In a previous article “Meetups are Hard Work” Sean Massa explained some of the headaches he had to deal with during one particularly rough meeting of his user-group. While those kind of days can happen when organizing any event it’s not the norm. In my experience once an organizer has worked through a few months of organizing a User-Group they will learn how to spend less time per month on community related tasks. If they are able to delegate tasks the time will drop even further and satisfaction for themselves as well as the other contributors going up.
Teach Yourself Beginning Community in 24 Months
Around a year ago I gave a PechaKucha talk at Table XI in Chicago named “Teach Yourself Beginning Community in 24 Months” in which I described running a user-group as actually being rather easy. But when I say easy I mean it in the “running a marathon is easy” sense of the word. Running isn’t difficult, it’s actually rather easy to do in short spurts. But to complete a marathon (much less win one) you have to repeat those same set of easy steps around 33,000 times. Fortunately running a user-group has far less running required but it is similar to a marathon in that the steps are simple but consistently repeating them over an extended period is a challenge that requires persistence and tenacity. Will all the work be worth it in the end? The only way to find out is to try.
Overall there are not a lot of things that one needs to start a user-group community. I think there are really just 5 simple steps to lay the foundation for a solid community.
- Pick a topic.
- Find a place.
- Tell people.
- Repeat ~24 times to be sure.
Let’s stop running for a bit and walk through what each of those steps means.
Pick a topic.
What are you interested in? Are you looking to learn a new technology? Maybe you are passionate about the stuff you’re already working with but want to find other people who you can help grow with. Doesn’t matter what you pick. Just pick something that you care enough about to make it worth the time you’ll spending organizing and for someone to take time out of their own schedule to join you.
Find a place.
Sandro Mancuso said that his London Software Craftsmanship community started with two people in a bar that wanted to talk and learn more about the techniques and practices they were working to master. Sergio Pereira told me a long time ago that his Chicago Alt.NET community started with him, Derik Whittaker, and another developer talking after work one day. My own community SCMC started in a basement of the local library and was originally a group focused on learning new cloud-based tech (because that’s what interested me in at the time). None of these started with corporate sponsors or food being provided. They were just fine starting in simple settings with no projector or podiums.
Throw a dart at the calendar then use that date as your meeting schedule. It doesn’t matter what date you pick is as long as you stick with it. I’m going to put a warning here and say that if people are commenting that they’d like to attend but the schedule doesn’t work for them then you should try to work out a better schedule. Then stick with that schedule! The important thing here is that people will be able to plan for your meetings and make arrangements to attend. This is especially important if you are being open to people who may have to make childcare or other arrangements to attend a meeting. Predictability and reliability is important for the people who want to take part in the group.
Go where the people are. Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, Facebook, Meetup, and LinkedIn are your friends here. Tell everyone you work with. If you see an open laptop in the coffee shop then don’t be afraid to walk up and ask if they’re a developer and let them know about the meetings. I’ve done this on the commuter train as well. I’d peek at what was on a laptop screen to see if it was code. If they had code on the screen I’d introduce myself and ask which city they lived in, what user-groups they may go to, and whether they’d heard of SCMC. If not then I’d tell them when (remember Step 3) we meet, where (Step 2) we meet, what (Step 1) we meet for, then finally where (Step 4) they can get more information. I’ve discovered that just walking up to someone to chat is hard but if you’ve got some information to share with someone it can help make approaching someone far easier.
Repeat ~24 times to be sure.
Okay, you’ve created a Meetup.com account and found a place to meet. You’ve picked a topic and told everyone who’d listen about the meeting… and maybe two people show up. You might feel like that was a lot of work and to only get two people to show up. I’ve been there. It’s rough and you’ll feel like giving up BUT DON’T! You had people show up. That’s amazing. That’s fantastic. Of the billions of people on our planet they could spend their time with they chose to come and spend it with the community you’re founding. Feel good about that. These two people are your first and most valuable members. Be happy and KEEP DOING IT! Talk with them. Find out what they’re interested in and share the load of organizing and promoting the group over the coming months. You might even become friends. Someday one of those people will be someone you can hand the lead organization responsibities over to like I did with Ryan Gerry and SCMC.
Don’t give up is the most important thing. You’re building something that can have a lasting impact on people’s lives so don’t worry about the membership count just focus on the members. If your group never hits the double digits for a meeting then so what? Give it time to grow, to evolve and for the word to get out about how many fun and interesting things are shared at your user-group’s meetings. It takes a while. My estimate is that it takes 24 months before you have a good idea of whether starting the community was worth it. In my experience building a community was 100% worth the effort and I’m sure that if you start your own community it will be worth the effort too.