Need to know: How to build a successful tech meetup group

Hear from some of the most successful tech meetup group organisers in the South West on what makes a great tech meetup tick
6th September 2016

As the South West tech community continues to expand and thrive, the number of tech meetup groups are increasing, bringing together everyone in the community from web developers to agile project managers, hackers to tech startup founders, and more.

With the start of September kicking in, and all the kids heading back to school, there’s a surge of new meetup groups and events across the region.

“Keep it simple, keep it relaxed, make it welcoming”

 

Within these networks, some groups appear to thrive and build dedicated communities of techies over years – others struggle to get their first meeting off the ground.

So, we decided to have a chat with the founders and organisers of some of the most successful and long-standing tech meetup groups in Bristol and Bath to give you some top tips as to what makes the best meetups tick.

Start small

No meetup group launches with 1000 members already in the bag – and that’s okay. Starting small doesn’t mean staying small. Whether you’re looking to keep to small coffee shop gatherings or you’re keen to host sponsored networking events for hundreds, you’ve got to start by getting the community on your side.

“Casual meetups can be a great way to start building a group before you start doing all the complicated stuff”

 

Paul Leader, Organiser of BathCamp, a meetup for anyone who’s into interesting tech and ideas says: “Keep it simple, keep it relaxed, make it welcoming. When you are starting out just meeting in a cafe for the evening is a great, easy way to start.

bathcamp-2016

Keeping it real: Paul introduces a speaker at a BathCamp meetup

 

“It doesn’t have to cost anything, and there’s no need to make it formal or get sponsorship etc. Casual meetups can be a great way to start building a group before you start doing all the complicated stuff.”

Leigh Dodds, Co-organiser at Bath:Hacked, who use open council data creatively to do good, adds: “Offer an inclusive atmosphere and a good reason for people to want to get together. It’s important to recognise that people will have very different technical backgrounds and will be at different stages in developing their expertise.”

Know your community

Whether the idea is to gather like-minded people to socialise, perhaps share knowledge that isn’t being shared or even solve problems that aren’t being solved – there are lots of reasons for starting a new meetup group. The key is to tackle a niche or bring together a community that doesn’t already exist in an area you feel passionate about.

“I realised there was no way I could keep up to date and needed to learn from the community”

 

This has certainly been the case for Serrie-Justine Chapman who, after years of co-organising Bristol Girl Geek Dinners – the first all-women meetup in the city aimed at supporting women in tech – discovered what her community really needed.

sammy-payne-at-bristol-geek-girl-dinners

Inspiring innovation: Samantha Payne, Co-founder
of Open Bionics talks about the startup’s 3D-printed
bionic hand at a Bristol Girl Geek Dinners Meetup

 

Serrie explains: “Due to the number of requests to try and solve the issue of a lack of women in tech, we decided to set up the Women’s Tech Hub Bristol… to start brokering between the women’s tech groups and the tech industry to discuss and look for solutions.”

For Andrew McGregor, it was also the recognition of a gap in knowledge that spurred him on to set up Bristol JS – a group for developers who code using JavaScript (JS), which now has over 1000 members. He tells us: “JS was gaining popularity and fast. I realised there was no way I could keep up to date and needed to learn from the community.

“There have always been a handful of technical user groups in and around Bristol but they were primarily social groups and I was keen to focus on technical advances in JS.”

Then again, if there already exists a meetup group in the area of tech you’re interested in, it’s still nearly always possible to get involved. Scott Alexander-Bown, Co-organiser at mobile-focused tech group SWmobile adds: “Most groups would welcome enthusiastic volunteers with open arms.”

Build a network

If you’ve done your research, however, and have found your idea for a tech meetup doesn’t exist, and you think others would be interested, now’s the time to reach out to people who could get involved.  Whether that’s with venues and speakers to communities of developers or finding people to help in organising regular meetups, being a success is all about creating your own network both in and outside of your niche.

“Enlist some people to help out and share the load and build good relationships with venues”

 

Simon Starr, Founder of Bath Ruby – a group for Ruby coders come yearly conference, gives this advice: “Enlist some people to help out and share the load and build good relationships with venues. Once the owner of Picnic, the cafe we base our meetups at, realised he’d have a group of software developers descending on his café every fortnight, he generously upgraded the internet connection to accommodate us.

“It also makes sense to share tips and advice with other organisers. Abby from TechSPARK recently started the South West ‘Meetup of Meetups’ group, and we have regular meetings as well as a Slack channel to discuss everything from venues to sponsorship.” [If you run a tech meetup and want to get involved with the ‘Meetup of meetups’ group – please contact Abby Frear.]

techspark summer mixer

Tech Chat: 100 TechSPARK members networking and
chatting all things tech at a summer mixer

 

And when it comes to getting speakers, Andrew makes an important point about making the most of those already at the heart of the group: “You don’t need to be a professional speaker in order to know some stack or library that you can share with your peers.”

Leigh agrees: “I’d recommend giving people opportunities to take part or to contribute, e.g. by giving a talk or helping organise an event. It’ll lead to a more vibrant community.”

Consistency is key

One thing our meetup experts all agreed on was that, whatever the style of meetup, keeping things both varied but also consistent are key elements to success.

“Having meetups on a regular schedule helps everyone to remember when they are”

 

Simon explains: “Having meetups on a regular schedule helps everyone to remember when they are, and running a diverse range of events helps you cater to all sorts of people.

“We meet every other Thursday, and most of the time it’s for an informal gathering at Picnic Coffee in Bath; although we intersperse these with talk nights, code golf sessions and PLIBMTTBHGATY hack days.”

Serrie agrees: “We have found over the years that we have to stay constant. Regular monthly meetups, an open dialogue, feedback and interesting talks in the Girl Geek Dinners group has brought our membership up to over 400 women.”

bath ruby meetup

Ruby for all: Bath Ruby mixing things up with an
‘Introduction to Ruby’ meetup for beginners

 

For Leigh and Scott, getting new members through the door has been down to experimenting with and varying meetups to not only accommodate their community’s abilities to contribute to meetups but also to attend them.

Leigh says: “Listen to what the community wants and try to keep things engaging. While originally we focused largely on hack day events, we’ve started to mix things up by also offering some training (our ‘learning nights’) and also opportunities for people to collaborate outside of weekend events (our ‘making nights’).

It can be tricky to get a balance of content and type of events that is right for everyone, but we’ve had fun with experimenting and feedback has been really good.”

“We vary the venue from month to month to showcase some of the local mobile companies”

 

Scott adds: “For SWmobile we have a mix of specialised mobile technologies in Android, mobile web and iOS, with only a few people technically proficient in more than one of them. So we aim for a balance of technical content for all mobile platforms and higher level mobile app and design-related talks.

“We also vary the venue from month to month to showcase some of the local mobile companies.”

Many thanks to all the meetup organisers involved in chatting to us about their experiences. If you want to keep up with all the inspiring meetup groups and events in Bristol and Bath, check out the TechSPARK events calendar. If you organise a tech meetup group in the South West that’s not on there, tell us about it!

While you’re at it, why not sign-up to the TechSPARK newsletter for all the latest tech news, jobs and events in the South West. And don’t forget about the BathSPARK and TechSPARK meetups too!