What does the self organization of nextNY mean for professional societies?

nextNY is doing three awesome talks in February.

On Thursday, February 5th, Jason Schwartz is running an event for community managers.  Just what is community management?  Who should be doing it?  What are best practices?  Find out from the folks who do it for startups like Etsy,

Then, on Thursday, February 19th, Jeff Stewart and Mark LaRosa are going to help startups figure out their sales strategies, sales hiring, and incentive programs.

Got an idea for a web startup, but have no idea about the technical implementation?  Some CTO's and technically inclined founders from local startups are making themselves available on February 23rd for an event on technology for business people--helping you cut through the buzzwords and rumors to help you focus and get your idea built.

Here's the key:

All of these events are free.

All of them cost us nothing to provide.  The venues and the time of the participants were donated.

 

So what does this mean if you're a professional society?  If you're in the business of essentially charging for live content, business connections, and professional development?  How do you compete with a self organized group of professionals who are providing, for free, similar resources that you do using the resources they already have--each other?

We have a free job board and a blog, too.  A paid professional society of young entrepreneurs would really find it hard pressed to compete against free.

So how did it happen and what does it mean for the professional society model?  Sure, we're all tech geeks and it's going to be easier for us to self-organize, but when you can find people on Meetup, LinkedIn, and Twitter, how long before other industries catch up?

About three years ago, I wanted to meet more members of my professional community--that being the emerging members of the NYC technology and innovation scene.  I was working for Union Square Ventures, a local venture capital firm, which enabled me to meet a lot of smart entrepreneurs, developers, and industry folks in my peer group, but nothing really brought us together as a community.  At the time, in February of 2006, we had a growing Meetup, but was basically about showcasing companies.  There was NYSIA, but that was an industry group with an expensive fee that most entrepreneurs and startups couldn't afford.

I decided it would be cool to invite some of the peers I had met out for a drink.  I thought it would be cool if 20 people got together once a month at a bar.

As it turned out, 75 people showed up that first night.  Since I didn't have time to manage these people (not being in the business of community myself), I threw everyone on a Google Groups listserv.  For our website, rather than use a centrally managed platform that I would have the burden of populating, we used an open wiki.

Eventually, the growing group clamored for more than just social events.  They wanted their professional questions answered.  How do I raise money for my startup?  Do I need a patent? 

Out necessity, not having a budget and knowing my hungry entrepreneur audience, I tried to put events together for free.  It was surprisingly easy.  Law firms and real estate firms were more than willing to lend us conference rooms for space, since they wanted to get in front of our community, and experienced entrepreneurs and businesspeople were more than happy to share their knowledge. 

It's really an interesting group.  We have no legal entity.  There are no titles and there is no hierarchy.  A few of us have various passwords to the web stuff, but that's about it.  Our blog has an editorial policy and it aggregates the NYC tech related posts of the members--no central voice.  There is a pretty strict no self-marketing rule on the listserv to prevent spam and to encourage selfless participation.

What's key to the group now is that we've really turned a corner in terms of leadership.  The fact that we're doing three events this month, and that I came up with the idea and am the lead person behind exactly zero of them is an accomplishment--one that groups and organizations should really aim for.  If your platform can't inspire those participating in it to want to take a leadership role, what are the chances anyone's going to want to pay for it?