đź”™ Group Leadership Forum

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Starting, Running and Growing a Successful Meetup
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Purpose of this document
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Help group organizers, new and old, run successful peer-based meetup groups.
Like a campfire, a good meetup group provides a welcoming venue for people to come together to learn, teach and share.
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About the author
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Mike Zornek, zorn@zornlabs.com
My name is Mike and I wrote this checklist document because I’m a huge believer in the power of meetup groups. After helping run a local programming group for many years I have a lot of recommendations to share. If you have any feedback or additions please send me an email.
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Exploration and Introspection
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Attend lots of meetups
Before you even consider starting up a new group you should become a regular attendee of others.
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Take notes on each event’s style and execution
What do you like and dislike about the various meetings? How are the members behaving? Lots of interaction or do they keep to themselves? How is the venue? Was there a presentation? How well was it received? Was there a meeting agenda? Did it work?
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Introduce yourself to the organizer
Tell them you are considering your own group and would love to ask some questions over video chat or email sometime. Get their contact info.
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Introduce yourself to other attendees
Ask them what they like/dislike about this group? Do they attend other groups? What do they hope to gain out of attending these groups? Get their contact info.
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Follow up with your new contacts
The next day take the time to send a few quick emails. Get these people in your address book with some context on how you met them.
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Appreciate who attends these groups and why
It’s going to be very easy to get lost in the day-to-day details of group management. When needed, always come back to the members and be empathetic with their needs.
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Meetup groups are great for solo developers
When you work by yourself these groups work as a great way to get some fresh perspective on the industry and your code. Find out what other people are working on and are excited about. Ask for feedback on your ideas or offer to trade some code review time with a fellow indie.
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Meetup groups are great for teams
While the benefits are more striking for solo people, teams and companies can get value from meetup groups as well. When you work full time with other engineers getting feedback or answers can have a nice quick, in-house turn around, lessening the need for meetup groups. However in that same breath, new ideas and perspectives are far less likely to float around as freely as a diverse collection of group attendees. Break out of the echo chamber, learn new things and welcome criticism about your own patterns.
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Meetup groups are great for speakers
Doing presentations, show and tell and otherwise teaching is something everyone should strive for. Giving back to community and sharing what you have spent time learning is extremely rewarding and meetups are a great way to execute this sharing and/or practice a talk for a larger conference venue.
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Meetup groups are great for meeting people
Most career growth and opportunities happen through people you know. The more people you know the better chance you will have to land that awesome gig or new job. Growing your network is not something that happens overnight. It takes a lot of work and effort. Meetup groups are a great place to keep performing this activity regularly.
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Acknowledge your resources
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Time
This can vary depending on the scope of your group and how much stuff you do. At a high level estimate you can potentially spend time per month, working with speakers, sending out invites, updating websites, writing meeting agendas, attending meetings a little early and late to prepare and cleanup, recording presentations, post meeting notes, publishing recorded media. For a small, early group it’s probably 2-5 hours a month, for a larger group maybe 5-10 hours a month. You can also lessen this by growing a group’s leadership (more below).
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Costs
Again, this will vary. If you are lucky you should be able to find a free meeting venue (more on that below). Other costs include: website and mailing lists (free or low cost), meeting food (can forgo if money is tight and/or do a pass around a hat for those who want a bite to eat). More mature groups can add presentation recording equipment, projector, speaker costs (if you bring in someone from another city). Some big groups will even go as far to create a non-profit entity for tax and banking reasons.
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Growth and commitment
It’s easy to read the above and get a little overwhelmed but don’t let this scare you. Starting a new group isn’t a marriage or a long term business contract. If you want to start a new group, do it. There is very little risk outside your own time investment. If the group starts to mature and be successful you’ll want to plan things out a bit, but in the early days, just focus on the members and that campfire. Make the event fun, enjoyable and worth people’s time.
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Starting a New Group
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Or not…
In addition to the Exploration and Introspection prerequisites, you might postpone your new group in favor of…
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Instead, try to help a current group
If there is already an active group with your topic you should probably try to work with that leadership to improve the current group rather than start competition. Ask them how you can help. If you feel there is room for a secondary style event, maybe suggest that. Some people like presentations and others like live coding. Some can do weekends but not weeknights. There is usually room for alternative events in a single group.
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Instead, do a one-off event
When you say you are starting a new monthly group it brings with it a lot of expectations for months to come. If you want to explore the idea of a new group maybe start with a single event. A one-day (or night) event, with time for speakers, time to hack and time to socialize. You’ll limit you long term responsibilities but still learn a lot about the community interest around you.
