Tips and Thoughts on Founding A User/Developers Group
It's been something like three or four months since I started working on founding the Dayton .NET Developers Group. It's been a heck of a fun roller coaster ride so far, and I thought I'd pass on some lessons learned in case anyone out there happens to look for info on starting a user group.
First off, make sure you understand where I'm coming from. This post is supposed to be a bit of realistic advice from someone who is absolutely enjoying the process. Having a realistic picture of an effort before starting is an important thing! This is written from the point of view for a .NET group; however, many things are applicable to starting any group regardless of its specific theme.
Be damned sure you've got an inkling of the commitment you're making. Building up a developers group takes a heck of lot of sweat equity. You'll be spending a lot of time on the phone trying to publicise the group. You'll be spending a lot of time writing e-mails. You'll be spending a lot of time contacting other event organizers to try and get on their coat tails. It's sheer marketing hack work, but it's absolutely worth it.
Create a mission statement for your group. Think about what you want to accomplish by founding the group. Think about what benefits your members will gain by joining the group. Think about the benefits sponsors will get by giving you funds to support the group. Think about what benefits employers will get by possibly cutting their staff loose a bit early once a month to attend meetings. Think about how your members will benefit from incredible networking opportunities and exposure to industry-leading trends and speaker.
Write all that down in a clear, professional fashion. Use it to build a call script for when you start making calls to companies in search of new members.
Get in touch with national resources.
First stop should be contacting your Microsoft regional developer evangelist. Drew Robbins, the DE for my region has been an incredible asset -- plus he founded the Columbus group so he's had terrific tips for me. How do you find your regional DE? Contact other .NET groups in the area and check with them! Second stop should be registering with CodeZone which holds MSDN user groups. Third stop should be registering with the International .NET Association (INETA). INETA has a moderately useful white paper on starting a user group.
Get in touch with regional resources
Check out user groups in the region. Contact their leaders. Most leaders, not all, will be very happy to help you get your group going. I've had killer, fantastic support from the guys at the Columbus and Cincinnati groups. Smart menschen should see your founding group as an asset to the region, not as competition.
Furthermore, think about pairing your meeting dates with a nearby group. I paired our meetings up next to Columbus's. This will let us work together to get speakers in for two meetings on one trip. I think this helps a smaller group get bigger names in to speak if they can pair up with a larger, better-established group.
Get in touch with local resources.
Search out other user groups, particularly something like generic computer user or software developer groups. Heck, touch bases with other specific groups!
Other good resources include local publications like your newspaper and local business journals. Also check to see if there's a IT-related talk show on any of your local stations. I was lucky enough to hook up with the guys at IT Matters, and they had me in the studio for an hour gig about our group.
Make sure to look for any local or regional groups which have the mission of helping boost IT industry in the area. We're lucky to have the Greater Dayton IT Alliance here in the greater Dayton metro area. These folks are a terrific help.
Hit the phones
Build a list of local IT companies to call. Search Monster.com, your local paper's job listings, and any other resource you can think of to build a list of companies who might be interested in, or are already doing .NET development. Create a call script talking about the group's mission (See Vision above) and why that company's developers and tech leads would benefit from membership.
It's tough, but try to speak with IT managers or CTOs. Marketing people won't be much help, nor will secretaries.
Important note here: the folks you're speaking with are very busy. Have your script ready and rehearsed so you can get your message across in as short a time. Conversely, your script should just be talking points, not something you read out word-for-word. Do you want calls from telemarketers? Nope. Don't do the same to the folks you call!
Find a kickoff event
See if you can't find a local tech-related event to use as a kickoff for your group. Does your Chamber of Commerce or other organization have an event you can use? What about some Microsoft product launch? Is there an expo around?
Research and find one of those, then latch onto that event's organizers like an alien on John Hurt's face. Cheerfully use every bit of publicity from them you can, and then some. See if you can inject publicity announcements into any mailing list they've got. Be a shameless leech. Smile while you're doing it, and be very sure to thank them repeatedly.
Keep polling your membership to see if folks are interested in helping out. The burden of running a developers group is a very stiff one. You need help to get it done. Break tasks out into small jobs so your members can nibble of pieces of your workload.
Here's a tough bit of reality: You won't get anywhere near the help you might expect. Your new members are folks with lives outside of work, and they're not going to be willing to take on the huge burden like you are. You'll have folks who offer to help, but won't follow through when you pass on tasks. You'll have mass silence when you mention a few opportunities to help during meetings.
Don't get frustrated. (OK, too frustrated.) Before long you'll find one or two folks to help out. Take advantage of them, but make sure you understand exactly what level of commitment they're willing to take on. Don't overburden them past their borders -- you don't want to frustrate those folks who are willing to step up.
Load up on swag
Stoop to shameless bribery of your members. Round up as much loot as you can to give away. Several book publishers are great supporters of user groups. Check out programs from Apress, Addison-Wesley, and O'Reilly. I had lousy luck trying to get ahold of anyone from Wiley/Wrox: rude folks who couldn't have cared less. Let me know if you have better luck with them -- they've got great books.
Furthermore, look to publishers of neat tools and other software. See if they'll donate a copy or three for you to give away.
OK, I've rambled on enough. There are undoubtedly many things I've forgotten (Should have used GTD more better!), but this is a pretty good list. Leave me a comment if you stumble across this and find it useful, or if you've got suggestions to add to it.
My work over the last few months has been fairly staggering, but it's been tremendously productive and interesting. Founding a developers group gets you in the door with some amazing folks. I've found contacts which will help me tremendously in my career, learned a lot of great things, and most importantly made some good friends.