Online communities do something that "real life" communities can't--they bring people who share the same interest regardless of physical location. While this has led to wonderful connections between like minded people, people still love meeting face to face. For today's post, I'll be talking to Zachary Cohn, who organizes a "real life" event for an online community: the users of the social news site Hacker News. I'll be asking Zac about what motivated him to start the meetup, as well as any tips for a would be organizer of a similar event.

I could tell you more about the event, but this video describes it best:

 

Kenji: Meetups for Hacker news users have been organized in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and London just to name a few. Why do you think it’s useful for an online community to meet offline?

Zac: Online communities are an awesome place for people all over the world to come together and talk about the things they're interested in. They're a great way to transfer knowledge, news, and information rapidly and efficiently. But nothing compares to meeting and talking to people in "meatspace." It's more than just putting faces to names, it's about making that personal connection to make things happen. It's about meeting people you might not otherwise meet, and making friends you might not otherwise make friends with.

Kenji: What inspired you to start the Hacker News meetup in Seattle?

Zac: I'd been reading Hacker News for over a year, and every month I'd see meetups in DC, NYC, San Diego, LA... and I figured "Seattle has a strong and growing startup community... why don't we have a hacker news meetup?" I didn't feel like waiting around until someone else decided to do it, so I made it happen.

Kenji: How did you initially promote the meetup?

Zac: After I had the idea, I posted a thread on Hacker News that linked to a Google Form. It just said "If you're interested in going to a Seattle HN meetup, put your name/email here and lets see if there's enough interest." Within 6 hours, I had over 200 replies. I emailed that group inviting them to a Meetup.com group, and that's pretty much it. For each event I message the Meetup group first, and then a few days before the event I post a thread on Hacker News. (I've been capping attendance, so if you want to come make sure you join the Hacker News Seattle meetup group!). Every event has sold out in just a few days, so it seems to work pretty well!

Kenji: Tell us a little about how the meetups are structured.

Zac: I want the focus of the event to be people meeting each other, so that's how most of the time is spent. There's about 30 minutes of "mingling" time in the beginning, then I have a speaker talk for just 10ish minutes on a relevant topic, do a 10ish minute Q&A, and then back to open mingling time. The only other thing I plan is 2 or 3 sessions where I ask for 5 or 6 volunteers to talk for 30 seconds about who they are and something cool they're working on. This lets people who want to introduce themselves or find a specific type of person to talk to a chance to do that, without the awkwardness and boringness of going around and having EVERYONE introduce themselves.

Kenji: What was your first meetup like and what were the lessons learned from it?

Zac: The first meetup was held in the upstairs of a coffee shop in [a neighborhood of Seattle called] Capitol Hill. It was hot, cramped, loud, and everyone said they had an awesome time. My goal is to get rid of one of those issues at every event. The second event was cramped and loud, but we had air conditioning! Hopefully the third event will only have one issue. :)

Kenji: The Hacker News Meetup has grown considerably after just three meetups. To what do you attribute this success?

Zac: Hacker News is a great brand. Almost everyone reads it, and it's something that ties together people from all types of companies. We've got people who want to be entrepreneurs one day to serial entrepreneurs to people who work for Microsoft. There was clearly a huge demand, people just had to find out about it.

Kenji: Tell us a little about where you think the Hacker News meetups are headed.

Zac: My goal with the meetups are simple. Give people who are interested in tech and entrepreneurship a place to meet other people who are interested in the same, don't focus on any one area in particular, and make sure interesting people are there.

Thanks a lot to Zac for taking the time to interview! If you're organizing an event here in Seattle, check out our list of meeting rooms there!

Hi there everyone! Kenji Crosland, community manager for eVenues here. For my first blog post, I'll be interviewing Joshua 'Red' Russak, the mastermind behind the wildly successful Lean Startup Seattle meetup. Lean Startup Seattle is a once a month meetup where tech startup enthusiasts trade stories, network, and do 30 second startup for a panel of VCs and seasoned entrepreneurs.

I go on about it, but this slick video sums it up best:

(Red's the guy with the mic)

I'll be asking 'Red' some of the challenges that he faced planning the meeting as well as ask him for some tips for someone who might want to plan a Lean startup event in their city (or something like it) in their city as well.

Kenji: The Lean Startup Seattle meetup has grown from 40 person meeting in May to over 130 people attending this September. To what do you attribute this growth?

