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Event Organizing 101Posted by Marty Haught on Wednesday, November 02, 2011
I’ve been speaking at both conferences and user groups about building community and improving what we already have in the Ruby community. At Ruby Midwest, I am giving a sub 30 minute version of this talk and had to cut out a good number of slides. In this process I realized several of these slides might do better as a blog post on the basics of event organizing. While this is not meant to be exhaustive it does try to cover the basics on putting together your first event.
To be more clear, this advice is mostly for ongoing local events such as user groups, hackfests, code retreats and the like. I won’t go into why you should organize, just the how.
The first piece of organizing will focus on your network or connection to the local community. Hopefully you know your community somewhat. If for some reason you don’t, you’ll want to do this immediately. Get out and see what’s happening out there. Attend events, talk to people that are active in the tech community, see what they have to say. I’ve heard this a few times where someone started a new type of meetup only to find an existing one after the fact on a different night of the week. Instead of duplicating effort, exploring the option of combining efforts is much smarter and will lead to a healthier event long term.
Communicate your idea to your network. See if there’s any interest. You might find that by talking about it you’ll not only grow interest in it but also spread the word about the possibility. Your idea may grow once others start to give you feedback. While this may seem scary to you now, it’s a good thing as you can end up with a better event because of it. Though it’s just as important to know when your idea is being hijacked and you should say no.
Seek advice from other community leaders. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the tech sector or not, running an event is similar regardless of topic. They likely will be happy to give you advice and this can make things much easier to get your event started.
Finally ask for help. If you don’t ask, no one may offer help. Many will say no or seem uninterested, this is fine. Some may say yes while others may connect you with another person who might help you out. Don’t be shy, ask away.
Before you proceed with your event, I strongly recommend you identify a core group of interested people. I’ve seen a suggested number of 10-20 but honestly this just needs to be big enough for you to still be willing to go forward with the group. If you’re doing a code retreat it could just be 5 people (a facilitator and two pairs).
Locating your Space
Finding a space to hold your event is pretty important and something you’ll want to arrange early on in the planning process. As I recommend you start small, look for a small space that your event will be comfortable in as it grows. Usually you’ll want to look for a free space. There are plenty of good sources in most communities. Depending on where you are looking to have your event this might be easy or challenging. The following list is sorted with the best choices on top.
- co-working spaces – great choice that will likely have amenities you need and will likely be open to hosting you for free.
- ruby friendly tech companies – another good choice for free space, may be limiting though on how much room you can use.
- theaters, performance halls – while not free, these can be great locations for larger events of 50+ people
- universities, colleges – typically colleges have space that students can use and will often rent out rooms to the community. It really helps if you have a connection to the school.
- public libraries – I usually see these as free or very affordable. Some have restrictions if you’re charging admission though.
- public schools – like public libraries, some public school districts will let community groups use their space. Never hurts to check in.
- coffee shops – depending on the coffee shop, this can be a great space depending on the event type. I find the excessive foot traffic make it undesirable though.
- bars – like coffee shops, bars aren’t a great choice though I have seen some work out just fine.
Once you have your space, core group and general idea of your event figured out, you need to work out the details of the event. Start with drafting a schedule. Imagine what takes place in each part of the meeting. As you do this make a checklist of things you need to do as well as anything you need to bring and setup. Plan out your schedule to the minute and think of the little things such as where people get water, use the restroom. What about power, internet access, seating and table space. Though this is largely common sense, it’s worth mentioning so you don’t start your event and realize you forgot something critical and now have to scramble.
I almost didn’t put it in but figured it’s best to briefly touch on this so it doesn’t get skipped over. If you’re holding a public event, then you should have a public face for information. Essentially someone should be able to google your event name and find all the basic information they need on it such as time, date, location, description and any other details on signing up, what to bring, requirements, cost, etc. You should have a twitter account or some other source for sending out updates on your event. Having a mailing list/google group is another good idea for any group that meets regularly.
