How to Start a Software User Group (or Die Trying)

Given that I co-founded After Effects New York, the worlds largest software user group, I get asked this question a lot: How does one start a user group?

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that it didn’t hurt that by the time I co-founded AENY with Denis Radeke, I’d already put out over 100 AE video tutorials (so I was well known), knew tons of people in the plug-in industry (to donate prizes) and was owed a few favors by the kinds of people we would want presenting. Also, AENY takes place in New York City, the motion graphics Mecca, which means a lot of attendees, and the support of companies who want to reach that audience. Not that it has, by any means, been easy, but you will not have as easy a time as we did when starting up, unless you live in a major metropolitan area. Sorry.

But that said, I have helped a lot of smaller groups get started, and so I’ll share some simple points I have shared with them in their quest:

1. Make sure there isn’t already a group in your area – Check out Adobe’s user group website. If there isn’t one, move on to step #2.

2. Find a location – Dude – it doesn’t have to be some awesome auditorium at some fancy building. If there is a school that teaches animation (or whatever your subject) they may be willing to give you a room and some A/V equipment 1 night a month FREE. It’s helpful to them because it helps bring in students from the outside, but also adds value to the school for hosting such important events.

If not that, try a local public school. At AENY we meet at PS 41, a 400-seat auditorium. It costs us a several  hundred bucks a night, but it beats the alternative of a venue that costs thousands. Previously, we were at Pratt Manhattan, which was pretty high-tech, but only sat 140 people (uncomfortably) and legally. When we got too big, it was time to move on.

3. Assemble a Team – you can’t do it all on your own, and more to the point, why would you want to? There’s a lot to do. Find people as passionate about this stuff as you and pool some resources. At AENY, my buddy Jim Geduldick is a maelstrom of presenter catching glory. He makes sure the audience has a good time because he knows everyone in the industry, and convinces them to come. I was getting good people to present when we first started, but Jim upped the ante big time.

Over the years, I’ve gotten really good at dealing with red tape, so I spend a lot of time dealing with organizational issues, prize fulfillment, and financials. But we both overlap on this stuff a lot, regardless. In addition we have support from several people, including Dave Gittleman, who does awesome photography, hands out prize tickets, and generally likes to pretend he’s a rodie for a rock band.

4. Get equipment – At the very least, your going to need something bigger than a laptop monitor to show your presentations. We have a projector (cost us about $3K), but the school has a screen (thankfully). We also have some audio equipment (a few thousand dollars worth of Mic’s and speakers, which are pretty big) and we partially tap into the schools audio system as well. At Pratt, we hade everything we needed, and didn’t need to lug around equipment, but that ended when we got too big. Thank heavens for Dave!

5. Get a presenter – The good news is, talented people are, time permitting, usually willing to show you how they do their thing. And many plug-in or software vendors are also willing to send someone to your group to show some new software, depending on where you’re location vs. theirs. What’s key is trying to snag someone local or as close to local as you can.

If not, and the venue has a solid interweb connection, you can always go screen sharing with Skype.

6. Get some food – If the venue allows you to have food (Pratt did, PS41 did not), then you might want to try and get some for the event. If it’s free that will definitely score some people. Pizza at the end of a work day is a great way to draw people in. I’m not saying you need food but it helps. You can even charge for it, and maybe even put a little more on the cost to cover some extra fees for the group – more on that later.

7. Get some prizes – Hit up some of your favorite plug-in or software vendors to see if they are willing to donate some prizes to your group. Many are willing to. Some are not. You’ll never know unless you ask. In fact, contact me, and I’ll see what I can do for your group through Red Giant Software.

You can entice prize vendors by offering to put their logo on your site and in an newsletter email (more on that shortly). We also take a moment to talk about each prize at AENY, while showing the vendor’s URL on the screen.

8. Get a website – Duh. How is anyone going to know where you meet without one? Newsletter emails get lost easily, and if there is nothing anywhere on line… well that’s it. No one is showing up. Newsletters are important, but a site is more important – it can also help you get vendors on board with banners…etc.