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Pick a Niche
You want to make sure the topic of your group has legs to last for years to come. You might want to avoid binding your group with a specific vendor or you might choose to embrace that connection. Computer programming is too vague. iOS Core Data Framework is too specific. iOS Development is just right.
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Start an online presence, mailing list
Create a webpage that announces your intentions to start a group (or run an event) and begin capture emails. If you want to take it a step further create an email discussion list or web forum so people can start to conglomerate before any initial in-person event. We will talk about Meetup.com later but in the early days it might be best to do this on your own and market it through word of mouth.
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Set some goals
Like any new endeavor, set some goals for yourself. Try to create some small and simple goals early on so you can get some wins under your belt and start generating momentum. Also keep in mind, attendance count may not be the best thing to work towards. I’ve seen groups with 100s of attendees who might come, watch a presentation and then leave without any other social or group interaction. If you are building something to last you need the community to thrive and that means different head counts and sometime smaller is better.
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Finding a Good Venue
A good venue should: be easy to get to and generally centralized for the attendees; be easy to find and have open access during the event; has enough seating for your group today with some room to grow, without also making the room feel empty; has an A/V setup suitable for presentations (if needed). Generally you should shoot for a free to low cost option. Many corporations offer for free or via a sponsorship mention. Some public options include: public libraries, college campuses, coworking spaces and coffee shops. If you are going to use a public space make sure to talk with a manager beforehand or else risk being kicked out.
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Be prepared to run a projector and other AV needs
Work with your speakers to make sure they’ll have whatever laptop dongles they’ll need days ahead of time. If possible ask them to come early to practice hooking up.
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Create an Agenda / Meeting Format
Having a meeting agenda helps to promote that you value other people’s time and attention. Post the agenda early and keep to it during the meeting. Don’t be afraid of repeating the basics (who we are, our purpose, our contact info) at every meeting. Make sure your speakers know how much time they have and be strict about enforcing these times. Be sure to include lots of socializing time for people. People need time to mingle.
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Do some talks yourself (but not too many!)
Early on it may be hard to find members to do presentations. Be prepared to do some early talks yourself. This is good in that it lets you set the tone of the events and the kind of talks you want to see, but you want to quickly avoid doing this every month. You need to get others to do talks too.
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Promote your meetup group
A group is nothing without its members and to get people to come to you new group they need to know you exist. First, work with the other group organizers you meet early on. Ask them to post your group’s info to their own websites and chatrooms. Send emails to local companies who employee people in the tech space you cover. Local coworking spaces and or news outlets/blogs can work. Some languages or apps will often cross promote events covering their products. College Universities can be a good target, though I’ll admit to a student bias that typically leads them to only participate in official campus activities. We’ll talk more about the pros and cons of Meetup.com later but quickly I will say that helping people learn about new groups is something they excel at though keep in mind because of the large scale they run at you might get a high ratio of people who come to your event who aren’t a great match.
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Running a Meeting
To run a successful meeting or event requires planning and preparation in addition to day-of execution. Below are some month to month expectations of things that might come up for your group.
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Finding Speakers
Getting people to prepare and present talks at your meetup will be challenging. Unless you are very lucky it will be up to you to shake down speakers from within the group. Keep friendly with your members, learn what they are working on. If something comes up that would be a good topic, get them to commit to a talk. Also, it is much easier (and beneficial) to get people to commit months in advance. Try to have you next three events planned out. After the initial email, expect to spend some time with speakers as their talk approaches to confirm they are still good to go and helping them review their talk slides (or practiced recording). Having smaller talk slots can also help. At Philly CocoaHeads we have main talks (30-50m) as well as show and tell (5-15m) slots. Getting commitments for show and tell can be much easier for people.
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Confirming Speakers
Keep an event calendar with confirmed and potential speakers. Trello can work well. As an event approaches confirm the speakers are still good to go.
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Confirming Venue
Always confirm your venue weeks ahead of time. Always email after the event to say thank you. Even if it’s an ongoing agreement there is no harm in a little extra confirmation here.
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Sending out reminder email / tweets / web posts
Don’t be afraid of repeating yourself. Many people need to see things multiple times before it becomes actionable to them. At a minimum send out an email a week prior to the event with clear instructions on how to RSVP.
