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.