9. Make a newsletter – yeah I mentioned it in the last one, but I’ll say it again. Remind people via email that there is a meeting this week, and again, this month, and if you’re really ready to annoy people, tonight, as well. I did that for the first few meetings. It helped.

9. Advertise – Let everyone and anyone know your group exists. Teachers at local art schools can announce it to their classes, flyers can be put up on college campuses. Whatever it takes – including the next item:

10. Get Registered on Adobe’s website – remember that site you want to in #1 and didn’t find a local group in your area? Put yours on there!

11. Get some sponsorship, or charge – The harsh reality is that stuff costs money. If you have to spend it, you should try to recover as much of it as you can. See if you can find a sponsor to pay for the meetings, or the food, or any other needs. But if not, you can always charge your audience – buy food and charge a little extra to help support the group. Or don’t buy food and just charge money for the event. Cover charges don’t help bring people in, so I say that as a last resort. But if you can keep the cost low enough, it shouldn’t kill you too much. Unless it does.

12. Remember that things take time – While it’s true AENY started with a bang (80 people), it has still grown dramatically over time, with as many as 350 people showing up to a meeting. Generally we get closer to 150 –200. But that took 2 years to get to. We’re now about to hit our 4th year, with meeting #37 under our belt. Be patient. Be persistent. Don’t give up.

OK – with all of the do’s I listed, here are 2 serious DON’TS:

1. Don’t wait around for Adobe or anyone else acknowledge that your group is legitimate – People often ask me if they have to wait to officially be named a real user group. I’m not even sure what that means. Just do it.  The moment you meet, your official. Make it happen.

2. Don’t do a “show and critique my reel” section – Time and time again, I see user groups flounder because they let people show their reels at the meetings. Nobody wants to sit through amateur hour after a long day of work. People have better things to do with their time then come and watch a half-baked reel and politely tell the presenter they need to improve (or worse – don’t actually tell them that). What people want to see is something that will both inspire them and help them in their work, so that when they go back to their job tomorrow, they will be better at what they do. It will also ensure they come back to the next meeting.

Anyway, I am sure this is riddled with typos, but I have been meaning to get this up for a long time, but something always gets in the way. Screw good grammar. There are groups to start.

If you have anything else to share on the subject, please put your thoughts in the comments below. I am always happy to help people with this stuff, if I can squeeze time in between my job and family. Reach out to me and I’ll do what I can. Community in our industry is incredibly important, and keeps us strong and learning.

7 thoughts on “How to Start a Software User Group (or Die Trying)”

  1. Thanks for the post Aharon, that is really great advice. My group (CAVEMODE) has 8 meetings down now and it definitely has been a battle. But in the end, I feel like we are gaining traction and putting out good content. My biggest hurdle is just getting the professionals to show up. We do a good job getting the word out, but the response is low for some reason. I attribute it to laziness, but who knows.

    Also, one way to raise funds without a door charge is to charge for raffle tickets. Most people are glad to chip in a few dollars for a chance to win the prizes. That way someone could attend for free and just not have a chance on the prizes.

  2. An excellent idea Byron. Keep at it. I checked out your website, and noticed you don’t list previous meetings. You should because it shows consistancy as well as highlights what people missed when they didn’t show up. We used to keep a post-meeting recap on the site, but it got hard. Still, a “previous meetings” listing is something to think about.

  3. Aharon, Thanks a million for this. Great timing as we are getting a Philly meeting going. Yea! Thanks for the AENY anouncement. And will still be making the commute to NYC for a while.

  4. Ahron, we do have it up under the Archive Page. Maybe I need to rename it though if it wasn’t obvious. I have been trying to write recaps and they show up as blog posts. Thanks again for the article!

  5. Tim – I can’t find an email address for you, but, please let me know if I can help get the Philly group started! The AENY group is incredibly useful, and I would like to bring something like that back to the Philly people not crazy enough to trek up to NYC once a month.

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