A few months back, Jason Lengstorf and I started a gathering for people in Portland to get together, relax, and get to know one another. Our biggest night so far had over 30 people crowding this cozy little backroom of a local bar. It was great.
A lot of people have expressed experiencing considerable FOMO since they can't make it or the desire to have something like this in their own city. I'm here to tell you that you can! It's simpler than it sounds. I want to let you in on all the planning Jason and I did for this gathering.
One of us, cause I don't remember who initiated: We should get some beers soon.
The other: That sounds great! What if we invited a few others?
The first: Awesome, let's share it on Twitter.
That's it. That's really all there was to us starting our gathering. It wasn't a lot of planning, and frankly, it hasn't been a lot of work either. Hardest part has been mentioning everyone on Twitter (a problem somewhat alleviated by our newsletter). We wanted to get together to hangout, we wanted our friends to join us, and the opportunity to meet new people from our community. No agenda other than that.
But Kyle, You Don't Understand My Very Specific Situation!
You're right. I don't. This might not work for everyone, but I think the idea of gathering people regularly around food and drink is universal and a good starting point for community building. In most cases, all it takes is some initiative, someone to get the ball rolling.
Now, I won't lie, Jason and I have a lot of initiative between us. We're both the kind of people to come up with an idea and execute it. We're also pretty decent networkers, too. Having the reach we have is helpful, but it doesn't mean you have to be us to make this work for you. I think you can create a gathering of your own with all the skills and talents you have right now.
The reason I am so confident that you can do this is that I believe that there is nothing fundamentally special or unique about our group. Since there's nothing unique, there's essentially no part of the gathering you can't replicate (or even improve). Here are some of the mundane features that I think make our gathering successful.
Our agenda has never been to have a traditional meetup with speakers and food. That's not what we wanted. Because meetups are organized around speaking, any networking and relationship building ends up happening as a byproduct of proximity, that is, it happens because you're unintentionally next to each other. It does not happen through the intentional activity of community.
Intention is the key difference. Having a gathering where the focus is community generates opportunities for genuine networking. For example, I've helped a couple people I didn't know before our gathering find new career opportunities already. Why? Because there was more space and room for understanding each other (and our needs) when the time allotted isn't taken up by a speaker(s) slot.
No Topic, Theme, or Agenda
Meetups tend to organize around a shared interest and attendees come to listen to someone talk about that shared interest (at least in tech meetups). This creates a fundamental problem. The shared interest increases the likelihood for redundant information transfer. That's a really boring way to say, you've probably heard what the speaker has to say before because you're interested in the same topic and have read and watched the same things.
Conferences tend to be the exception because often the talks are bit further ahead of the curve than at meetups. A new library was invented, a new technique (re)discovered. There is occasionally an incredible meetup talk (not suggesting any of mine have ever been that incredible), but on the whole, if you're staying up to date in your field, there's not a lot of new stuff being said.
But here's the thing we all share: we're all humans. Getting people together with no agenda means that they can talk about whatever they want. And I do mean talk. Without speakers, everyone participates to the level they want to in the gathering. Dialogues are preferable to monologues.
In our gatherings, we've talked about a wide swath of topics. We, of course, talk about tech. One time, we spent 20 minutes trying to figure out the algorithm for set of flashing lights on a jukebox because they caught our attention. We've talked about bad managers, religion, sex, politics, marital challenges, parental challenges, what we love and hate about our city, how shitty the weather is, and how good the beer is, etc. There is no shortage of things for people in a group to talk about because we all are sharing the common experience of being alive.
It sounds absurdly philosophical to put it that way, but I do think it makes a difference. I think when you don't have an agenda in the conversation, you're able to let people engage how they are most comfortable. When they are comfortable, you get to know who they really are. It creates a space of vulnerability, and vulnerability is a key ingredient in developing friendships.
Anyone Is Welcome
Yes, our group has a lot of devs. Those are the people Jason and I know. But you don't have to be a dev to join. At the moment, we have a number of designers, product managers, and significant others who aren't in tech that attend. Just recently, a young woman studying for the bar exam heard our conversation and joined us. She's now joined us twice and I hope she keeps coming. It doesn't matter who you are and what you do because of the prior principle of "No agenda". There's always something we can find in common to talk about.
The "in group" of our gathering is just anyone who decides to show up on a given day. There's no one left out because of what they do or where they are in their career. This is really important. In fact, when a person enters the room and there's no obvious spot to join in, we try and break the group up in a way that gets a new small group formed around the newcomer so no one has to deal with awkwardly standing or sitting around. Everyone who comes gets to participate.
I know I haven't given you precise steps on how to do this, but the truth is, I think just trying to start it with a few friends is enough to get the momentum going. Pick a spot, gather regularly, invite friends. Then, if you really want, follow the principles I've laid out above. There's a good chance it won't be long until your gathering is doing well.
Oh, and one last note, don't worry about metrics like other meetups. A gathering like this isn't successful because of how many people come, it's successful because a few people got to connect and have a good beverage and conversation. That's the only metric that matters.
Alright, with that, I hope to see you at one of our gatherings if you're ever in Portland. We'll get to add your shining face to a photo like this one.
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