Building A Community

Summary: Building a community requires consistent planning, a mixture of events, and patience.

Over at the ElixirTalk podcast, which I cohost with Chris Bell, we take questions fom around the Elixir community about various technical topics. Unfortunately we can't answer each one. Today I want to address one question from @adolfont, which strikes a personal chord:

Which is better to build a community? Small meetups? Big events? Regional conferences?

It's an important question. Building communities is something I love to do. Ultimately, technical problems are often people problems, because people are the ones who make the technology. It's great to see others take this human-centric focus. This is the formula that's worked for me:

Building a community requires a consistent planning, a mixture of event types, and patience.

The most important thing is to be consistent with your programming and to have a variety of events. "Consistent" here means "have regular meetings that are announced in advance." Consistency sends the message that the common interest in question is stable and growing. Very few of us want to be on fringe movements, particularly with professional trends. Constistency also demonstrates that you, the community leader, are invested in this thing you're pushing. No one wants to follow a flaky leader. If you - the person in charge, whose name is on the line - can't be bothered to show up, why would a curious newbie?

Regular Events generally means simple events - community talks, hack nights, Q&A, etc. Do whatever you need to do to hold these on a predictable schedule, but they don't need to happen often. Pick a day, say the second Tuesday of every month, and put events on the calendar for the next 12 months. Having a calendar lets users plan in advance and gives them subconscious reassurance that this thing they're investing their time in will pay off. You won't have speakers lined up for the next 12 months, but now you, too, can plan in advance, and when you meet someone cool who expresses interest in giving a talk, you can immediately offer a date. No awkward "well we're doing a thing at some point in the next few months, want to make an ambiguous commitment?"

As with birthdays, a product demo, or a boss battle, it's psychologically important to have a Big Event that people can look to on the horizon. People enjoy having crescendoes to break up everyday monotony. This is your Regional Conference, and I like to have one per year. It's an excuse to pull in members from the outer orbit of the community, have everyone work towards a common goal, and achieve something extraordinary.

Just remember: unlike movies, the show doesn't end when the credits roll. Take a short break to let everyone energetically recover, then be ready to capitalize on the momentum with an upcoming Regular Event.

Finally, the third ingredient: intervening social events. This one is optional. Depending on your community size and energy, there's often space for something between regular technical meetups and annual conferences. This should be 4-6 months after the conference, when the glow has worn off but before you start the promotion cycle for the next Big Event. The Social Event should be a low-pressure hang focused more on getting people in the community to meet each other.

Five months after the first EMPEX NYC, we held a costume party called the Halloween Lightning Talks. It featured a handful of 10-minute talks and 2 hours of open bar for people to hang out and chat. We hosted this event in an appropriately fun venue - no one wants to wear costumes and linger in the conference room of someone's company.

Your job as community builder is to get people to meet each other, form bonds (and hopefully companies), and generate a sense of being part of something promising and important. Depending on your needs, this could be a happy hour, sports outing, etc. You can also use this event to announce the next conference and begin soliciting talk submissions and sponsorship inquiries.

A community is just a group of people with a common interest who like each other. Both are required; people will be turned off by a community of obnoxious or cliquey individuals who are into something interesting. People who like each other but have no common interests are having an affair.

A few dos:

  • DO take a holistic view of the schedule; events mustn't be too frequent or people will get exhausted. Your community members have lives outside your community. They will not show up to everything you do, and it's important not to exhaust the energy they've allocated to your thing.
  • DO be nice to people. Don't tolerate assholes, they will poison the well. I've been that anxious new person in the corner of a room where everyone seems to know each other, and when the group leader notices me, comes over, introduces themselves, and says they're glad I came, I feel like a million bucks. Do not underestimate the value of these small moments of personal connection.
  • DO Be Real. In the tech community our currency is Meetups and Conferences. Stretch out a bit and add your own personal and local flair to events. If curling is a thing in your town, start a curling group.

A few don'ts:

  • DON'T give the impression that the community is stagnant or struggling. Don't rent a space that's too large for your group (no one likes seeing a bunch of empty chairs). Don't cancel your event because sponsorships didn't materialize - you have a responsibility greater than saving your own skin. And anyway, you might recover some cash, but your reputation will be marked.
  • DON'T do everything yourself. Having co-organizers helps spread the work, gets other people invested, and increases the idea pool.
  • DON'T rush things. Building communities takes time. There are no shortcuts.

Above all, remember to have fun. Tone starts at the top. It's work to build something, but if you're not enjoying yourself, it will feel like work to attend your events.

The secret is: they want you to succeed. Everyone wants a community they're part of to be successful. When it is, everyone wins.

— Desmond Bowe Crevalle founder
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