring to the table … and not just financial ones. It gives us access to highly qualified management resources, new advertising partners, as well as valuable contacts in interactive and traditional media. This partnership helps aSmallWorld realize the incredible potential I always knew it had.”

And how will the Weinstein deal affect Wachtmeister’s day-to-day?

“I’ve always considered myself the interim CEO of the company,” he says. “As a matter of fact, we’re very close to a final decision for filling the job permanently.”

And what can aSmallWorld members look forward to in the near future? Surely there are changes on the way.

“First off, there’s a new version of coming by October that features a group-functioning forum,” says Wachtmeister. “So whether you’re a skydiver or a venture capitalist, you can interact on an even more intimate, stronger commonality level. The new version will include new cities … Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dubai and Tel Aviv.”

He also reports that a new office may open in London in the not too distant future.

It’s a given that the Weinstein’s goal is to increase membership considerably (to at least 1,000,000), but Wachtmeister assures us that it’s never really been about the numbers. For him, it has always been about the quality of the membership.

And as we know to be the inevitable, aSmallWorld will begin selling advertising space. Given its unique audience and its high word-of-mouth factor, high-end companies wishing to sell new or truly appealing luxury products while increasing brand awareness, will be able to use aSmallWorld as a discovery platform (as does its membership).

Wachtmeiser says it has always been a long term goal to create a revenue-generating site, but considered it counter-productive to do so initially. From the start, keenly aware of the revenue potential, it was more important for the site to reach critical mass while maintaining a trusted and intimate Internet community. Only then would he be successful, not just when it came to attracting the right advertisers seeking to interact in a less intrusive manner with buyers, but when it came to buyers actively participating as an exclusive group. Obviously a win/win scenario for all participants.

Another change in 2007 concerns the annual anniversary parties in St. Tropez. Wachtmeister tells us that there will be more parties next year, probably quarterly.

“Given the extent of our community, we want to try something different next year,” he tells us. “And we want to be more coordinated in our efforts. Absolute Level and Moët Chandon have already approached us to sponsor some events … and though St. Tropez is absolutely ideal for our summer party, we might consider a new location for next summer.”

Currently residing in Manhattan with his wife Louise (she’ aSmallWorld’s marketing director); the Wachtmeisters also call a lovely farm in a pastoral area outside of Stockholm, home.

“The farm is unquestionably our favorite place,” he says. “But I have to say, we can make ourselves very happy wherever we need to be. I spent seven years living in Los Angeles and I very much enjoyed my time there. But right now, we’re based in New York because we wanted to hit the ground running …be very successful from the start. So it made perfect sense to put a stake in the ground given the amount of talent within the interactive media sector and the financial and investment resources. We had already found great success in Europe, right from the start. In order to grow faster, we needed to have a big presence in North America, so living here was very important. Of course, we will soon have a big presence in Asia and South America.