Filed under User Groups

When it comes to community, does size matter?

Many members of the MongoDB community are excited about the possibility of starting a MongoDB User Group in their hometown. Unfortunately, many of our MUG organizers get discouraged quickly when only a handful of people come to the first meetup. Some give up immediately. They see that the NY or DC or London MUGs regularly have 100+ people attending a lecture, and they assume that that is what success looks like.

But you don’t need 100 people to have a community. Community is about building relationships, sharing experiences, and fostering the exchange of knowledge. By that definition you only need 1 or 2 other people to have a community! And in many cases, that’s how successful tech meetups start.

I recently spoke with Van Riper, the organizer of the Silicon Valley Java User Group, about the origins of his JUG. He told me that the first meetup there were only two people and that they had dinner and drinks and talked about code. He considered it a success. Van kept organizing events, until the group grew to thousands of members.

An intimate gathering to hack, talk, study or something simliar is a completely valid way to start a user group. In fact, sometimes those meetups are even more valuable as people have the opportunity to exchange ideas in a friendly environment.

If you keep meeting consistently (ideally at the same time and in the same place) your group will naturally grow. As the group grows, it becomes easier to attract higher profile speakers and the group grows more. I’ve watched this virtuous cycle occur with all of the large MongoDB User Groups.

In NYC, even though our MUG has grown to nearly 2,000 members, I’m glad that we still organize events such as office hours and study groups to maintain some of the intimacy of the early days. Having a variety of events in a variety of formats and sizes ensures that people across the community are well served.

Ultimately, size does matter: you need to adjust your approach depending on the dynamics of your group. For the new organizers, I encourage you to keep meeting, even if your group is small, and build a core membership from which you can grow. For those running larger meetups, don’t lose sight of what a community is and provide ways for members to build relationships and share their stories. Regardless of the size, you can build a successful community with patience, hard work, and a little creativity.

Online MongoDB Education and Study Groups

A few weeks ago, 10gen announced that we would be offering free, online training on MongoDB. We are offering two courses in collaboration with edX (the non-profit consortium between Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley), starting on October 22: MongoDB for Developers and MongoDB for DBAs.

Education has been key to encouraging adoption of MongoDB. It’s why we value and invest in training, MongoDB days, and MongoDB User Groups (MUGs). Online courses take that strategy to the next level by enabling us to scale our educational offerings. Last year our in-person, public training courses enabled us to educate 1,000 people on MongoDB. Through, we’ve already enrolled over 10,000 people for the online classes.

Yet, we also value the real-world interaction that our training, MongoDB conferences, and MUGs provide. The face time is important for the community to get to know and learn both from 10gen and from one another.

Hence, I was thrilled when my colleague Francesca had the brilliant idea of incorporating our new online education platform with our user group network. One of the biggest challenges the MUGs face is coming up with new content on a regular basis. The launch of provides the MUGs with the perfect set of content for weekly study groups. As each course is released on a weekly basis, the groups can work together on the material and assignments, and hopefully encourage a higher rate of completion of the course.

Francesca met with several of the MUG organizers over Google Hangout to discuss this idea, and they were extremely enthusiastic. And I’m excited that 10gen will be hosting a study group in NYC, which I plan to participate in. Hope to see some of you there!

You can find a complete listing of MongoDB User Groups on If you are interested in starting a MUG and/or organizing your own study group, contact

WhereToMeetup: Connecting Meetup Organizers and Hosts

I’m the co-organizer for four technology meetups in New York City (MongoDB, C++, Python, and Prince Building Tech Talks), and a participant in many, many others (170+ according to my meetup profile). Through my work with the technology community, people have started coming to me for help with their meetup groups. Organizers are almost always looking for space to host their events, and there isn’t an easy way for them to find hosts. I’ve fielded so many space requests that sometimes I joke around that I feel like a broker!

I also speak with lots of New York area companies experiencing rapid growth that want to connect with technical professionals. Yet, these companies are not sure how to engage the technology community.

Several months ago I bounced an idea off of my friend Andy, who is a loyal attendee of both the NYC Python and MongoDB meetups: How about we build a web app to pair meetup groups and organizers together? Andy started prototyping an app, bringing his initial ideas to last week’s Python project night. Andy recruited my friend Dan and several other hackers to talk through the idea and look at ways to use the Meetup API and its directory of spaces to help pair up groups and meetups.

Andy and Dan decided to devote some time to the app during Saturday’s Battle of the Braces hackathon at Meetup HQ. They hacked all day, building out WhereToMeetup. Their demo presentation even included several embarrassing pictures of me. After their demo, Kathryn Fink, the community manager at Meeutp, commented that the #1 problem for meetup organizers is finding space, which reinforced the importance of this project.

Dan and Andy ended up winning a prize for the best use of the Meetup API at the hackathon. Even better, before the prizes were announced they already had a bug fix from someone in attendance at the event! It’s still a work in progress, but you can find the project up on Github.

Thanks again to Andy, Dan, and the rest of the community for running with this idea!

