After looking at some things you should be aware of before you start your own meetup. Let’s take the next step and ask: “What will your meetup be like?”. In this post we’ll take a look at 5 basics that will define your meetup. These are:
As always, this is my own opinion and I might have forgotten something. If you find something missing please let me know and I’ll happily amend this post 🙂
Let’s start with Atmosphere as it is the fuzziest concept but probably the most important one.
Atmosphere – creating a friendly community
When you organize a meetup you create a space where people meet. These people are mostly strangers, especially in the beginning. For the continued success of a meetup it is important to create a welcoming, inclusive and friendly atmosphere. How do we get there?
One of the most important factors here is you, the organizer. Whether you want it or not you’ll lead by example. Your actions and behavior will influence the expected behavior of the group. Be friendly, welcoming, stay humble and approachable. It is important that people can come to you, raise concerns, alert you to problems, give feedback or just for a friendly chat.
Speaking of which, to signal to the outside that you want to create a friendly community that welcomes everyone, who abides by a basic set of rules you should have a code of conduct. You should also be willing to enforce these rules. I’m not going to debate the merits of codes of conduct in detail here as that has been done better elsewhere and this post is going to be very long as it stands. Just be aware that just “having” a CoC isn’t enough. Attendees, especially speakers, need to be made aware of it and you need to enforce actions against violators. Also, don’t roll your own. There are plenty of CoCs for events out there that you can take or adjust. For instance, in Berlin we created the Berlin Code of Conduct, which is based on the pdx.rb CoC, translated it into many languages and you can sign it. You will note the contact information on the web page. It is there so attendees can reach out, request help or report violations.
Activity – what do we do
What do you want to do during your meetup? There are multiple possibilities that vary for the size of the meetup and the organizational effort. Also be aware that you can mix and match these, which often makes sense.
This is what the meetups I organize mostly do. We have speakers that present about a topic somehow related to the overall topic of the meetup. We usually have 3 talks that are around 20 minutes each. We split that up into 2 talks, a break, then another talk and then lightning talks (or a quiz!).
Talks shouldn’t be much longer than 20 minutes (I usually cut people off at 30 minutes). Not everyone is interested in a given topic, so sitting there for 60 mins hearing about something you are not interested in can be pretty frustrating. Also it’s hard to focus for so long (especially after a work day as most meetups are on week days and in the afternoon). Moreover, it encourages the presenters to focus on the essentials.
Mostly talks are accompanied by Q&A sessions. Q&A is controversial, some people don’t like it at all while others LOVE Q&A. Some Q&A sessions tend to get down into nitty gritty discussions of one very deep topic that is only valuable to the one asking the questions. Moderation is key here, don’t let it get too long (I tend to do ~3 questions tops).
To get talks going it is great to have a way for people to submit talks with abstracts that you can then schedule for the meetup. This is why I love onruby (first class support!) and deplore meetup.com (have fun searching through all your messages and manually adding everything!). You need to inquire if speakers are ready to give their talk at your next meetup rather early as they need time to prepare (2 weeks to a month or more in advance is the optimum, a week works if you are lucky, but isn’t really fair to the speakers) and your need to do all the speaker management as well.
With this sort of setup, the greatest compliment you can get is that your meetup feels like a “mini conference”. It is a great setup to have, but especially with a high number of desired talks it is hard to keep going month after month. You need to have a rather big community to keep this going with good talks. Of course, it is fine to scale down and sometimes just have fewer talks. At the same time it is vital to establish that the community is friendly, talks by first time speakers are very welcome and that you’ll aid with feedback about slides and/or presentations.
Lightning talks are very short talks (usually 5 minutes – sharp, no running over!) that therefore often don’t need a big preparation time. I don’t usually schedule them in advance for meetups. I just ask during the meetup if anyone has a lightning talk they want to present and then they can come to me and get started right away.
Sometimes people just show off cool hacks or announce new events. It’s usually a lot of fun. I’ll allow a max of 4 lightning talks per event (so that the event doesn’t run too late), usually it’s less.
Especially in smaller meetups where you can’t prepare talks every time it is cool to just sit together and code learning from each other and trying out something new. In my opinion this is ideally accompanied by an introductory talk/tutorial about a library/pattern/whatever so that people can then get to playing with what they learned straight away.
I watched a talk by the creator of Elm where he mentions that for him doing a meetup about Elm with talks often attracted PhDs while a coding/hacking meetup encouraged newcomers and helped to spread the technology much better. I can’t verify the same for RUG::B (no PhDs and plenty of juniors often) but I can see how newcomers benefit more from a coding meetup and how it might be better for very new technologies, that a lot of people just want to play with. In fact I’d love to start some sort of “hack together” meetup in Berlin, but time is sparse 😉
Our local Clojure user group also runs a similar setup (talk + hacking). When I was there I found it very fun, because of the hands on nature and the pure joy of learning from my peers (we played with ClojureScript and Om).