Red: The Seattle community likes to play follow the leader when it comes to events and when you invite influential people as panelists AND guests, people will come for the opportunity to learn, meet them and network. The names we've featured in the past 4 months are recognizable and influential mentors in the Seattle tech scene. Also, given the pre-existing brand recognition of Lean and the recent hype of the book launch, it wasn't very difficult to get people to come.

Kenji: What inspired you to create a lean startup meetup here in Seattle?

Red: It was actually my co-organizer, Chris Morse, who registered the group. He was at a GTUG meetup in April when Eric Ries, the founder of the Lean Startup movement, made a point that Seattle didn't have a Lean Startup meetup. Chris went and registered the group and I immediately wanted in. I met with him at Krispy Kreme and 2 donuts later, we were a team.

Kenji: Two Donuts. Noted. So...creating a successful event is hard, what with the guests, costs, speakers and booking of the venues. Aside from these issues, were there unexpected challenges you faced in your first and subsequent meetups. How did you overcome them?

Red: Getting people to come was easy. Retention was the hard part. I'd like to see the same people come back, but competing meetups and other commitments made it hard for passionate members to come back month to month. Besides that, everything else fell into place quite easily. Charging $5 to attend made covering costs easy. Funny how far $5 can go with a little bootstrapping magic.

Kenji: Along with the that $5 fee you've also attracted an average of five sponsors per event to help cover your costs. How did you get in touch with all these folks and how did you get them on board?

Red: Our price point is lower than most other events because we're not looking to profit. A lot of local tech companies want to help support the community and simply need the right opportunity presented to them. I was confident from the get go and this helped my pitch.

Kenji: On a related note: you’ve managed to get some awesome guests to speak at your events like Andy Sack of TechStars and Greg Gottesman of Madrona Venture Group. How were you able to get them on board?

Red: I called them, drove out to meet them and was very passionate the whole time. I'm not afraid to apply a little New York hustle here and there. As I said before, these people want to help - you just need to make it convenient for them.

Kenji: That's awesome. So aside from growth in attendance month to month, what about the Lean Startup Seattle event are you most proud of?

Red: A turning point happened at our June event with Marcelo Calbucci, Bob Crimmins and Andy Sack. The topic was "Why Startups Fail?" and was our first event where we reached 100+ attendees. The panelists were incredibly open and emotional and the tradition of introducing speakers by their alcohol of choice was born (Calbucci's favorite drink is Chivas Regal "Royal Salute" 21, Bob's is Ardberg Nam Beist, and Andy's is Maker's 46 in case you were wondering). Also, it was when I met Ed, our bartender with a bow-tie. It was only our 2nd event and it was at that event that Chris and I realized that this is going to be a monthly thing.

Kenji: What advice might you have for a someone who might want to start up a monthly meetup or event of their own.

Red: Reach out to me! I've given advice to a handful of other meetup organizers and passed on sponsors, connections, tips, tricks and more. Other meetups like to keep their secrets...I'd rather spread them. My goal is to create better events and help others do the same. Every event is different, but planning them is always the same. My best advice? Set a goal and crush it! Oh...and try and charge people to attend. More people will show up because their invested. Otherwise, expect at least a 1/3 drop off.

Kenji: As founder of Toolz.me, a web service that helps you organize your online tools into a profile and recommend them to others, I’m sure you’ve already thought about this, but what tools, online and offline would you recommend that an event planner have in his/her toolbox?

Red: Eventbrite and Meetup.com are incredible tools for managing events; Google Docs to collaborate with your co-organizer and track sponsors, etc; Google Forms to get user feedback; Wave Accounting to handle your financials; Costco for cheap and easy pizza; Georgetown Brewery [a local Seattle Brewery] to supply you with kegs; Bartender-With-A-Bow-Tie, to help with setup, add a touch of class to your event and people like being served after a hard days work.

Kenji: Organizing Lean Startup Seattle is obviously a lot of work, was there anyone without whose help (mentors, volunteers) you might not have been able to do it?

Red: Planning Lean events takes only 4-6 hours max. The big thank you goes out to the speakers, panelists, venue providers and attendee's that make it all happen. We understand how incredibly busy entrepreneurs are and appreciate the fact that they make time to support this event.

Kenji: Finally, since this is the eVenues blog, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t ask this question. Any advice for those who need to book/find a venue?

Red: Besides using eVenues (of course), contact local startups and see if they're open to lending their space for your event. It's a great way to get wantrepreneurs into the offices of entrepreneurs, and acts as a draw for job seekers and curious networkers alike.

Thanks so much Red for taking the time to interview! 

If you're planning a startup event in Seattle, be sure to take a look at our list of Seattle venues