During this whole process, I’ve been thinking about how many companies have great event space that they don’t make available to meetup groups. In some cases, the company doesn’t know how to connect with the community. Usually there are a few interested employees that get discouraged when “the powers that be” starts asking about the group. In particular, Andy has been very enthusiastic about holding more Python project nights, and has been looking for ways to justify to HR the value of hosting a group. To close this post, I thought I’d outline a few key reasons that companies should consider hosting or sponsoring a meetup group.

1. Raising the company profile

Hosting a user group raises the profile of your company within the community. It’s a great opportunity to promote your company, your brand, and your product. Some of the organizers of MongoDB User Group offer development services, hosting platforms, and even a MongoDB monitoring tool. Engaging with the community helps get the word out about the exciting work that they are doing.

2. Passive recruiting

Hosting meetups is a great way for companies to engage in passive recruiting. A tech meetup will bring dozens of skilled, enthusiastic developers into the office. The host of the NY MongoDB User Group mentioned to me that he had hired 4-5 people from the group over the past year. Think about it: using a contingency recruiting agency, he could have spent over $100,000 to hire 4-5 people. In comparison, hosting a meetup seems like a deal! To do this right, you need to have employees on hand to “work” the room. Rather than making a company pitch, the most effective hosts usually focus on getting to know the attendees and showing them a good time. For example, one of our meetup hosts often gives attendees a tour of the office to show off their very cool space. Others give out swag. Still others present on the cool technology that they are building.

3. Building a fun work environment

Engaging with the community creates a fun work environment for the staff. It shows that the company is committed to the employees’ professional development and makes working at the company fun!

Why invest in community leaders?

Last week I met with my friend Sumana from the Wikimedia Foundation. She works from home and comes to the 10gen office periodically to co-work, and while she was visiting we discussed my upcoming Open Source Bridge talk about scaling community by nurturing leaders. As we were talking, I realized that in my previous post and in my draft slides, I was providing a “how to” on investing in leaders, without really explaining “why.” In this post, I’d like to address the main reasons that investing in community leaders is important.

The Psychological Reason

Creating advocates and brand ambassadors within your community can be incredibly powerful in validating your product. The message about your product is always more powerful coming from another user than coming from a vendor. People also respond better to individualized contact from people that they know. Think about it: are you more likely to respond to a call to action in a newsletter sent to 100,000 people, or to a direct request from someone that you know? Surely the conversion rate on the latter is going to be better.

The Economic Reason

Investing in leaders is also an economical marketing tactic. You can invest a small amount in developing a community leader, and expect a potentially large return from that investment. The most obvious example here is the MongoDB User Group network. Let’s build a quick economic model, assuming that I have $50,000/year to spend and one person’s time. If we take the user group approach, we could effectively support each user group with about $3,500 per year. Here is a rough breakdown of how that investment could be used:

Item Amount Cost fees Annual Membership $150
T-shirts 100 @ $10/tee $1,000
Stickers 1,500 @ $0.25 per sticker $375
Pizza Once a quarter $1,000
Speaker travel Fly in a guest speaker once a year $1,000
Total Cost   $3,575

With $50,000, we could effectively support 13 user groups with some cash to spare. We would need someone on staff to coordinate those user groups, work with local leaders to organize them, find a venue, and connect speakers.

Assume that each group runs smoothly and achieves an average membership of 300 people. (Some markets, like New York City and San Francisco, could exceed that with over 1,000 members of a tech group, while smaller markets might be successful with 100-150 members.) Our $50,000 investment has reached and engaged 3,900 members of the community across 13 different cities, with each group meeting monthly to discuss our technology.

Now let’s compare that investment to sponsoring a corporate trade show, with the assumption that you already own a booth for these types of events.

Item Amount Cost
Sponsorship Fee Per Show $5,000 (this is on the low end for industry shows)
T-shirts for booth 100 @ $10/tee $1,000
Stickers for booth 1,500 @ $0.25 per sticker $375
Bag insert (literature or something similar) 1,000 $350
Staff travel 2 people $2,000
Booth labor and equipment rental Most shows charge you for things like carpet, electricity, etc. and require that you use the labor at the venue $1,000
Total cost   $9,725

With this cost structure, we could invest in about five trade shows. Let’s say that there are 1,000 people at each show. Overall, we will have had a small interaction with 5,000 people via our bag insert and physical presence at the show. And if we can successfully drive traffic to our booth, we might speak with and gain contact information for 25% of the total show attendance, acquiring 1,250 leads that we can market to. Those leads will be of mixed quality: while some will be interested in our product, most will be unqualified leads requiring lead nurturing and consistent follow up before they become customers.

In this model, you can see that the distributed user group model reached and engaged more people than the trade shows at a similar price point. You could build a model for search engine marketing and other marketing strategies, and my guess is that you will find similar results. While the trade show approach is more straightforward and easier to execute on, the user group model can provide a much greater ROI.

