Steering a nextCommunity

nextNY is now 459 members on a listserv...all coming together in about 10 months.  We've averaged about an event a month, and probably somewhere in the neighborhood of averaging 45-50 attendees per event.  Already, there's a nextChicago and talk of the next concept appearing in other cities.  A lot of people have asked me how it got put together, so I thought I'd share.  Sorry if this is a bit long and rambling, but that's a lot like how the group unfolded.  It wasn't a part of some big master plan... it evolved.

First thing I did was to e-mail a small group of about 5-10 people who represented a good cross section of the community...  people that I had met in person on several occasions.  I wanted to get ideas and feedback from people involved in the NYC tech community from a number of different perspectives.  These weren't A-listers that hardly knew me...   They were people I knew I could count on to be enthusiastic about passing on the word about what we were doing.   The first few people you involve really need to be enthusiastic. 

Our first goal was just to get people together in person socially.  From the beginning, I think everyone involved agreed that it was important to build real social ties within the group before we attempted any kind of grand undertaking. 

 

Everyone involved e-mailed me to RSVP and I just put everyone on a big "BCC" list.  When the number of people responding got out of hand, I moved pretty quickly to a Google Groups list.  That accomplished two things.  First, I didn't want our messaging to just be about me broadcasting.  The group should be able to talk within itself rather than just get talked to.  Plus, that allowed everyone in the group to set their own participation level.  Most people get every group e-mail as it comes in, but some get digests.

Here's how the listserv works for us.  The listserv is private and you have to get approved by a moderator to join.  Sound sort of walled garden?  Maybe, but I think granting access to people's inboxes should require some level of oversight.  That being said, every single person who asks for approval gets it and the only thing I do sometimes is to respond back to a generic e-mail address and ask them who they are.  I think it's good to watch who is coming into the group--first to make sure they are actual humans and second to direct them to others they might want to get connected to.  (Or just to say a friendly hello.)   Having a second or third admin is important, too, even if they're not doing approvals.  You never want a situation where someone can say that you were unilaterally dictating any policy.

This fits with some basic guiding principals that I've tried to stick with:

  • The group is owned and run by the community.  We have no board, no officers.  Everyone's voice gets to be heard.
  • That being said, it's not exactly majority rules, because we try to stay clear of voting.  Voting doesn't always work, because not everyone will bother to vote and some people put more work into the group than others, so the question of whose vote counts more would come into play.  The group is really driven by legwork and feedback.  If someone has an interest in something, they do the work to lay it out and gather support.  Social capital is a big factor.  Generally, if someone gets a lot of pushback on something, it's not worth costing yourself a lot of social capital to try and push ahead against the expressed wishes of the group.  It works amazingly well.  At least three of our events were completely driven by members of the group who just announced an interested, gathered support, and made it happen.
  • So far, we've been able to avoid anything to do with money, with the exception of renting gym space for our dodgeball tournament.  No membership fees and no other charges for admission.  Our event spaces have been donated as have been our web properties.  I think when money is involved at the group administration level, it dictates that you need more hierarchy and structure, and when you start building that in, you leave open the possibility for more disagreement on how things should be run. 
  • Commitment to offline.   I think it is important for a group like this to run regular in-person events.  It doesn't matter if you only get 10 people, but make it a point to try and do something every month... and commit to it over the long term.  Don't do two, see how it goes, and give up.  Not everyone wants to take part in a listserv, but if you have something concrete to direct people to, it helps when you're trying to spread the word.  "Hey, come show up to our next event on xx date..."   The participants will come and go, but you'll grow a stronger core group over the longer term that sticks with it that you'll get to know even better.
  • Everyone in the group should feel like they can lead any effort. 

Ok... back to technology.   One thing about a group of techies on a listserv is that you can debate which technology to use forever, and often people want to use the latest and most complicated thing, when sometimes all you need is drop dead simple.  For us, I think the best technology decision we ever made was to make the site out of a wiki.  Our website is built on top of Stikipad and it has served us well.  Anyone can create a page for any purpose and we do all our event RSVPs from it.   The website was created by volunteers from the group who offered to design and implement it.  My part?  I secured the domain name.  It was rough, I know... but I pulled through it.

We just launched our blog a short time ago even though blogging was something we had discussed a long time ago.  We voted a blog down initially, b/c we didn't want to broadcast quite yet before we even knew what our goals were or whether or not the group would have any staying power.  Plus, we were avoiding the question of "who is allowed to blog".    That question came up again, and we've opened it up to anyone, but we do have a blog policy.  We encourage members to discuss what they'd like to write about, because we're very conscious about people writing things that may not be representative of the group.  So far, we've done more covering and promoting than opining and that's probably the better way to go.  Opinion pieces are probably better left to the personal blogs of members.  Oh, and we used SquareSpace for the blog, which wasn't "standard" in the tech world, but it's a NYC based company and it has served us very well so far.  More so than what people want to use, you need to pick a platform that is liked by the person who is actually going to set it up, because blogs don't create themselves, plus they all pretty much work in a similar way.

On the name...    There are two things about a name that I was looking for.  One, something that implyed a younger group.  That's where "next" comes in... it implies the future, the next generation...whatever.  Also, the word tech is not in the title and that was on purpose.  Technology, particularly in NYC, also needs to encompass digital media and I wanted to make sure that we got folks from the design, advertising, marketing and PR worlds as well, because it's really about the whole community, not just the builders of technology.

One thing I got a lot of questions upfront about was the whole "young people" thing.  In fact, I got summarily booed at a NY Tech Meetup (which I'm proud to say) when I mentioned age.  We don't have any specific age limits and since then, I've sidestepped the question by saying "up and coming".  That's a better way to put it and actually closer to what I intended.  I wanted to meet other people who were looking up the ladder... who were trying to figure out what the next thing was going to be.   We always like meeting more experienced people, and they come as speakers to our events, but having "up and comers" makes the group more about learning, advice, helping bring other people up, and less about just making business contacts.  In a way, it was sort of selfish, because that's what I was looking for at the time.

We also try to make sure that our events reflect our stated focus on participation by the community.  Even when we invite expert speakers, we invite them to "Community Conversations" and put them in the audience to help drive discussion, not sit on a panel and broadcast. 

Last thing.  I'll repeat one thing.  The group would not survive if it had to live and die with the leadership of one person.  Everyone in the group really needs to feel empowered to initiate and follow through while at the same time, keeping an open dialogue with the group.  I'd like to think, in fact I know, that if I walked away from nextNY right now, it wouldn't skip a beat and that's the best thing I could have hoped for it.  A lot of people have told me, "Hey, you know, you could really turn this into something much bigger for yourself."  The truth is, I couldn't.  If I did, I wouldn't have all these great people wanting to participate.  They're participating because of their interest in the community. 

Also, what could be bigger than meeting 400+ enthusiastic local folks who share your interests?  That's pretty big, to me.

I hope you found this helpful.  Feel free to start your own next community in your area.  We don't own any rights to anything and we actively promote active community building, no matter where you are.