Log in to like this post! How to Run a Local User Group Chris Eargle / Monday, July 13, 2015 Many years ago, I moved to a new city for work, and I looked for local user groups to help connect with the software development community. Unfortunately, the local .NET user group was defunct, so I decided to visit the group in a nearby (and larger) city. That meeting was great and I learned a lot, but the round-trip was about 3 or 4 hours. More importantly, I wasn’t connecting with the programming community in my city. I decided to ask the user group leader about the situation. I don’t recall all of the details from that conversion, but a fragment of that conversion stands out in my mind to this day. I asked Bill, the user group leader, what I could do about the lack of a user group in Columbia. He responded, “Why don’t you start one?” Research Before starting your own local user group, I recommend looking around for an existing group. If there are groups already meeting on the same technology, it might be better to help them out. Your group would be sharing resources with the other group: speakers, audience, etc. In a large enough city, you can pull this off without much consternation. In a smaller city, it would be prudent to coordinate by choosing different meeting dates, locations, and maybe even format (e.g. a social meeting instead of speaking event). If there isn’t an existing group, look for similar groups in the area. Also check nearby cities and towns for existing groups. Bookmark their websites as you’ll need them. While looking for these groups, you may discover there’s a larger user group organization for your particular technology or interest. These organization often have tools to help you start and run your own group. Connect The next step is to connect with the groups you bookmarked. I recommend attending their meetings in person. Real life conversations establish rapport and lead to opportunities, and emails are rather impersonal. If an email is the only viable option, send one to the user group leader explaining the group you wish to establish and asking for advice. Connecting with the nearby groups is important for finding speakers and sponsors. Explain that you’re starting a group and ask for their contact information. Many speakers travel to nearby cities to give talks, and typically sponsors are recruitment firms having multiple offices or covering larger regions. Don’t be shy. You are delivering what both speakers and sponsors need: an audience. Location Finding a location can sometimes be difficult. While touring Europe, I was often speaking in pubs with a portable projector and a screen. In the US, I once gave a talk in what appeared to be a company’s spare computer parts room. A bit of luck presented itself for my own group. After connecting with the leader of the old user group, he gave me contact information for the facility director of the location used by his group. It would be best to inquire at local universities, colleges, community centers, and libraries. Part of the mission of these organizations is to help educate and provide for the community. They will oftentimes provide the necessary equipment and janitorial services for free since you are helping them meet their goal. The only caveat is that your meeting must be free and open to students and the public. If there are no other viable options, local technology companies may provide space. Start by checking with your own place of employment. I recommend turning to a company as a last resort in smaller cities as it can alienate those that don’t work there. I watched a nearby user group wither away after switching from the adequate facilities at a local library to much better facilities at a private company. Set a Date Your choice of dates and times will have practical limitations based upon cultural norms, the facilities, and other events in the area. In the US, most user group meetings start around 6 pm to give people time to drive to the meeting from work. It’s also a good idea to avoid Fridays and the weekends. The most important thing you can do for the health of your group is establish consistent monthly meetings. This means choosing something like, the second Tuesday of the month, and sticking with it. For your first meeting, give yourself enough time to make the necessary arrangements. A month or two should suffice. Orchestration With a date and location in hand, it’s now time to get a speaker and sponsor. For the speaker, contact the speakers you met in nearby towns and invite them to speak at your user group. If a particular speaker is unavailable for the inaugural meeting, you may receive an offer to speak at a future meeting. This will help you build a schedule for the future. Be sure to also line up a speaker for the following meeting. At this point, you probably have sponsors calling you. The role of a sponsor is to provide food and beverages, and in exchange they get to take part in the pre-meeting social. I like to thank them for their support and give them a few minutes to talk about their company before the speaker starts. Sponsors are an important part of the user group ecosystems as they are often recruiters, and sometimes you will have user group attendees looking for a job. Reaching Out No user group is complete without attendees. Be sure to create a website for your group and include upcoming meeting details. You will need a way for people to sign up to help predict how much food and beverages the sponsors will need to provide. I recommend using a site like Eventbrite for this. If this functionality isn’t provided by your site, create a mailing list so you can alert your group’s members to upcoming events. For your first meeting, reach out to the contacts you made earlier for help. They will know people in the area who might be interested in your meeting. Be sure to invite coworkers and other colleagues. Take out ads in local periodicals and newsletters, and ask the location facilitator if you can advertise on bulletin boards there. The Big Day Arrive at your meeting location early enough to check the equipment and greet people as they enter. You should have included about half an hour for arrival and socializing. Since they’re responsible for the food, the sponsors will likely show up about 15 minutes early. Attending the other groups gave you a clear idea of how to run a meeting, but remember that things can go wrong. Just do your best, and don’t sweat it. Your attendees actually do appreciate the effort you put into making the event happen. I encouraged you to line up a second speaker, and this is where it’s most important. At the end of the meeting, thank the speaker, sponsors, and the audience for attending; then invite the audience back for next month’s presentation. Good Luck Running a user group is an exciting and rewarding adventure. From here on out, it’s really just a matter of bringing speakers and audiences together, but you will find other opportunities to do amazing things. For example, an audience member may have something really cool to show off, whether it’s a short demo before the meeting or an entire presentation. You’ve created a platform for your local programming community to share, and that’s something special.