I ran a meetup for 2.5 years
- Meetups are great for communities, but they require everyone to help out and engage.
- Expectations are hard to change, be mindful of the precedent you are setting early on.
- I would absolutely try it again
I live in Beaumont, Texas. Beaumont's primary industries are petrochemical and medical. These two massive industries are both fairly resistant to technological innovation, especially in Southeast Texas. Beaumont is also the home of Lamar University, which is known for its fantastic engineering program. While Lamar isn't known for its Computer Science program, it has a steady flow of CS majors that graduate every year... and most immediately move away, because there are no CS jobs in Southeast Texas.
I give that context to say that, when I decided that I wanted to start a developer meetup, the odds were against me. While there are developers that exist in Beaumont, most work from home and have no knowledge that there are people with similar interests in the area. In an attempt to remedy this, I decided to start a meetup for developers in December of 2015. I attended a Node.JS meetup in Houston so I could get a feel for the format that I should aim for, and started getting the word out that I was planning the first event. I rented out a local coffee shop's event room, planned a couple presentations, and made a schedule for the evening.
The first meetup went really well. In fact, the first 5 or 6 meetups consistently had around 10 people attending. I was ecstatic, I was getting the opportunity to meet and engage with several local developers that I had never met before, and we were starting to form a community. At the end of every meetup, I would ask the group to let me know if there was a presentation anyone wanted to give at next month's gathering, which consistently resulted in silence. While there were a few outliers, I was giving most of the presentations at the meetups. This was great at first, because I wanted practice with public speaking, but it ended up being hugely detrimental to the meetup.
My biggest mistake was failing to engage the community as early as possible, and setting unrealistic expectations
I started my meetup with a preconceived notion of what a "successful meetup" looks like, from my experience at the Node.JS meetup in Houston. This included two planned talks, and a workshop/interactive activity time. Starting my own meetup, I assumed that I needed to have a similar structure to keep people engaged. Unfortunately, I failed to recognize how Beaumont's differences from Houston would affect how people engaged with the meetup. None of my attendees had previous developer meetup experiences, so when I told them "this is what a developer meetup looks like", and laid out my planned schedule, they all took that as gospel, and didn't think twice.
I haphazardly put myself in the position of being responsible for all of the planning, including snacks, giveaways, presentations, and hackathon nights. I should have identified this much sooner, and put work in to actively engage others in the community to step up and lead different tasks, so it wasn't me doing everything. The meetup quickly became an event that I dreaded, because I would be responsible for coming up with topics and preparing presentations to share with the group. No one else really ever wanted to step up and volunteer to give presentations, so I eventually stopped asking. It was draining. About 15 months in, I decided to take a break for awhile.
During the break, I was able to identify another pain point. Every new meetup I scheduled and announced had an increasing number of RSVP's, but somehow a decreasing number of attendees. This made it harder and harder for me to plan meals and activities, because I never knew exactly how many people were going to attend. After doing a good bit of research, I was able to figure out a good solution for this. After the 9 month break from the meetup, I decided to charge a small fee ($5) to RSVP for the meetup. This amount was supposed to be small enough so it was never a financial barrier to anyone, but significant enough that it made the RSVP mean something. This helped cut the RSVP list way down, to a much more realistic number. I also actively made the plan to not force the meetup into any particular structure, and not come with any prepared presentations.
The first event we had after the break had the best attendance in the entire run of the meetup. Unfortunately, I could never escape the eternal question, "who is presenting tonight?" The community still wasn't in the mindset of reaching out and volunteering to contribute presentations, and still expected me to plan and organize every part of every meetup. I had dug myself into this hole, and I couldn't find the escape.
I continued this looser format for awhile, and again saw attendance decline as it had before. It was disheartening. Our final month, we had 2 attendees other than myself. I finally decided I wasn't interested in leading a meetup that was constantly draining me with little to no return or engagement from the community.
Overall, I am very glad the meetup existed. I made some great friends, and I am very thankful for that. I made mistakes early on that I ended up paying for. I would love to start another meetup someday and use the things that I've learned about this type of community.