When you have neither talks nor coding together, you can also just sit together and discuss. I’ve seen this used mostly in meetups around “agile” development/project management. In a smaller group (10 to 30 participants usually) participants first propose topics to discuss and in the end it is voted which topics will be discussed. Depending on the venue either all topics are discussed together in the big group as participants chime in or there are multiple topics which are then discussed in different rooms in parallel. The discussions are time boxed and after the discussion is over the findings are summarized for the whole group (especially cool with multiple “tracks” as you get to hear the conclusions of the other groups/topics).
The easiest form of this is to just get together in a Bar/Restaurant and talk about whatever people feel like talking about – rather unstructured. This can be a lot of fun depending on what you are after. I genuinely like people from the community and so it is great for me to get out and get to know them talking about things that aren’t necessarily programming related. We used to have both Ruby Picknick and Ruby Burgers (Berlin style – vegetarian) organized in Berlin, just a friendly get together. People also frequently go to a nearby bar/restaurant after a meetup.
If you choose the “discussion in a bar” as your primary activity, be aware both with the meetup structure and the title that the drinking part doesn’t take the main stage, especially with alcoholic beverages. The concern here is not only about the quality of discussions derailing, but it can also have a repelling effect to people that don’t drink and especially minorities. Some people don’t feel safe in this environment (especially with lots of strangers!) or simply don’t like it by nature.
A quiz prepared in advance about oddities, edge case behaviours or “Aha!” features of the technology of discussion has been really successful for us. Usually everyone is pretty engaged trying to figure out the answers plus you learn something. Mostly what you learn isn’t really that applicable but still fun to know.
Examples of what I’m talking about: Ruby Trivia one two and three.
Of course it’s great if you have some sort of prize for people who answer questions. It’s not necessary though, people are fine just answering for the fun and joy of it.
Refreshments – people are thirsty & hungry
Make sure that drinks are available at your chosen venue, either sponsored or for an affordable price. It’s important that there are non-alcoholic drinks (water, lemonade etc.). The presence of alcoholic drinks might depend on your country. In Germany it is rather normal to have beer available at meetups, while I know of meetups in Sweden where there is a conscious decision not to have alcohol at meetups. If you have alcohol at your meetups take care that no one goes over board. Meetups should never be about the drinks, meetups are about the people and the activity (talks, coding..).
Food is optional. It’s great to have food, otherwise people either go hungry for a long time or they have to hurry to get some diner before the meetup starts. However, food for so many people isn’t exactly cheap. It can be more affordable for smaller meetups, though. I know of a couple of small meetups (5-20 people) that have a recurring food + drinks sponsor. I usually ask our hosts if they want to provide food. If they do, great. If they don’t, no problem. If there is food, be sure to announce it in advance so everyone knows. Make sure to also be inclusive with the provided food options. In Berlin we make sure to at least provide vegetarian options and try to provide vegan options.
Venue – where do we meet
The venue for the meetup should be reachable from wherever people mostly work. If you move a bit too far away you can expect a 10 to 30% drop in attendance (+ sometimes frustrated tweets of people who think it’s too far). The place of course should offer enough space for your expected crowd. For talks bigger open spaces mostly work best. If you want to have multiple separate discussion groups then of course you need multiple breakout spaces.
A regular venue is good because people don’t have to look up where to go and how to get there, they just know. It’s also less stress as an organizer as you don’t have to go looking for a venue every time. Often times the regular meeting space is the company at least one of the organizers works at.
However, the Ruby User Group Berlin likes to move around (as from before I took it over). That has advantages as well: You get to know companies from your city, you introduce your meetup to employees of the host company (as they are likely to stick around) and companies that only host the meetup sometimes are much more likely to sponsor drinks and food 😀
As usual, there is no best option. I think for a new meetup sticking to a regular venue is easier for organizers and attendees at first. Plus, in order to be able to move around venues every month you need a somewhat large pool of companies willing to host you, meaning your topic/technology needs to be sufficiently “mainstream”. Sometimes special venues also lead to an increased attendance. Our highest attended meetup ever (150 to 200, depending on whose count you believe) was in the brand new SoundCloud office that people really wanted to see, right after it opened.
Time – when do we meet
The most important property of the time is that it should be regular. This way attendees can get used to when it is. RUG::B is every first Thursday of the month at 19:30 unless that’s a holiday or something special. Done, people know that.
Of course check for scheduling conflicts with similar meetups (especially a Berlin problem?) – you don’t want to have attendees having to decide where to go.
As far as I can tell evenings of weekdays, excluding Friday, work best. Give people enough time to get to the venue and also to grab something to eat before arriving at the meetup. In Berlin meetups usually start around 19:00 or later. As people want to get home at some time make sure the meetup doesn’t run too long (admittedly, especially RUG::B often runs late).
There are also meetups that happen in the morning (to be more parent friendly among other things), which is another idea to be explored.
Now that we have the basics down, think about what your meetup should be like. How do you create a friendly atmosphere? What will the format of the meetup be? Where and when do you meet? What refreshments will there be? When that’s all decided, we’re all set up for the first meetup. So the next post will be about running the meetup – from start to finish 🙂