15 Tips For Building A Successful User Group

December 7, 2013

I’m documenting these tips because I believe others will benefit from my experience. It will also make sharing this with others in the future easy. The Las Vegas Ruby User Group (@LVRUG) is one of the most successful user groups in the budding #VegasTech scene. Below are some things which I believe helped make it happen. Keep in mind, my experience is in growing a user group from scratch.

1. Start with a need, take the risk

In November 2009, I moved to Las Vegas. I was a self (book/railscasts) taught developer with just enough skill to get a basic rails app live on the web. If I was going to continue building ScripSmart I needed help from more experienced developers. My search from the local Ruby user group came up empty.

After a $45 gamble on meetup.com, The Las Vegas Ruby Group has grown to over 200 members, weekly events with an average attendance of 20 and a slue of great friendships.

2. Get committed

As an organizer you need to be there every time, especial early on. If one or more people have committed to attending an event, you are the welcoming committee: be there early. If you’re not committed, find another person who has a higher level of commitment. You’ll still benefit from being a member of the group. Organizers don’t have to be the most experienced members of the group, they just need to be the most committed.

3. Meet regularly

It’s best to host events on a regular basis. I’m a fan of keeping it on the same day of the week. It helps fit into the weekly schedules we already follow. For example, meet the first Tuesday of the month.

Better yet, meet every two weeks to gain momentum faster. After all, with monthly meetings a person can easily miss an event and have to wait two months before another chance to connect arrives. Furthermore, meeting every other week increases the chances for new members to stop by to check out the group.

Don’t let setbacks in attendance numbers early on drive your decision to meet less. People will visit and not come back, don’t take it personally.

Not long ago, the other organizers of @LVRUG and I made a commitment to never cancel an event in response to other events in town. We’re in Las Vegas and there are a lot of other great #VegasTech events in town. Based on our attendance numbers, it’s been a good decision.

4. Set an agenda, respect the clock

People like to know what to expect. Everyone’s time is valuable. That means an agenda is a good idea. Set a start and stop time and stick to it. If you have to cut someone off during a presentation, so be it. You’re the organizer and need to keep the ship on course. Be certain to start and stop on time: people are planing their day around your event.

Trust me, the only person who likes to have their time extended is the person who is going over the allotted time. I’m a fan of using a speaker clock. It helps the presenter know where they stand and allows them to make adjustments while they present.

Also, set time at the end of the meetup to plan the agenda for the next event. Do not leave the meetup without a solid agenda for the next meetup. It’s a lot more work and time consuming via email.

At one point attendance stared to dwindle during our informal Hack Nights. After establishing more structure, attendance quickly improved. I’ve been surprised how much it helps.

5. Look for others who can share the workload

Early on in @LVRUG’s existence, I found three others (Jason Arhart, Jeremy Woertink, and Russ Smith) who helped form a solid core of the group. With the four of us committed, value could be delivered each meetup. @LVRUG would not be where it is today without their commitment. Furthermore, if it had been solely on my shoulders to give every presentation and answer every question the group would have failed due to lack of expertise. Remember, I was just getting started as a programer.

One of the ways to recognize those who contribute most is to make the person an organizer. I’m always on the lookout for those who enjoy giving back and thinking of ways for them to best fit into the organization.

6. Set a friendly tone

It’s important to set the tone. I’m a fan of the ‘no asshole’ policy. A user group’s primary purpose is to share information and help others. It’s purpose is not to provide a platform for others to show off their skills and mock those who are learning. If you see this developing, be sure to nip it in the bud. Just tell them there are plenty of places to be a jerk on the internet and to stop eroding the good vibes you’ve work so hard to establish.

7. Cater to different skill sets

It’s important the group does not simply focus on one skill level. If you want to have a healthy group where people can learn and teach, you need to keep it interesting for multiple skill levels. This can be a challenge and we’ve even started a sperate class during our Hack Nights for those who are new to ruby.

8. Make it special

Getting people out of the house can be a challenge. Don’t watch videos; it’s something everyone could do at home alone. I recommend hosting live presentations with a projector in a quite room.

If your group is just getting started, simply meet somewhere casual and share tips and tricks. After it gets a bit bigger, start the live presentations. If the group is small, have a shorter “official” meeting with just one presentation. Having members present in front of others helps the group develop and improve an important skill. These days I’m mostly impressed with the level of quality in @LVRUG presentations. I think they’ve gotten better over time.

We’ve found a sweet spot at 30 minute per presentation. Also, coding katas are great for user groups and ensure your members will be seeing code developed. Finishing early is fine, just use the time to answer questions. Don’t let people go over their allotted time: it’s painful for almost everyone. When time feels scarce, your group will use each minute better.

9. Cover related topics

Your members are there to cover what your group specializes in; however, they don’t live in a silo. It’s good to have a well balanced list of topics. You can stay focused on the groups core while still venturing into other areas for presentation topic ideas. Think of the groups goal as helping others become solid developers.

10. Dedicate a time for networking

If you’re agenda is tight (and it should be), there won’t be much time for networking during the event. However, most people still want get to know others better and have a free flowing conversation. I recommend going to a different location (restaurant, bar) after the meetup to allow members to get to know one and other. While it’s not an official part of the meetup, it’s something everyone should be invited and encouraged to attend.

11. Collect RSVPs

As an organizer, RSVPs are very important. Not only will it give you an idea of how many chairs to warm up, it will also let others see what is going on in the group. During every meetup I remind people to RSVP if they plan to attend. On a related note, take pictures of the meetup so others can see what to expect if they choose to attend.

12. Connect people with jobs

Giving people opportunities through employment is a great benefit of showing up and contributing to a local user group. I’ve seen several people find ruby jobs they love through the meetup. Just be sure to limit the time you spend promoting jobs, most members will be happily employed.

13. Protect your members

As the organizer, it’s important to protect your members from excessive or promotion not directly related to the group. I’m not a fan of collecting RSVPs for an event the group is not hosting. It leads to confusion. Also, don’t use the mailing list frequently: user groups are about meeting others face-to-face and you don’t want members to unsubscribe because you send too much stuff.

During our meetups, I spend 10 minutes on “Group Matters”. I promote other events in town, local jobs and developments directly related to the group. I don’t usually do it through a mailing list.

14. You’re a custodian, not an owner

It’s important to avoid using the group for selfish promotion and gain. Smart people will see right through it and you want smart people to be a part of your user group. Furthermore, plenty of good things will come from giving value to others. Look out for the best interest of the group and how to develop one which can run if you have to miss a meeting or move on from the group some day.

15. Don’t be afraid to shake things up

I like to get feedback from others in both a group setting and one-on-one. Don’t be afraid to admit something is not working, just change it until something does work. I also like to ask new members what they think and what could be better.

15. Final Thought

I started the Las Vegas Ruby Group because I had a need. If you are experiencing something similar, I suggest starting a user group. You’ll learn stuff, make freinds and help build your local community. Your group’s size is not the goal, value gained by members is the true metric and that can happen in very small user groups.

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