A year in review: The DigitalOcean Amsterdam Meetup

Back in late 2016, one of the guys in the office forwarded me an email requesting someone to lead a new meetup that had a few members for a prominent cloud service provider. At the time, the group had been started, having around 300 members but had no one to lead it and actually organise the meetups. This email is pretty relevant as I usually attend quite a few meetups covering many different subjects across Amsterdam and he though that this could be a good opportunity for me to put into practice some of the things I had learnt, and show that there is more to running a meetup an beers and pizza.

Fast forward just over a year later, I’ve planned 12 fairly successful meetups (success is measured by people coming back), hosting 22 speakers, munching over 3,000 slices of pizza and drinking almost 1,500 beers. We’ve had talks that cover a wide assortment of topics, some very in keeping with the DO brand like dev-ops and machine learning, Others not so much. The crowd ask for cool nerdy stuff, so that’s what I’m looking for in speakers and topics. Ultimately, the benchmark test is would I find this topic/speaker interesting. With that in mind, the meetup becomes an extension of my interest and likes, complete with a very sugar based snack table.

It has been abit of a crazy year, maybe a little stressful at times but all in all, it’s turned out pretty well. Here are a few reflections with one or two key learnings that maybe applicable to anyone new to meetup hosting or thinking of hosting your own event series.

Starting out

The hardest part of the process is getting the ball rolling. At the very beginning I didn’t really know how things will turn out. There were many questions I didn’t know the answers to, the biggest being “will anyone actually turn up?”. I have been amazed by the number of people who want to attend my events this year. I think the highlight, in this respect, was my November event, which, despite planning less than a week beforehand, attracted around 50 people. This is pretty unusual as Inormally plan events up to 4 months in the future.

When starting out I sought pointers from Perry who hosts the LDNWebPerf meetup (a great meetup in London). He gave me some great learnings (some are included in here) that he had gained from organising that meetup and some ideas of the things I could do, the biggest being don’t live hand to mouth every month — organise events well in advance and have funding/sponsorship to back it up. No begging for funds every month.

I am fairly lucky to have a good group of people around me at Your Majesty. Friends who are willing to give up their time to help me out in exchange for Wine, M&Ms and cheeseless pizzas. My closest friend Shiron, (wo)mans the welcome desk, greeting people with a friendly smile and doing the attendance. Hugo is my go to tech guy who puts together the livestream for each event and has proved himself invaluable on a number of occasions when things didn’t go quite to plan. On occasion when Shiron can’t make it, Valerie (who we met at the meetup and subsequently hired to YM) jumps in to take her place. As you can see, it takes more than 1 person to make a meetup happen.

TL;DR —Getting the meetup going was easier and more successful than I expected. I am grateful for the people around me that helped make it happen as I couldn’t do it all on my own. Having a calendar planned out in advance makes things easier too and gives attendees something to look forward to. Talking to other meetup organisers helps if you’re looking for pointers.

Finding speakers

For me, finding speakers is the most challenging part of the meetup. I see the speakers as the main reason for people to attend the event, although I know a few people who turn up regardless. Choosing the right speakers is abit of a gamble — is the topic relevant for the audience? To what experience level will the content appeal to? Will the speaker be any good? All of these risks can be reduced by knowing the speaker or having seen them present previous at another meetup or event.

For the most part, I choose speakers within my areas of interest (as mentioned previously) but usually I haven’t seen the speaker before and go solely off gut feeling. Back in May we had Phil Nash in to talk about JWT. I have seen Phil speak at many conferences before, know he is a great speaker and was so glad he would take the time to talk at my meetup. Other than expenses, I don’t pay our speakers so I am super grateful towards the speakers for all the time taken to prepare talks and attend my events. I do however, give speakers a goodie bag with a DigitalOcean hoodie (only available for speakers & Christmas raffle winners (if you really want one you can buy it from the shop)), a stress shark and selection of stickers as a small thank-you.

Its also probably worth pointing out that I normally only have 1 or 2 speakers per meetup. I’ve been to meetups where they’ve been super excited to have “Not one. Not two. Not three. But four amazing speakers” in a meetup XL speaker bonanza. In reality, keeping people focused for what will be 2 hours of talks after a long day is unlikely. And the speaker who lands the last slot will have almost 0% of peoples attention. Unless you’re throwing an all day event, two speakers is enough.

TL;DR — Finding speakers is, in my opinion, the hardest part of running a meetup. I am both amazed and grateful to all of the speakers who give up their time, for no money, to come and speak at my meetup. If you’re in doubt about a speaker (and you want them) just send them an email. The worst they can say is no. Find speakers that do talks on stuff you (and hopefully your audience) will find interesting. Keep it simple — 2 speakers is enough.

Time Management

One of the key parts of organising an event is time management. Time management includes making sure everything is prepared by the time attendees arrive but also keeping speakers running to time.

There have been a few times when I’ve decided to start 10–15 minutes later to let more people arrive and sometimes when we’ve run into tech issues with the livestream where we’ve been very close to starting off the evening without it.

There’s also been a few times where I’ve almost had to drag speakers off stage when they’ve overrun significantly. Thankfully it hasn’t actually happened yet but its been a bit close.

