When Scott Heiferman announced his abdication from the NY Tech Meetup throne at the last Meetup, he said that he had asked himself the question of whether the Meetup could be more than just a once a month pitch meeting.
It’s exactly the same question I asked three years ago when I started nextNY. At the time, Meetup.com didn’t have listservs, so it was much more of an event than it was any kind of community. Twitter wasn’t around, so even during the event itself, people seemed kind of disconnected from each other. There were no after parties either. I actually wanted to meet the people at the event, particularly the up and comers who were in my peer group, so I asked Scott if it was ok to form another group and he was fully supportive. Now, we’re at 2,000 people and growing, and our @shakeshack event was the hot community event over the summer.
But nextNY didn’t solve everyone’s needs. Some people wanted more of a direct connection to financing, and so David and Yao created a unique business opportunity for themselves by founding the Hatchery around that premise. They throw pitch meetings and investor matchups–and that obviously wouldn’t be relevant for all the members of the NY Tech Meetup.
There have also been more focused groups, like the Video 2.0 Meetup group, which itself supports almost 2500 people, and industry meetups like the Fashion 2.0 Meetup, where over 200 entrepreneurs at the crossroads of fashion and technology are gathered.
And, of course, for even longer, we’ve had tech user groups, like NYPHP and the Linux User Group, etc. These organisations have been holding events and running online listservs for years, connecting the technologists of the Big Apple.
So, as the NY Tech Meetup scaled to 7,500 people, it inspired people whose needs it wasn’t fulfilling to go off and create their own groups–creating lots of new community leaders. Seems to me that it’s more than serving its purpose.
Scott, however, positioned the NY Tech Meetup as falling short–so when he asked for new leadership, those who answered the call came new ideas ablazin’, writing manifestos, blog posts, etc… and the theme was the same… more, bigger, structure.
This is typical. No one ever wins this type of thing by promising more of the same. Change is sexy, as are big visions. However, as we should know from the Web, focus and reduction are more likely to improve the quality of a product than adding more features.
And now, we’re going to be forced to choose between these new visions, when the community never actually asked for any of them. I mean, this whole time, any one of the people running for Meetup organiser could have proposed any of their suggested changes and ideas, and totally ran with them, and we could have seen whether or not they got any traction in the community. That’s the way nextNY works. If someone wants to run an event, everyone is free to, and if only 10 people want to go, it’s fine — those 10 people meet. If 150 people want to go, it naturally gathers more momentum, focus, and effort. That minimizes the amount of community distraction and mis-allocation of resources.
No one, except Scott, was asking for more overhead, a board, or more structure, because whatever they weren’t getting out of the NY Tech Meetup, they were getting out of one of these other community organisations… and now we’re going to put the weight of 7,500 people and a board behind someone’s agenda–an agenda that didn’t earn that following in the first place. I actually think this could be dangerous–because it has the potential to distract other resources and the community itself on issues and efforts that aren’t really being driven by the community.
For example, a lot of people have been saying that there needs to be more venture investment in NYC. Whether or not that’s the case, something like 2% of all startups are ever really appropriate for venture investment anyway. Still, that’s something that everyone will support, even though it really isn’t relevant. Need we waste the NY Tech Meetup’s time and energy on trying to work to get more investment in NYC when it doesn’t really apply to most of its members?
Plus, a lot of what bothers me about this “election” is that the people running so far have either never tried to show leadership in the community before, or whose leadership efforts haven’t garnered anything close to the kind of success the current NY Tech Meetup has. And now we’re going to throw the weight of 7,500 people behind them? That’s going to set off a legitimization of someone’s ideas that never got traction otherwise. That person will undoubtedly be looked to as representative of the community when they really aren’t. I might think differently if anyone gets a majority of the votes, but what are the chances of that happening? I’ll bet you that “turnout” isn’t even 50%, not to mention the fact that all the people in NY Tech aren’t in the Meetup group, obviously, so this person isn’t really going to be very representative of very many people at all. They’ll likely be treated as such, though, because elections create that perception.
Instead, why not keep things a liquid market of smaller, focused groups–representative of what the community actually needs. This way, if there’s a group that wants to get together around investments, like the Hatchery, they can, and they’ll naturally rightsize themselves around that need. Let’s not forget that the 7,500 people joined the meetup as designed–to meet once a month, check in with others in the community, and see some interesting new startups. It was simple, and not surprisingly, simple got traction. There was no groundswell of people saying “This sucks, we need to do more.” In fact, it was quite the contrary. Tickets to the NY Tech Meetup sell out in minutes.
Have we not learned anything from AOL and Yahoo? Kludging disparate factions of a community together in an attempt to be its centre never works. In fact, it goes against the very essence of Meetup itself–a loose collection of groups centered around focused interests, with lots of cross pollination but no central hub.
So, after giving this a lot of thought, I think I really only support two options here. Let’s keep it exactly the same–because it works, and because anything different or with more structure isn’t really what the community asked for or needs or can’t be found in other groups.
Or, let’s just disband the whole thing before it trips over its own structure and overhead and wastes a lot of effort and resources. Yeah… that’s right. Let’s stop the NY Tech Meetup and see how many new efforts pop up in its place and how many new leaders are created. I would hope that it would create at least a few–because there were a few people running I had never seen or heard from before.
Or how about just spinning out the monthly meetup and keeping that exactly the same–run by someone currently on the organising staff–and have some side “ideas” group coming up with new things to try out and incubate within the community?
Do I actually think the NY Tech Meetup should be disbanded? No, I don’t. But do I think we are in danger of forming the next NYNMA, which failed under its own overhead during a downturn? Yes, I do. (something that nextNY, for example, can’t do, b/c it’s just a group of people… no finances, no costs… as long as there are two nextNYers who want to meet and talk to each other, it will always be around). I’m also looking at the NYSIA model, with a paid director that, while more focused on the enterprise side, really hasn’t galvanised the community either–despite the good efforts of very qualified people.
Meetup proved that the grassrootsy, low overhead model worked. The NY Tech Meetup inspired a generation of new community leaders who have packed the Gary’s Guide calendar full of tech community events. I’d rather see it disappear than see a new vision haphazardly bolted on to a community that never asked for one.
Charlie O’Donnell (SA 100 #61) is co-founder and CEO of Path 101, a NYC-based startup, and founder of NextNY, a tech community group. He blogs at This Is Going To Be Big, where this post was originally published.