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Be Excessive with directions
When promoting your event be excessive about directions. Including parking info, include photos of the front door, add verified Google Map links, descirbe landmarks for the location or for when they’ve gone too far. On the day-of, try to have some kind of signage at street level so people know where to go. On all these, add a cell phone they can call if they get lost.
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Get people to RSVP
Lots of event software allows people to RSVP and you should encourage your members to do so. I will share with some sadness, that generically many who RSVP via the Meetup.com become no shows. Because my own events rely on this count for food I make special effort to remind people to update their RSVP status a few time prior to the event. I’d even recommend mentioning the impact of this to the members during general info introduction to help facilitate better use.
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Order food
Early on the event day-of, order your pizzas or sandwich platters. If you use a online tool I’d recommend calling in person to verify the order and that the order is delayed for the actual meeting time. Personally, I try to do this in person but your circumstances might vary. If you are a smaller group you might prefer to get a headcount live during the meeting and then placing an order. This is more risk-averse but does have the negative of delaying the food. In our group we moved the food / social time to the beginning of the night to make sure everyone was present by the time we started doing talks and to encourage people to show up on time.
I see this food as a simple ways to help those who are coming from work or otherwise missing out on a proper dinner a chance to curb their appetite. It would avoid anything more fancy unless you have a small, intimate group that agrees to such and is willing to help pay for it. I do recommend telling people people to limit their take to two slices until everyone has had a chance (even the latecomers) to have some. Sad that they need to be told this, but this is from my experience.
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Show up early
There is lots to do, from organizing chairs, picking up food, setting up AV. The goal is to get all of this stuff done so you can be free when the members arrive.
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Greet people at the door
Do this yourself if possible. Be a friendly host. Put away your shyness for an hour. If you don’t recongnize someone ask if they have been here before. If not, welcome them and provide a quick run down of what to expect. Tell them if they have any questions or feedback to let you know. Have a contact card to share if you can.
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Hold round the room introductions
When my group was small I like’d to do round the room introductions. Everyone would say their name and maybe what they are working on/interested in. I’m not a big fan of the off the wall questions like shoe size or favorite TV show but you can make the call. Whatever will break the ice and set the stage for people to meet each other.
As time went on and our group grew, this became too time consuming so we had to drop it. We tried to mitigate it with name tags at the front door, which probably help in general. Use your jugement. I know I’ve heard others say they these round the room introductions don’t work well because the attendee just sits there and practices their own intro without really listening to the others.
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Follow the agenda and the clock
Once the meeting is underway it’s important to follow the agenda. Keep an eye on the clock. Have a visual timer ready for your speakers (one I like is called Fin for iOS). If needed do a raising of the hand when the speaker has a few minutes left. It can be beneficial for them and the audience to know that time is up. Be ruthless about the schedual. It is not fair to have the last speaker lose time because of the ill preparedness of the speakers before them. If you as an organizer let this happen it will result in people not wanting to do talks.
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Be consistent
If you want long term success you need to be consistent. Find a day of the month and stick to it. Find a venue and stick to it. Repeat the basics of your group during meeting introductions.
For Philly CocoaHeads we use the second Thursday of the month. This works well and because it’s at the top of the month avoids a lot of holiday collision you’ll get at the bottom half of the month.
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Take and post photos
When people are evaluating your group online, having photos of your meetings and the venue where its held will drastically improve the chance of their attendance. Thus, its important to keep these photos up to date. Take a few at each meeting and update your website as needed. No need to go over the top, but a handful of photos goes a long way.
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Record presentations and publish them online
Recording presentations can be a mixed bag. On one hand you are asking your speaker to take all this time and prepare a talk, it’d be a shame if more people didn’t have an opportunity to see it. On the other hand, you don’t want to people to not come to a meeting and expect to watch it later online. For my own group we walked the line by recording main talks but not recording show and tell. In addition to having some content be in-person only, it also helps encourage people to do show and tell since there is less on the line and it can be more casual. All in all, I would expect recorded presentations from a first year group. For some more technical info on how we did recordings check out this blog post.
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Take notes for post-event email
Another nice thing to have is meeting notes. What was discussed, referenced or shared. It’s a great asset to share post meeting. This could be anything from a rough outline to a nicer formatted mailing with some photos. The links and notes will be helpful to those who attendees or could not.
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Followup and thank your speakers
Ask them for feedback and what you can do to improve the process for future speakers.
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Growing and Sustaining a Group
I wrote growth when I first drafted this original outline but there is nothing wrong with sustaining too. Not every group should grow. All that said here are some things to do and consider outside the monthly list of responsibilities.