The Sustainability Reason

In the example above, we see that an investment in community can be more cost effective than other marketing strategies, like a trade show. The other major benefit of the community approach is the self-sustainability. At 10gen, we initially invest a lot of time and money into our user group organizers. Over time, those organizers often become completely self-sufficient. The user group leaders build a network of speakers and they identify local companies to sponsor their events. The small investment continues to grow into a large, sustainable user group, often with many more than 300 members. We can then shift our attention and resources to developing user groups in new cities. In contrast, our trade show and SEM dollars, once spent, do not provide that kind of continual return.

The Pragmatic Reason

The final reason is a pragmatic one. You simply don’t have the capacity or bandwidth to have relationships with everyone in a large community. You can attempt to broadcast your message across the entire network, but there will always be pockets that you will miss or areas that are simply inaccessible due to distance or language barriers or some other reason.

When you have a new product announcement to make, you could try broadcasting your message to the thousands of potential users. Or, you could reach out to ten people in the community that you’ve identified as leaders and ask them to test our your new feature before it’s released, provide feedback, and write a blog post about it. Each of those people could reach several thousand people with their blog post or tweet, many of which would be outside of your immediate network.

In Conclusion

I hope that in this post, I’ve made a strong argument for investing in community and in community leaders as an effective and efficient means of expanding your reach. I think that this reasoning applies to everything from open source projects to consumer products and everything in between. I intend to cover both the “how” and the “why” in greater depth during my presentations at OSCON and Open Source Bridge. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Building a Venue Directory for NYC Tech Events

As a co-organizer of the NY MongoDB User Group, NYC Python Meetup Group, NY C/C++ Developers Group, and Prince Building Tech Talks, I know how tough it can be to find a space to host a meetup in NYC. I’ve made some great contacts over the past few years, and as a result people frequently ask me about finding a venue to host their meetup.

Rather than fielding these requests in an ad hoc manner, I’d like to put together a directory of venues for tech events and meetups. Right now I’m in the research phase of this project, and I’m starting to compile a list of companies interested in hosting. To that end, I’ve put together two simple webforms: One where companies can express interest in hosting events, and one for organizers that are looking for space.

Initially, I’m happy to act as a matchmaker to connect meetup organizers with potential hosts. I will not share contact information without confirming with both sides that there is a potential match. Over time, I would like to make this directory public, with the permission from the hosting companies.

Looking forward to your thoughts and feedback on this project!

Tips & tricks for running a successful tech meetup

This month we celebrated the one-year anniversary of the New York MongoDB User Group. Over the past year, the group has grown to over 700 members, and we consistent have a packed audience for our sessions. In fact, our meetup last week had a wait list. I thought I’d take this opportunity to provide some insight on how we’ve been successful in growing this meetup.

Use This one may be obvious but I think it’s important to emphasize. Not only does meetup have a lot of great tools for event organizers, but they do a really good job of making it easy for meetup members to find relevant groups. Make sure to tag your group and include a description with keywords so that your group appears in meetup searches!

Get great speakers: Make a wish list of speakers, and then just start asking people! After organizing dozens of MongoDB events, I’ve been amazed at how willing people are to present. Most of the time, it’s just a matter of asking. And if the person says no, ask them to refer someone else.

Consistency is important: It’s important to establish a routine early on. If you consistently meet on, say, the second Tuesday of every month, your members will come to expect the meetup. The first few meetings of any user group will be small, but at every meetup, new members will join your group. So meeting at least on a monthly basis is very important. We have all the NY MUG meetups listed far in advance, even if we don’t have a speaker lined up. This also makes your life easier when you are approaching speakers and hosts. It’s much easier to ask a speaker “Can you present at the May 19 NY MUG?” than going back and forth coordinating dates. And hosts will appreciate having the events reserved far in advance.

Cross promote: Consider partnering with other technology meetups. This is a great way for communities to learn from one another and gain exposure to new technologies. It could be as simple as ocassionally posting on other meetup lists. For example, when we had a presentation on Scalable Event Analytics with Ruby on Rails and MongoDB, I cross-posted the meetup on the NYC Ruby mailing list and we soon had a dozen new members in the group. I also typically list our events in Startup Digest, LinkedListNYC, Gary’s Guide, Charlie O’Donnell’s newsletter, Mashable, and more.

Social media: Consider creating a twitter handle or hashtag for the group. Ask the presenter to tweet or blog about the event, and ask the key members of the group to do the same. Post the hashtag or twitter handle at the event so that members know to use it.

Find a great host: We’ve had awesome luck working with Buddy Media, SpringSource, and Gilt Groupe to host our meetups. Lots of companies are open to hosting meetups, especially if they are recruiting. Another great way to find free space is to contact co-working facilities.

Raffle off prizes: Prizes are an excellent way to get people to come to your meetup. An easy and free way to get great prizes is to join the O’Reilly User Group program. They will send you free books to give out at your group, as well as discounts on upcoming conferences.

Continue the discussion after the meetup: We spent $30 on a tripod and lens for my iPhone so that we can easily record and take photos at sessions. Encourage the presenter to send a message the group with the slides to start a conversation among the entire meetup.

Hope that this helps! Will keep posting as new ideas come to mind.


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