HOWTO start a technical meetup

November 29, 2010

One year ago I found myself wishing there was a JavaScript meetup group here in Vancouver. Today I’m running VanJS, one of the largest JavaScript meetups in the world ((We’re #6 on Meetup by members for JavaScript-specific groups. If you look at recent attendance, we’re the largest outside of NYC and the Bay Area.)), featuring high-profile speakers like John Resig. I’ve made some great contacts, helped spread JavaScript knowhow in my city, and seen a lot of great talks I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. And now, you should do the same thing.

Get started by recognizing a vacuum. If you wish there was a meetup in your city for a given technology, there’s probably demand. It’s easier to get momentum behind something that’s hot like JavaScript, but as long as there’s interest, you can pull it off. Once you’ve picked a topic, gauge interest on your favourite social medium. If you can get 5 or 10 people on board to attend, you’re ready to apply the following recipe.

What (The Format)

Two speakers for 45 minutes each. People just can’t learn for longer than 45 minutes. If your talks are under an hour, they’re digestible, don’t leave people exhausted, but are long enough that you can get into a satisfyingly technical topic. Even shorter is fine.

Having two speakers will double your potential audience, and you’ll challenge people who might think they only care about one topic. You can’t really vet the talks in advance, but one rough talk paired with one strong one will still make for an enjoyable evening.

To finish up each night, lead your crowd out for a drink. This turns a group of lecture attendees into a community. You’ll find out what people want to see at the next meetup, meet future speakers, and get to hang out with the perfect crowd: one you created around your favourite technology. Attending the talks is a filter that makes the beer conversation simply awesome.

When (The Schedule)

A weeknight every couple months is a good pace. You might get pushback on weeknights, but it turns out that a lot of the fun and interesting people are busy on Friday and Saturday nights. Speakers probably want to be home with their family on weekends, and meeting space and afterparty space is easier to find on weeknights.

If you have a really top-notch speaker who will only be in town at a specific time, schedule your event then. Still, every two months is a good frequency to make sure you don’t run out of good speakers or topics, encourage people to come out when it does happen, and keep yourself from burning out.

Who (The Speakers)

If possible, set the tone by being speaker #1. Then recruit the friends and the contacts you have in the field to come talk. Modest folks will claim they aren’t qualified, but most programmers are experts about certain topics without even realizing it.

Once the meetups are attracting people you don’t know, chat them up. Ask if they’d like to give a talk, or know anybody who would. When you go to conferences, seek out the people you’d love to see speak and pitch them - ask if they’ll be in your city anytime soon. ((This is how I got John Resig to VanJS: I chatted with him at a conference and asked if he’d be in Vancouver anytime soon. Nothing magical to it, he’s just a cool guy.)) Have others do the same. Once speakers can see you’re a regular meetup that seems to be organized well, they’ll be willing to give a talk. In general, just find people who are doing great work and reach out to them.

When looking for speakers, look for advanced topics and specific talks. You’re better off blowing people’s minds than boring them. Going for advanced content will challenge people to learn, keep the list of new topics long, and excite the type of people you want. Focused talks also work as a nice filter for “the scene” ((What I mean by “the scene” is people who identify as part of the tech community, but don’t actually care much about your meetup’s topic. Bless their hearts, but before you know it you can have a Liveblogged Social Media Tweetup instead of a technology meetup. If that happens, the people that get shit done will stop coming to the events and go back to getting shit done.)) taking over your event.

Where (The Space)

Most cities have coworking spaces for startups and small businesses that will happily host a tech meetup. The best spaces are walking distance to both the local tech startups and a good beer place. Once you grow beyond coworking spaces, seek out companies locally that are hiring programmers who use your technology.

These companies will be happy to sponsor space for your events. A couple key contacts here can be the key to getting speakers, space, and good people to go for beer with. For example, about half of VanJS’ speakers come directly or indirectly through the awesome folks at Joyent and Nitobi.

Why (The Reward)

Building a successful tech meetup connected me with lots of awesome people and helped me launch Steam Clock. More importantly, it gave me the meetup I’ve always wanted. I get to book the talks I want to see, and once the projector is set up and everything’s under control, I can sit back and learn something awesome. All in all, it’s definitely worth the hard work.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.