Pure Danger Tech


So you want to start a user group…

30 Nov 2009

This week we celebrate the one year anniversary of the Lambda Lounge, by all measures a very successful first year. I’m asked fairly regularly how to start up a group like Lambda Lounge or how to start up a user group in general so I thought I might as well as answer this on a blog I can point people towards instead of over and over in email.

I’ll say as a preface that I have no magical knowledge here – I can only tell you what I’ve seen work. I don’t think there’s just one way to make a group either – there are lots of ways to put the pieces together into a sustainable group.

Planting the seed

Forming a new user group requires a clear idea of the focus of the group. This usually is pretty obvious – a language, an operating system, an application package, etc. You then need to recruit some people to your cause. I would recommend finding 10-20 people with the same interest before kicking things off.

A convenient way to start gathering momentum is to create a mailing list where you can set up the operating procedures for the group. Usually it’s good to work out:

  • Meeting time – it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. I ran a poll with some options for day of the week and found the most promising candidates and then unilaterally picked one. Generally, two hours is a good maximum meeting length. At the end of a full work day, it’s impossible to sustain attention much longer than that.
  • Location – you need to meet somewhere but fortunately it’s usually not too hard to find that. Some rich sources of meeting locations are the companies of the group participants, consulting companies (always interested in meeting developers), libraries, and schools.
  • Meeting format – by far the most common format is to have a single speaker at each monthly meeting. At the Lambda Lounge, we have enough speakers and topics that we’ve had no problem doing two shorter talks per meeting instead. For our group, I think this works better but your mileage may vary. One benefit of doing shorter talks is that there is less pressure per talk and that encourages more people to step up and get involved since they don’t have to carry the whole month’s meeting.
  • Speakers – meetings need speakers so start suggesting topics and collecting possible speakers. I usually try to have 2-3 months worth of speakers lined up. I keep my ears open and anytime I hear someone discussing something interesting I try to rope them in.

Keeping it going

Once you get the first meeting or two under your belt, you have to worry about how to keep it going. Generally, it seems like about 1/3 to 1/2 of the total members of the group show up at any particular meeting, so a good sustaining number of members is 40-50. With fewer than that it gets difficult to find enough speakers and enough members to make the group viable over time. We’ve managed to grow Lambda Lounge to around 130 members and our meetings regularly have about 40-50 people at a meeting. Other groups that I occasionally attend show similar patterns.

When the group is young you’ll need to spend some effort marketing to help it grow. If there are local calendars, get your group listed. Create a web site! Domain names and hosting are stupid cheap – it’s totally worth creating a blog site dedicated to the group on your own domain name. Create a Twitter account for the group and post info related to the group as well as specific to your topic. Ask all attendees to post about meetings on Twitter and blogs. Record your talks and put them on the net (I’ve been really happy with blip.tv).

One of the decisions I made early on was that our mailing list would be private and open only to people that actually attend the meetings. This is a somewhat unusual choice but I think it’s been a really important factor in our success. Having the limited membership means that you generally know the people that write on the mailing list and having it closed means that people can be a bit more free in their discussions. Both factors contribute to a closer-knit feeling of local community. That said, other groups have made other choices and make them work and this is still a topic of discussion so it might change in the future.

Dealing with sponsors has been interesting. We were lucky enough to score an awesome location with a very helpful host in Appistry. We never asked them for anything but the space but they supplied food and beer at many of the meetings and have generally been perfect hosts. Over time we’ve started to take sponsorship, mostly from the usual candidates of recruiting companies. This can feel really cheap with the wrong setup, especially when recruiters give a lengthy and unrelated pitch at the meetings. We do things a little different at the Lounge and I think it works out pretty well.

What if you’re having trouble finding enough people for a group? You might think of broadening the scope to pull in people that are interested in something similar but not exactly the same. In fact, the idea for Lambda Lounge came out of combining a bunch of groups that were talking about different dynamic or functional languages and bringing them under one umbrella.

Hopefully that helps someone. If you have questions, please ask in the comments.