You should determine your costs by this point. Hopefully you’re running a free event but if not you need to have a basic budget laid out. Determine all your costs and record them. In the beginning you might have to estimate placeholders until you can get firm bids on whatever it is you need to supply. Common things include space rental fee, AV equipment and food. Consider getting sponsors to cover some of this as well. Many companies interested in sponsoring might have some of what you need or at the least are happy to pick up the tab for part of it. This is especially true if you’re running a free event that is there to benefit the community.
This is for the larger events that have a budget and will draw more attendees. There are lots of places to find sponsors but it varies by community. The following list will give you some ideas on where to look. It’s sorted with the best bets up top.
- local Ruby shops, especially consulting companies
- tech companies interested in devs
- recruiting firms
- training companies
- larger Ruby consultancies, companies not local
- Ruby Central **
- Ruby Central has in the past supported certain type events with grants. I would try to get all support locally first before approaching Ruby Central but it’s good to know the option is there.
One more thing I want to mention on sponsors is that many of them will have marketing or outreach budgets that can easily cover your costs (unless you’re doing a huge event). It’s good to seek them out early in the process and give ample time for them to review your event, what you’re asking and match it up to their budget and goals. Though I won’t get into detail on the process of negotiating sponsorship deals I will give a few pointers. First, be clear on what you’re asking for and what benefit the sponsors will get. Before approaching sponsors, have this figured out. There are plenty of cases where you might find a sponsor before you’ve planned this out which is totally fine. However, a typical sponsor will need to see this before they can consider supporting your event.
This is probably the easiest and the hardest thing about event organizing. Getting the word out about your event and attracting people to it. Initially I recommend you rely on word of mouth, twitter and a blog post or two. Let it start organically and as time passes up the effort to expand your reach. The following list should give you some ideas on reaching out.
- nearby user groups
- tech friendly hang outs
- word of mouth via core group
- twitter, blogs
- sponsorsâ€™ network
- flyers at college campuses
- meet with community leaders
- local calendars
Every community is different so you’ll just need to be creative in asking around and figuring out how to get word of your event to ears that haven’t heard it. I think this is really important if you’re trying to grow community and go beyond those already plugged into local tech events.
This part is all about the various things you need to do for ongoing events. Though planning out the first meeting is usually the most work, you can’t just sit back and let it go. Depending on your format you’ll need to keep bringing in speakers or content for your event. At the least you’ll need to monitor how things are going and make sure you’re still on track with what you envisioned for your event. If things are drifting or people are losing interest, then figure out why and make course corrections. You should be constantly talking to your attendees and seeing what they think.
Part of this upkeep is the concept of ‘inviting continuously’. This can refer to speakers and content as well as reaching out to new people to come to your event. Encourage local tech companies to get involved. The shape this takes depends on your event but the point is you want as many companies as well as local speakers and devs to be invested in your event and cheering for your success.
The slide title for this section was ‘Weeds’ which I think is a great way of thinking about unwanted behavior. While you might not think this is a big deal, it surely can be. When left unchecked it’ll grow like a weed and overtake whatever you’ve planned. It also has the possibility to poison the waters and turn away potential attendees over time. I believe it is likely that all groups or events will eventually have to deal with unwanted behavior. This could take shape as bullying, offensive language, inappropriate comments or solicitations of various kinds. Hopefully it’ll never come up but prepare yourself for dealing with this reality.
One of the first things you should do is determine what sort of behavior is unwelcome. Draft up some basic language on what you expect or allow at your event. It doesn’t have to be legalese, just plain english is good enough. Some of this behavior will come from people who are unaware or insensitive to the fact that their behavior is a problem. Spelling out what is acceptable will go a long way to helping curb this sort of stuff. However, you’ll still need to be ready to deal with it. What I recommend is to be firm but tactful in asking the offender to stop the behavior. Language such as “this sort of behavior isn’t cool with the group” can be effective. Ultimately, you have to decide what’s the appropriate response based on the situation. The one thing I hope you do not do is look the other way. That how these sort of ‘weeds’ get out of hand.
I hope this gives you plenty of tips to get started and go build up your community. Though it can be a lot of work at times, I find it very rewarding and have stuck with it for nearly 6 years. If there’s anything I didn’t address here that is related and you’d like to know more about in terms of event organizing, please post a comment.blog comments powered by Disqus