Before you start to organize a meetup

I’ve been running the Ruby User Group Berlin for over 3 years now. Additionally, I’ve been running the React.js Berlin meetup for about a year now. These are meetups with 60 to 90 attendees per meetup right now (ruby used to be 100+) and rather well known. Also I run the lovely rails girls project group “rubycorns” together with Til, bringing you rorganize.it. As a result I regularly get asked “Tobi, how do I organize a meetup?”. So instead of repeating myself I’ll write up some basic thoughts on organizing meetups of different sizes. This is my own opinion based on my experience, so other advice may vary.

As this came out to be rather large on the first writeup I decided to split it up into three posts as follows:

First meetup I moderated. Photo by @wikimatze (link)
First meetup I organized and moderated (back in 2012). Photo by @wikimatze (link)

So let’s get started with the first one:

So you want to organize a meetup?

First of all: That’s great thanks! It’s a valuable contribution to the community! Before we get into the details of what will define your meetup and how to rune a single meetup, let’s see what you’re getting yourself into.

Organizing a meetup is a reoccurring activity that will eat time and energy. Most of the actual work is done before the meetup when you look for locations, talks and coordinate all of that. Naturally there are also communication channels through which you have to be responsive (which I still sometimes fail at) and be active in announcing and promoting the meetup.

I always feel like it’s not that much work, but it always ends up being more work than I normally think. Some sort of passion/excitement for whatever your meetup is about is required to keep it going and help you pick good talks and have a nice atmosphere.Β  If you’re reading this because you want to organize a meetup solely for your company’s or your own good my tip is simple: Don’t. People will realize and neither your nor them will enjoy the experience. If you enjoy it yourself, it also won’t feel like work, which is probably why I always underestimate the effort πŸ™‚

Get a team

Also, make sure that you’re not alone – get a team. You’re human, you can’t always deal with everything as there are more important things in life. Be it vacation, sickness or whatever. It’s good to have someone you know to take over the meetup or just to bounce ideas off each other. I mostly do RUG::B by myself these days for instance, but when I need advice or can’t make it I know I can count on Thilo and Nico. And I couldn’t support the rubycorns on a weekly basis which is why I split that with Til. Also sometimes I can’t make it to the react meetup and then Chris & Bodo thankfully take over.

Me (middle) on the first rug_b meetup I moderated (totally nervous). My then organization mentor @freaklikeme to my right. Photo by @wikimatze (link)
Me (middle) on the first rug_b meetup I moderated (totally nervous). My then organization mentor Thilo to my right. Photo by @wikimatze (link)

Also don’t underestimate the “bouncing ideas off each other” part. Should we allow job ads? Is this a suitable talk? Does anyone know a good last minute location? Can we do anything different? It’s vital to have a trusted team to talk about these. Without them the Berlin Code of Conduct would have never seen the light of the day, among other things.

Your Online Identity

Got a team? Great. The next post will talk about what defines your meetup, but you need to get some place to announce it. Your online presence – a website and most likely also a twitter account. Some form of mailing list/forum is also great to have discussions, announce meetups etc.

Lots of meetups are on meetup.com, it is a good place to get started out and be found (there are people that search for meetups only on their home page). However, I don’t really like it (and really want to move the react meetup off there). Meetup gives you messages, comments and a description for scheduled meetups. It’s nice, but for meetups with talks they are missing the whole talk management. E.g. “Which talk proposals do I have?” and “I want to schedule this talk for this meetup”. It’s a hell to manage. Plus the RSVPs are way off, from experience I can tell you that only ~40% to 50% of that people that said they’ll go will actually show up. Plus it costs money. So what are alternatives?

