The Bits n’ Bobs of Starting a User Group

User Groups can be the bread and butter of open source technology communities, especially when they’re fledgling. You’re playing with a new tool, you’re excited and eager; what better way to solidify your interest than to go out and meet other excited users? So let’s talk about how to get your first user group meetup up and running!

At the very basic level, it’s totally sufficient to gather 4–5 interested folks in someone’s office or living room, order some pizza, beers if you’d like, and casually chat about the things you’re passionate about. That’s often where the core of a local in-person community starts, and it’s great.

If your technology is gaining traction though, you very quickly jump from 5 people to 15 to 30, and that’s when you start to need a bit of infrastructure.

The most harrowing part of starting a new user group is often that the folks doing the organizing (you!) have no experience doing anything remotely similar. You’re probably an enthusiastic programmer. You could be excellent at writing code, maybe even fabulous at writing docs or conference talks. But if you’re reading this, you don’t yet have a good idea of how to make it come together nicely. So let’s change that.

The good news is that while it might not be easy to figure this stuff out on your own, it’s pretty simple once you’ve got a plan. So I’d like to share some blueprints for at least the beginning of your plan. Some logistical direction and guidelines to lessen the intimidation factor and help you execute well.

Think of running your group as having two parts:

  1. The logistics
  2. The magic

The logistics are my forte. The magic will be yours.

The Magic

When I talk about the magic I mean the people, content and feel that make people want to keep coming back. For some groups, it’s a dynamic host, who remembers their names and makes entertaining jokes between sessions. For others, it’s a dedicated organizer who works hard to bring the best content and book the best speakers. For yet others, it’s a rotation of host locations that give them opportunities to explore tech spaces they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

For me, the magic can be one of the harder bits. I’m constantly trying to rope dynamic community members into taking lead roles in the groups I run, so their infectious personalities can help bolster the mood and keep everyone excited. Good food and a comfy seat might keep them coming, but a great personality will make them remember the meetings, and feel sad when they miss one.

So even before you’re ready to start making meetups happen, I recommend trying to collect a group of enthusiastic and dynamic community members who can help be the lifeblood of your group. If you can find the first few, the rest will follow. If you are one such buoyant person, even better — you’re already off to the races!

So with the magic out of the way (as if it were that easy!), let’s jump into some of the parts that make first-time organizers nervous. The details.

Location

So you want to host a meetup…but you don’t work for a company with space. What to do?

Lots of relevant (and even irrelevant) software companies are willing to sponsor meetups in their conference rooms or common spaces. You can start by reaching out to folks you know who might work for these companies, but cold-emailing can work just as well. The hardest one to find will be your first, but after that, it gets easier every time and as your group and reputation grows.

Bringing a group of engineers to a tech company is basically a dream come true. It’s low-cost (or maybe even free) marketing for whatever the company builds, and often more importantly, the open roles they’re looking to fill. So while they’re helping you out, it’s a perfect symbiotic relationship, because you’re helping them too.

Some groups have had good results with reserving space in restaurants, pubs and co-working spaces. It can get tricky, because some pubs will want guaranteed minimum spending to reserve a large space, so think through the possible personal consequences if you have low turnout, or people eat and drink less than expected. Noise might also be a concern, so go visit the space before deciding on it.

Wherever you land, make sure they have the A/V equipment you need (projector, monitor, mic if relevant), a wireless network powerful enough for the size of your audience, and ideally ample power as well.

When a company donates space, they’re usually expecting to receive a sponsor/host shout out on the site and in person in exchange. Using a site like Meetup.com makes this easy; the tools for a sponsor sidebar are already built in. For the in-person shout out, decide between you mentioning them, or giving them a minute or two to speak themselves. Either way, keep it to a short snippet that won’t make your attendees feel too much like they’re being sold to.

Last little tidbit: make sure there’s signage. The dedicated purpose of the building isn’t the one you’re there for, so it can be tough to find the right room, floor, building, etc. Do your best to place signage outside and in to help make sure folks can find you.

This is one of the main things people mess up. Best bet: go to the outside of the space you’re using, and try and figure it out on your own. Is it obvious? Where are the places you might go by accident instead? Then fix it.

Speakers

Now you’ve got somewhere to put people. But how do you entertain them?