Being on time is important for us as we are limited by the arrival of the food at the end of the night (see reasons for this in the food and snacks section below). If a speaker overruns then hungry attendees will be forced to smell the food but not be able to eat it. Its worse if the first speaker overruns as this will cause the second speaker to be cut off mid flow, even when it wasn’t their fault.

There have been a few times where I’ve had to be flexible. Most notable was at the Christmas meetup when pizza’s arrived 30 minutes early, just after a break. In this case, we opted to extend the break and eat the pizzas then return for the quiz afterwards. Sometimes you have to be flexible and make it up as you go along.

TL;DR — Timekeeping is your job as organiser. Keeping things running smoothly is your main priority. Sometimes starting later is an option if needed but be prepared to have to cut the line if speakers overrun.

Food and snacks

Providing food and drinks for attendee’s and speakers is pretty important. I feel you can’t expect people to hang around on empty stomachs. Most meetups do food before the event starts which means people who work far away from the event location or arrive late miss out on much needed sustenance. Food coma also becomes an issue during the event from sitting around in a warm environment.

Taking inspiration from the LDNWebperf meetup, we have beers and finger snacks before the meetup starts so people don’t get emaciated. The main food afterwards, allowing people to get together and talk and eat. Attendees can stay for as long as they like afterwards and I find this works quite well.

TL;DR — You need to feed people to keep them around. Pizza is the easy choice for a beer in one hand, pizza in the other and talking about things (with your mouth) approach. I do food at the end of the event so late comers are fed and everyone can chill and chat about things. I have a table of snacks so people don’t die. Vegetarian and Gluten Free options are available for those who want it.

Location

Up until now, I’ve hosted all events at the Your Majesty Amsterdam Office. This decision is based on convenience, both for me organising but also for my attendee’s. We are pretty central, located opposite Rijksmuseum, with plenty of transport links which makes it easy to get to us from across Amsterdam and beyond — there are trams directly from the station. I have received a few offers to host the meetup in Northern Amsterdam (on the other side of the IJ) and south, further out near the A10 ringroad. I asked if people would find any benefit for relocating but we couldn’t think of any. We felt both options added challenges for attendees to get to the event. I try my best to reduce the number of friction points for attendees. There are a few things I can’t control, the weather being the biggest (with both hot and stormy weather having a detrimental affect on attendance). Location is pretty key. Make it easy for people to come to an event and put it close to the majority of people.

I am lucky that I’m allowed to host it in the YM office, and that we have the space and facilities to do it. If the meetup grows significantly in the future, we will have to revisit this.

TL;DR — In my opinion, Location is really important to get people through the door. We keep it central so everyone can attend, no matter where you come from.

Find your thing & Don’t go too big too fast

When I started off, my ambition was to become the biggest meetup in Amsterdam. I wanted to compete with the large recruitment driven meetups and have the largest group on meetup. But it soon became apparent that maybe a small and cosy atmosphere could be a better idea. I hosted a few events where 30–50 people attended and they felt significantly more friendly than some of the larger 100–200 people meetups I have been too. Being smaller means that people don’t split up in to numerous cliques and conversation groups are larger and easier to enter. Familiar faces are easily recognisable and new people don’t feel excluded.

Don’t get me wrong, larger meetups have their place too and I want to continue to grow the group throughout 2018 but for the time being, small n cosy is the way forward

TL;DR — Small and cosy is a good thing.

Freebies and affiliations

As the meetup has grown in size, I have noticed a growing number of organisations offering discounts to members in exchange for a slide in the intro slide deck.

When trying to decide if I want to accept or decline an offer I ask myself if I would find the conference interesting. If the content is relevant and who the intended audience is. Conferences run by recruiters might get a hasher deal as the meetup is a generally recruitment free zone and if the conference is over €500, its probably not for my audience (mainly developers or engineers not executives).

Late last year I got in touch with O’Reilly Media and they were kind enough to give us some prizes for the Christmas end of year raffle. I’m hoping to become a part of the official partner program which would allow us to offer more regular prizes to attendees, including ebooks and discounted tickets for upcoming O’Reilly conferences

TL;DR — Only build affiliations with events or companies that are inline with the meetups overall vibe. I ask myself “If I were in the audience, would I be interested in the product/event”?

Plans for 2018

And finally, some thoughts for 2018. I have already booked the majority of speakers for February through April and I need to start looking to hijack speakers from upcoming conferences across the summer, so I’m keeping an eye on those. I’ve been super busy (and lazy) in January and didn’t end up hosting an event.

I want to continue to grow the group on meetup and attract new people with new opinions. I would like to try an sort out some kind of sponsorship to allow us to get more international speakers and finally get a microphone speaker setup sorted so speakers don’t have to shout. Bonus.

I also want to mess around with food things. Maybe its time to experiment with other foods that aren’t pizza based. As part of the EOY quiz, people said they would be interested in experimenting food options, So I’m now looking for foods you can eat with one hand while talking and sipping a beverage.

I might end up expanding the event size, which would mean I would need to find a new venue which could throw up some issues. I’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, please clap repeatedly to show your appreciation. If you want to find out more details about DigitalOcean Amsterdam, come visit us in person at one of our events.

David

Developer @ Your Majesty and Main Organiser Dude for the DigitalOcean Amsterdam Meetup

www.yourmajesty.co

www.digitalocean.com

www.davidendersby.me