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I run a successful .NET user group and also work with the International .NET Association as Chair of the Marketing Committee.  As such, I tend to get quite a few inquiries about what is involved in starting and running a user group.  It's a lot more work than you might think.  It was certainly more than I thought it would be.  Going in with your eyes open will go a long way towards ensuring your success. 

To that end, I have outlined my experiences here.  I hope that you will find them valuable.

Here is my personal story and advice based on my experiences.  My group's homepage is at www.cttdnug.org.  

Getting Started - Vision and Mission Statement:
From the very beginning, I treated the user group as if it were a business.  I gathered together 5 or 6 people whose opinions I respected and formed an executive committee.  By acting professional, you can quickly gain the respect of possible sponsors. Together we brainstormed ideas around a mission and vision statement.  You can follow this link to see what we came up with.

I think the benefit of having these statements is two fold.  First, it makes a statement to the general public and potential sponsors about your core values as well as what you intend to accomplish with the group and how you envision that taking place.  It sets clear expectations up front.  The second benefit is that it provides you with a guide for future action.  Whenever you are unsure if a certain activity is appropriate, you mission statement can offer you guideance.  If it doesn't advance your mission, it's likely not worth doing.  Follow this link and then select the Strategic Planning link. There you will find a couple of articles on What's in a Mission Statement and What's in a Vision Statement. I found them helpful. Having a clear statement of where you want to go and a roadmap of how you are going to get there can go a long way to alleviating the "too many cooks" syndrome.

Meetings:
Set a regular schedule and stick to it.  Most groups I know of have settled into a two or two and a half hour format.  We start at 6PM with pizza, pop and mingling time.  At 6:30 sharp, we start.  Always.  Even if people are still trickling in.  Waiting for latecomers punishes the people that were on time and rewards the others for being late.  Hardly fair.  The first couple meetings I had people were filing in at 6:30 - 6:45.  They quickly learned that we weren't going to wait for them and now nearly everyone is in their seats by the time we are ready to go.  It's at the point now where they are even getting on my case when it's time to start. :)  

It's not always easy, but it's also best to hold the meeting at the same location on the same day every month.  We chose the last Wednesday of the month.  That way, nobody has to remember an actual date.  If it's the last Wednesday, there's a meeting.  If you position yourselves properly and demonstrate value, you may find yourself with a couple companies competing to host your meetings.  It happened to me.  Not a bad problem to have.  I would resist the urge to alternate meetings between locations.  One of the companies wanted me to do this but I refused.  I told them they were my preferred venue because of their location and facilities etc.. ( and they truly were ) but that the most important thing to me was a permanent home.  Rather than lose the meetings, they changed their policy and gave us a permanent venue.  They were starting to investigate .NET, and having the user group right on site and convenient to their employees offered considerable value to them.  Alternating meeting locations can work, but you are guaranteed to lose some folks every month when they go to the wrong location.  The more consistent you can make things, the faster and greater your group will grow.

To Inc. or Not to Inc.
As far as becoming an official non-profit, here in Canada it is quite easy. $155 and fill out a form and that's about it. We have chosen not to go down that road just yet.   So far we are not out of pocket as we have found local businesses willing to donate meeting space and sponsor the meeting with pizza and pop.  The businesses can write off the cost as a business advertising expense whether we are a non-profit or not. Non-profit status can affect us should we seek financial contributions as some corporations will not contribute unless you are registered.

The other issue - for us here in Canada anyways - is that if you are a registered non-profit then the executive must be elected by the membership. I'm still too much of a control freak.  I have noticed some user groups that appear to be nothing more than a marketing vehicle for the company that started the group. I am very much against this and having this type of group structure ensures that my control over that type of thing is not usurped by those with self-serving agendas.

Don't get me wrong though - we want to be very responsive to our membership. We often solicit feedback to identify the members' most immediate needs. I can take that feedback, identify commonalities and plan the content that we are going to deliver.  As a case in point, there was a significant and growing demand recently for a decent forum for the user group.  Thus, http://forums.cttdnug.org was born.  

Sponsoships
This one can be tricky.  Some groups have lots of sponsors and others have none at all.  I think it has a lot to do with how you postition the group in the community.  Always negotiate from a position of strength.  Even though the group is new, you must be of the mindset that it *will* be a great success.  I never went looking for someone to help me.  I always approach potential sponsors offering them an opportunity to participate.  It's not an opportunity to pay for our pizza, it's an opportunity for them to engage with the local technology community in a very visible and cost effective way.  

I have had excellent luck with pizza and pop sponsors.  The first was a local recruiting firm that paid for the food every month.  We put out a couple small signs around the food stating "Pizza and Pop brought to you by Company XXX"  and had them address the group briefly once or twice to introduce themselves.  Their involvement has worked out great for everyone.  They've made new contacts into the community and some of my members have actually hooked up with full time employment by attending the user group meetings.

The second long term food sponsor is a local Venture Capital Firm.  Why would they sponsor us you ask?  Good question.  One of the biggest challenges they face is uncovering the hidden talent within the community.  What better place to find out what is going on in the technology sector that to work with a local user group where people from almost every player in the region attends at one time or another?  It's working out well for all involved.

When I first started the group in August of 2002, we agreed to run the group through to the end of the year and then re-evaluate its viability at that time.  All of us were prepared to invest some money in it but not on an ongoing basis.  Now, in our third year, I can proudly report that none of us has gone out-of-pocket for anything.  Membership in the group remains free.  When we needed to have our own dedicated webserver for the group site, I approached a local ISP and they generously donated rackspace in their data-centre to host our server.  

Conclusion
My involvement with the .NET user group has been a very rewarding and personally fullfilling process.  It is far more work than I had at first envisioned, but the rewards are well worth the effort.  When someone contacts you and tells you that they met up with a company at your user group meeting and now they have a full-time job, you begin to understand and appreciate the impact you can have on people's lives.  I have seen so many business relationships develop and contacts made that it is sometimes startling.  Somebody will say "I need someone to do this obscure thing on this weird platform" and someone else will say, "Hey, I know a guy that does that!"  It's truly inspiring.  Now, if only I could get a percentage of all that business!  (just kidding)

In addition to working with my local group, I have also volunteered my time with the International .NET Association www.ineta.org to help provide support to user groups around the world.  This has also been more work than I had anticipated but has been rewarding beyond my wildest expectations.

So, if you've been toying with the idea of starting a user group, I say “GO FOR IT!”

Dave
Just because I can... (and you can too!)

 

posted on Monday, October 25, 2004 1:19 PM