If you’re starting the group, my baseline assumption is that it’s because you’re enthusiastic about the topic. You should be prepared to speak at the first few meetups if needed.

It might take a few go-rounds before others feel comfortable stepping up, and this is one of the things you should be working on even before you’re sure you’re going to make the group happen.

If I started a user group, would you speak?

Plant the idea with friends and colleagues so when you come calling, they’re already expecting it, and maybe even have some topics they’ve already been thinking about. User groups can be the safest, most encouraging atmospheres for new speakers to get their feet wet and gain confidence.

Ideally, speakers are local and can talk about their experiences with your technology. This is primarily because you won’t generally have the money to fly experts in from elsewhere, at least not at first. You should consider remote speakers too, but only as supplements to some in-person presence, which will feel much more interesting and relevant.

Find out if anyone local is preparing to speak at a conference elsewhere. Maybe they want to give a draft version of their talk to your group? They can iron out the kinks and you can all preview a great talk your audience might otherwise miss.

If you’re running a newer community, your first lot of meetups might be more about hacking with a couple of 5-minute lightning talks thrown in, than featuring full length lectures. Totally fine; don’t stress too much about the content, and focus more on providing a good atmosphere for people to meet and chat. As the group groups, it can slowly get more formal, and the quality of the content should go up.

Attendees

Okay, so now you know where to meet, and you’ve got a couple things to say, but how do you get the word out and make the people show up?

Hopefully, you know at least a few people who are interested in joining the user group. Most of my groups have been using Meetup.com to organize groups, and it’s been very effective. It’s not the best piece of software in the world, not by a long stretch, but it does the job (and it’s not a job worth reinventing the wheel to do on your own — save your energy for other things!).

Most user groups start spreading by word of mouth, so start there. Talk to your friends who use the same technology or are interested, and talk to your friends who don’t, but work at companies where others might be.

You may not have a prominent Twitter presence, but the official Twitter account of your technology probably does. Reach out to whoever runs it; they’ll often be excited to help you help them spread the gospel.

Lastly, go around to other relevant tech meetups in the area to talk about starting the new group. That’s your market right there. Attendees at other meetups have demonstrated a willingness to participate in in-person events, and it’s a friendly environment in which to chat and pitch them.

Sponsorship

That all sounds great. But don’t I need money to make this all happen?

Considering that many groups are able to do most of the above for free, sponsorship is not always necessary… but it can be a good way to help cover costs and extras.

If you’ve got local sponsors you could talk to, here are some of the things you might want to ask them for help with:

  • Sponsorship of Meetup.com fees
  • Sponsorship of event space (see previous section)
  • Sponsorship of food, drinks and/or snacks

Food-wise, pizza is the tried and true option, but it also gets tiring — especially for serial meetup attendees who might end up having pizza for dinner every night of the week. Try and change it up a bit; wraps, finger sandwiches and sliders are just some of the options you can investigate, without much of an increase in costs.

If you’re able to raise additional cash, that’s even better. Some of the most successful meetup groups I’ve worked with over the years have been able to raise enough funds to periodically fly in core team members or other bigwig speakers.

On a smaller scale, you could always get some swag made (on the cheap end, stickers, or on the pricey end, tshirts). On a bigger scale, save up for an annual event with better food and perks. It’s not at all required, but worth thinking about and planning for if you have options / funding.

Last Bits

I recommend reaching out to organizers of meetups in other cities. They’ve probably been through all the same challenges, and will have useful ideas for overcoming them. It’s also always great to chat with someone successfully and sustainably doing the thing you want to be doing.

It’s also just nice to have a support network. In the Ember and Ruby communities, where I’ve done a lot of work, there are numerous resources (Slack channels, mailing lists, meetups at conferences) for organizers to chat with and lean on each other for support.

Hopefully some of these tips can help assuage your fears about gathering your group together and making it happen. It can seem intimidating at the start, but it’s thoroughly doable, a nice way to give back, and the sort of thing that can eventually run mostly on autopilot.

It can be incredibly rewarding, helpful for your career, and introduce you to important and impactful friends and mentors. It’s very worth doing.


If you’re interested in running events on a larger scale, check out my book, Event Driven, for everything you need to run memorable tech conferences.

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