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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, Matt Stauffer invited me on his podcast the Five Minute Geek Show to talk about starting a user group. This gave me cause to reflect on the past two years and the successes they’ve brought and the lessons I’ve learned while starting and running a user group.

Officially, UpstatePHP started in March 2014, however, it actually began 4 months earlier with an idea.

I’ve heard the saying “if you don’t have a local user group, start one.” That’s easier said than done for me. I’m a self-diagnosed introvert. To my friends I seem outgoing, but that’s only when I’m really comfortable with the people around me. Throw me into a new situation, like a party where I don’t know anyone, a new job, or really anything that involves human/stranger interaction, and I’m as quiet as a mouse. Now, a good 4 months of straight hanging out with those people and becoming close to them, then I’m outgoing, loud, stupid, and maybe funny? So the idea of starting a user group myself scared the crap out of me because it meant I’d have to be front and center and constantly have strangers looking at me for direction.

Ironically, being an introverted person and not enjoying meeting new people, I actually have a passion for community, for sharing. So ultimately, I started UpstatePHP. But how do you go from idea to execution? How do you take that seed and grow it into something prosperous and fruitful? I didn’t know, but was determined to figure it out.

So after two years of running a successful user group, I’ve learned a few things, and I’d like to share them with the world.

Anyone Can Do It

Anyone absolutely can start a user group. I mean that.

Prior to starting UpstatePHP, I had never even been to a user group meeting so I honestly had no idea what to do. Don’t let inexperience stand in your way. Look around at other user groups and see what they’re doing. I personally stole borrowed inspiration from SoFlophp.

Meetup.com

Pay the $10 or $15 for a meetup.com account.

Starting out, I was too cheap to shell out $15/month for a meetup.com account and instead went the free route and created a simple Facebook group. This works well at first as it provides events, and a place for members to post information. We quickly outgrew Facebook and needed a website to have pages to display static information. Now I had 2 sites to manage instead of one.

It’s not worth the hassle of rolling your own site to start with. Start with meetup.com and grow from there if you need to. Most likely, you won’t.

You Can’t Do It Alone

Helping Hands

Running a user group is a lot of work. Networking, marketing, finding speakers and sponsors every month is a lot of work for one person. Starting out, this will most likely all fall on your shoulders, but watch out for anyone showing interest in volunteering and let them.

Early on I was fortunate to find a great partner, Ryan McAllen, who was willing to find sponsors for me every month. This was a HUGE burden off of my shoulders, and I couldn’t do it without Ryan.

If anyone is willing to help in anyway, let them. This is their group, not yours. Build a community of helping hands.

Sponsors

You need sponsors. You’ll need a place to meet for sure. Find someone to sponsor you and give you a space in their office to meet every month.

Almost as importantly, try and find sponsors for food each month. If you’re asking people to give you their evening, feed them. It’ll go a long way.

Be Consistent

Consistency is key.

You need to find a time and day that works, and stick to it. Shifting things around will confuse people and you may permanently lose members.

Have you ever seen an awesome show (*cough* Alcatraz but it fails because the network (*cough* Fox) moves the day and time more than once? People need consistency and schedules. If I know my favorite show comes on every Monday at 8pm, I’ll make my schedule around that. If the day and time float, I’ll probably end up not watching it and miss out on something great.

It’s the same concept with regular meetings. Keep them regular.

Day & Time

There are some considerations to keep in mind when picking the day and time of your meetings. Find out when other local established user groups meet. Some of your members might cross pollinate and you don’t want to force them to choose. If you live in the South like I do, you’re competing with church which is typically mid-week on a Wednesday. With these things in mind, Thursdays worked out best, and looking at holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, I chose the third Thursday of every month so I could avoid holiday conflicts.

As for a time, initially I chose a 2 hour block of 6:30-8:30pm. This gave people time to get off work, fight traffic, and comfortably settle in to our monthly group. Find a time that works best for you and your location.

Location

Try to find a sponsor/venue who will be willing to host your meetings for an extended period of time. A consistent location is just as important as a consistent time slot each month.

Be Flexible

Format

Find a format that works for you and go with it.

Having no experience prior to starting my group, I didn’t know what format user groups typically used, so I chose something that I wanted.

UpstatePHP started with a format of 2 speakers giving 15-20 minute talks with time for Q&As afterwards. This worked well for a while, but it was difficult to maintain. Finding two people every month to speak is difficult by itself, and it without eager volunteers it quickly becomes you nagging people until someone finally volunteers to fill that extra slot.

With our first year under our belt, we took a step back and asked our members what they wanted, what worked and what didn’t. We retooled a bit and decided to go to a one speaker per month format with space before for lightning talks and more time for socializing afterwards. This is a community after all and not a lecture hall. Now, instead of having presentations for an hour+ with little time afterwards, we’re done and wrapped up in 30-45 minutes and people feel comfortable hanging out until the end just chatting with one another.

Since this change, we’ve seen more participation and a stronger community develop.

Find a format that works for you, but be willing to adapt to the needs of your group.

Day & Time

I said above to find a day and time and stick to it, and I mean that. But again, listen to your group.

Initially we were meeting from 6:30-8:30pm. After the first few months, I noticed some of the members were leaving at around 8pm and even a few of them stopped coming all together. I came to find out that they had children and this was around their bedtime. Given the choice of hanging out with a bunch of PHP nerds or their kids, their kids win every time. So we changed our time. We shifted the slot up a half hour early to 6-8pm. We also gave a small buffer of 15-20 minutes at the start of the meeting before presentation for stragglers.

Now our meeting looks like this:

6:00-6:15 - Eat & socialize 6:15 - 1 or 2 5-10 minute lightning talks if scheduled 6:30-7:00 - Main presentation 7:00-8:00 - Closing, cleanup, and hanging out

It took some trial and error, but this new schedule has worked well for us. We noticed some of our members who were parents started coming back and staying until the end.

Listen to the needs of your group, and be willing to flex and adapt to them when appropriate.

Location

Our sponsor/venue, OpenWorks moved to a new location after our first year. The new location provided a better space for our meetings, however, we did not do a great job of communicating the change to our members and attendance dropped for a few months.

Be flexible to change your location, time slot, or any other aspect of your groups structure, but make sure to properly communicate changes to your members.

Go Easy On Yourself

This was the hardest lesson learned for me personally.

Go easy on yourself. Start and end times won’t always happen down to the minute. You can’t account for everything and everyones schedules at all times. Don’t worry if you don’t start at exactly 6:15.

Membership levels will fluctuate and that’s ok! Life happens and not every person will come to every meeting. Seasons and holidays will effect attendance too. Be aware of that and don’t sweat it.

In The End

In the end, it’s worth it.

You can attend tons of meetings and conferences. You can read this and other blog posts to get tips and learn from others mistakes. In the end, life happens and every group is unique. There will be difficult times, but the good times greatly outweigh the bad. There’s no better feeling as an organizer than a member coming up to you and saying “Thank you for putting this together.”

You’re doing this for them, not you. Community > self.

And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love
You make
— The Beatles

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Steven Wade


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Steven Wade Jr

Digital Developer, Pretty Awesome Dude

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