Being your own boss means keeping up with the latest trends and new technologies. This can be tricky. Fortunately, there are groups meeting up around the country to discuss topics such as digital marketing, software development, photography and running a small business.
But what if you can’t find a relevant group nearby? Then seek out the knowledge and start your own!
Here are our top tips for starting, and sustaining, a successful meetup group.
Choosing the right location
Find neutral ground. Holding an event in a company’s office – despite some very kind offers often being floated around – can add a recruitment feel to the event. It’s also good if you can avoid holding an event in a pub. While most people are happy with bars, they can be a hostile environment for some – in particular, licensing laws often exclude young people.
It’s best to pick a regular recurring date. This commits you to how often the events take place and also makes it easier to book rooms in advance. Food and drink sponsorship also make life much easier – people who are tired and hungry are more likely to come to an event after work if they know dinner is being provided. Note that some pizza places will offer good discounts for a pre-order if asked.
It’s sometimes difficult to find people willing to speak. While presentations are a common way of structuring meetings, it’s not the only possibility. A great idea that BrightonALT.net group use is to have everyone write down questions and discussion points at the start of the meeting, then voting to allocate time to them before posing them to the relevant specialist.
Pitching talks can be difficult – a good user group will bring in an audience ranging from novices to experts. One way to do this is to have two talks, one technically advanced, the other more general. It’s also good if a technical talk can start with a discussion of the basics – that way, even if people get lost later on, they have still learned something.
Running the Event
Make sure that someone is tasked with acting as a host to greet new arrivals. If someone has come by themselves make sure to introduce them to other attendees. User groups can feel particularly imposing, particularly to new developers and you need to make them as welcoming as possible.
The most common complaint about user groups is that feel cliquey or unfriendly. One way to look on running a meetup is that it is like running a good party. You want people to be at ease and able to meet new people. For that reason you need to follow the rules of hosting any good party:
If you see anyone not talking or awkwardly playing with their phone then, as an organiser, it’s your job to go over and speak to them. And, hopefully, introduce them to someone else who isn’t talking.
If there are food and drinks, have them on separate tables so people are forced to move around the room. And don’t put the drinks near the door as it causes people to cluster in the entrance.
Don’t put too many chairs out at the start of the meeting. You need to have a few chairs available, as not everyone is comfortable standing – but if you have too many chairs then people settle in place rather than talking to one another.
It can be difficult to predict how many people will turn up to a free event. Before we had sponsors to provide food, as many as 50% of the people who said they were coming didn’t arrive. This is now down to about 30%. There’s no easy solution to resolving these no-shows which can make things a little difficult when the room has a fixed capacity.
Making it Sustainable
If a group is easy to run then it’s more likely to survive. From the very first meeting you should keep a checklist of all the things that need doing. Who needs to be emailed to confirm the booking? Who do you need to email to publicise the event?
Having a checklist also makes it easier to delegate tasks and bring in co-organisers. Running the meetings with other people makes life much easier. Tidying up after meetings can take a long time when you’re doing it by yourself. It’s also good to have other people to help in case you’re sick, your enthusiasm flags, or your circumstances change.
As the group grows, you will need to consider what the ground rules are. How will you handle companies who want to recruit through a group? Passing on direct messages to the group can irritate members – better alternatives are inviting companies to come down and meet people face-to-face – or, even better, to give a talk.
The Brighton Java group has been running since 2012. Brighton has an enthusiastic and collaborative digital community, with groups devoted to .net, PHP and Drupal, but for some reason it didn’t have a group devoted to Java and the JVM. With this in mind, I joined forces with David Pashley to found one.
It takes some time to build up a regular group of people, but communities do eventually form. Brighton Java has gone from small meetings with a handful of people, to packed rooms of enthusiasts, more than happy to give up an evening for networking and presentations. If you’re struggling to find like-minded professionals in your town or city, you should definitely give a meetup a try.
James Burt is a Java consultant who runs the Brighton Java meetup group – which is always looking for new speakers. He worked in the Crunch development team until recently deciding to go full-time self-employed – so he’s now a Crunch client!