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Add to the leadership
One of the biggest positive moves I ever made while running the Philly CocoaHeads group was to expand the leadership team. Handing out responsibilities, even small things, quickly turns this from “Mike’s Group” to “Our Group”. In fact some of the new responsibilities were quite big, in seeing new events like Side Project Saturday kickoff as well as a more active web presence on Twitter. I highly recommend you find ways to share the month to month responsibilities with other people as fast as possible. I think it’s probably the most important step in making sure this group lives past yourself.
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Consider other event types
If your main meeting is mostly presentations, consider adding a more hands on coding day. Maybe do a once a year social event where people can bring their partners. If you have people who can’t make it out, maybe do an online only event like a book club. If you meet downtown in a city, consider a suburban event. If there are other groups that you relate to have a crossover event. (We once did a single event with iOS and Android developers that was a great success.)
Having multiple types of events lets different people participate in ways they are most comfortable.
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Chat Room
One side project that was started by a newer member was the addition of a Slack chatroom for the group. We’ve been running it for a few years and I’d say it has had a big impact on the group. We have over 300 members, with about 60-70 active per week. Lots of good discussions in #code-help, #gig-swap, and #off-topic. More surprisingly it serves as a great host of direct messages, which for our Slack account for the majority of message posting.
I highly recommend setting up a chat room. It can add a lot of soul to the group. As an admin I’d spend a little extra time making sure people find help when they are looking for it as well as making sure new people feel welcomed. If you really want to keep alert, watch for the Slack info on when users become inactive. Maybe send them an email asking if they are ok, why they aren’t as active and if you can do anything to help.
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Money and taxes
When you are just starting out it’s easy enough to lean on free web tools and to pass around a hat to pay for a few pizzas. As you grow you may want to do more and this more might cost money.
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Accepting sponsor donations
Lots of local companies are willing to support local meetups. Usually in exchange for the money you let them do a short hello at the start of a meeting. Many times they are looking to recruit new employees. If you can it’s also nice to include a short mention on your own website / Twitter / mailing list.
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Charging membership dues
My personal preference is to keep meetings open to the public but there are others who prefer to run a closed group that collects dues. If you do collect dues, expect more resistance than you expect towards paying. I’m not saying that’s right, but just what I’ve experienced.
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Charging for special events
For Philly CocoaHeads we had a period of running one-day, 4-5 hour workshops. These workshops took a lot of time to prepare for so we did charge a small fee to help compensate the instructor. It wasn’t anything too large, and not fully inline with commercial workshop education prices. The general vibe was helping people out, sharing and educating locally so it made sense.
In that vain, if you wan to do something a little out of the box and can justify charge for tickets, I’d say go for it. I would however caution that your group events should lean towards the non-profit goals and not commercial, for-profit goals.
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Paying taxes
I am not a lawyer. I am not an accountant. You should get these if you have real tax questions.
That said… Taxes are a sticky issue with meetup groups.
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On using Meetup.com…
I’ll be frank, I have very opinionated feelings about Meetup.com. I don’t have a specific personal negative incident that impacts my evolving perspective.
In general my dealings with them have been pretty normal. I would describe my longterm experience with Meetup.com as initially a little quirky but ultimately a helpful tool, to my current growing concerns about its long term sustainability and possible conflicts of interest.
In short, I think the world needs a better Meetup.com alternative. I would love to be involved in the construction of such an alternative but for now I instead am focusing my efforts on helping the group organizers more directly.
With all that said, here are some pros and cons regarding using the Meetup.com site.
Pros:
* Very helpful at getting new people to find your group.
* Usable toolset for building a regular calendar or RSVP-able events.
Cons:
* Some of the new people you attract through Meetup.com will be a poor match for your group.
* While usable, some find the toolset limiting past a certain scale.
* Some might consider the toolset pricy.
Biggest Cons:
* You do not own your own group.
* You can’t have your own domain.
* You don’t really own your data.
* If you step down / stop paying, the group is handed to another.
* You don’t have access to your member’s contact info.
* Concerns about longterm services with regard to new corporate owners and their interests vs the groups interests.
* According to the privacy policy they allow themselves to double dip, in that they both charge for access and sell user data which I do not like.
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Final Thoughts
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Don’t expect overnight success
Expect slow and steady growth
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Ask Question
Please consider joining our forum for group organizers. There I plan to provide a similar campfire to help organizers discuss their own issues of the day.