Berlin.js had a nice workflow where they have a github pages website and you submit talks by opening pull requests to the repository to add them to a meetup. I love the simplicity of this. My favorite is on_ruby though, a white label site for ruby communities. It understands what topics are, people can propose them, you can schedule them, there is a maps integration for locations etc. It’s a great solution overall. And I think the site is also open to hosting non ruby meetups. RSVPs have a different “problem” here though, more people show up than are registered πŸ™‚

Our meetup page - containing all important information at a glance: time, venue (with map), topics, attendees and links to share
Our meetup page – containing all important information at a glance: time, venue (with map), topics, attendees and links to share

For twitter, it is a great and easy way for people to get in touch with you and give your speakers and event some coverage before and after the event. I usually tweet talk teasers in the days leading to the event and photos during talks. Also good for ad-hoc communication like “the door is closed, how do we get out?”.

The mailing list/forum is great to discuss topics further, announce the next meetup date (link to website as the “source of truth”), ask for talks and discuss talk ideas. It can also be used for job ads or other discussions.

These days lots of meetups also have a slack group. The ruby berlin one is quite nice (join here), of course you can also go with the good old IRC but that doesn’t seem to be as hip and cool any more.

Also note, that you don’t have to create and manage all of those yourself or by the team. E.g. I created neither the slack nor the IRC, they were created by members of the community.

Recruiters and other promoters

One of the less well known side effects of running meetups is that you are contacted by a variety of people. Most of them are nice and great people. People who want to give a talk, people that ask if they can help you and people who want to host your meetup. Some are less nice and more nagging though. Recruiters want to promote their jobs at your events and others want to advertise their conferences, workshops or whatever. Be prepared for this and settle on a stance how to handle this.

I “inherited” my stance on recruiters from the previous organizers and it is “no recruitment pitches at the meetup”. Speakers can quickly mention that they are hiring, so can host companies but that’s it. There is a [JOB] tag on the mailing list where jobs may be posted. As for events, community events are fine to announce at the meetup others can also go to the mailing list. “Why?” you ask?

Most developers I know are tired of recruiting messages (enough of that on LinkedIn, Xing etc.). Getting them on the mailing list you can just ignore the [JOB] tag or look at them if you’re interested. Devs usually are at meetups to enjoy talks and connect with peers.

My view on this is enforced by the fact that ever so often I meet Berlin Ruby developers telling me that they stopped coming to the Ruby User Group Berlin 5+ years ago. Their reason (so far) always is because there were recruiters at the meetup somewhat aggressively trying to recruit them, which they found very annoying. So much even, that they never came back. Sad, but true.

That said – meetups are about the participants. I’ll gladly offer some stage time to participants looking for jobs or the like, especially Junior developers.

If you think I’m a bit overcautious, some highlights:

  • Startup founder offered 50€+ plus to be allowed to pitch his startup
  • Plenty of lengthy discussions with recruiters and founders about why they can’t pitch at the meetup and no that is not unjust and not excluding them (pro tip: explain your stance once and then don’t engage in lengthy discussions – sadly I still haven’t mastered this)
  • people wanting to organize their “own” Ruby user group Berlin at their office, announcing that “official” ruby user group Berlin meetup on our mailing list
  • people scraping our website for emails, twitter handles etc. and then writing each member recruiting emails/messages, sometimes pretending they were at the same meetup (Oh I wish this only happened once…)

With that said, luckily this remains the exception. Lots of people understand a simple no and carry on with their lives. Then, of course there also are the nice people wanting to help you, being awesome hosts etc which usually outweighs the others.

It’ll all be alright

If you’re worried now – don’t be. Mostly organizing a meetup is fun. That’s why I do it in the end. I always say that every meetup feels like a birthday party to me – so many great people there that I want to talk to all of them! But I can’t talk to them nearly as much as I’d like because in the end I run around and organize things(tm). And the best is seeing the happy people enjoying the meetup.

Also standing on stage as an organizer for the first time will almost certainly feel weird, but don’t despair – you’ll get used to it rather quickly (at least I did). Also not everything has to be perfect, so don’t pressure yourself πŸ™‚

Make sure you have a small team (one person is enough) to back you up, an idea about your online presence and then we’re ready to get going with the second step – figuring out the 5 basics for your meetup, in the next post!

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