Lessons Learned Running a Successful Software Testing Meetup

After nearly 3 years & 16 Liverpool Tester Gatherings, the 3 of us have learned several very valuable lessons in running free meetups to provide a platform for new & experienced speakers, with both local & international testing status.

This post aims to share some of our learning

Liverpool Tester Gathering Logo

Here are some stats of what we’ve achieved:

  • 16 meetups!
  • 3 venues!
  • 32 speakers!
  • 16 lightning talks!
  • 1000 attendees in the room!
  • 4000 people streaming on Twitter & Facebook!
  • 1900 views of our YouTube videos
  • 300 pizzas!
  • 2600 beers!

Several of people have asked me what we do differently to their meetups. How do we get such high numbers attending, meetup after meetup?

This post outlines some of the experiments we’ve run, successes we’ve amplified & of course failures we’ve dampened…

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Venue

Arguably, the biggest experiments we’ve ran have been in choosing a venue for the Liverpool Tester Gathering.

When we first started out, the list of potential venues we were aware of was short. We have hosted events in 3 venues, each having their pros & cons and our current venue seems to be ticking all the boxes for now…

We actively choose not to have the meetup in an software development house, instead opting for co-working spaces that have spaces big enough for our audience (more on that later).

This requires the 3 of us meeting with potential venues to see if there is a deal to be struck that benefits both parties.

Some guidelines we follow for venues:

  • Try not to use a company office for the meetup
    • It feels like you’re going to another meeting
    • (although does reduce costs)
  • Find a venue where they have people to help you, the organiser
    • Less preparation effort for you
    • Fewer dependencies on other attendees helping to clean up  
  • Find a venue that matches the image you want to portray
    • Don’t use a “formal” venue if your image is punk
  • Find a venue with a bar
    • This may end up costing you more, but for the time & effort you save from buying the drinks at a supermarket & lugging them to the venue it’ll be more than worth it
  • Always, always negotiate the venue hire rate, there may be other opportunities for them other than money (esp if you’re not-for-profit)

Format

We have experimented with several different formats over the meetups, some have worked better than others.

The format is arguably the most fluid of the variables that we play with, ranging from an evening of micro talks (10 mins each), through to a interactive workshop (60 mins).

Some ideas to think about your meetup format from our experience:

  • Reach out to your speakers & see what their preferred delivery method is
    • No point expecting a workshop when they want to deliver a talk
    • similarly , if they have travelled far for the meetup, do you only want to give them a 10 mins slot?
  • Only make minor changes each meetup, unless you’re going for a large impact
    • Your attendees have expectations – try not to shatter them!
  • Make room for breaks
    • We have a 20 mins max speaking time, at which point we have a break
    • People can only really attend to 1 thing for 20 mins before the mind starts to wander
    • People need to pee
    • People like to discuss the content
  • Consider making your night topic specific e.g.have talks around
    • “Agile Testing”
    • “API Testing”
    • “Performance Testing”

Speakers

Liverpool Tester Gathering makes a point of having a healthy mix of new, experienced, local & international speakers.

This variety brings names that will draw your attendees whilst still giving (potentially unheard) local talent a chance to share their thoughts.

Some ideas for the speakers at your meetup:

  • Reach out to speakers currently on the conference circuit
    • Chances are, they have a story to tell & they’ll be happy to tell it at your meetup
  • See who’s writing interesting blogs relevant to your community & ask if they want to talk about them
  • See who’s doing interesting stuff in your community & invite them to speak
  • Give your speakers a whole lot of love!
    • They’re giving up their time for free to speak at your meetup (which will likely involve travel & talk/workshop prep)
    • Make them feel welcome
    • We have a “speaker info pack” which sets expectations for them & us
    • It’s generally good to be polite!
  • Start unvetted speakers on micro-talks (or even a lightning talk)
    • It’s difficult to recover if your main speaker is a shocker…
  • New speakers generally start with a lightning talk (up to 5 mins)
  • We no longer have main speakers from our sponsors on the same night they are sponsoring
    • The evening becomes too much about the sponsor & not the other speakers or attendees

Sponsorship

This is a variable you need to keep on top of. As a not-for-profit meetup, we are wholly dependent on sponsorship & need to have a few sponsors lined up to ensure we can run the future meetups.

Experiments to keep your sponsorship pipeline flowing:

  • Keep an eye out for potential sponsors in your community
  • See who is sponsoring other meetups like yours
  • Consider micro-sponsorship model where multiple people contribute to funding the evening
  • Give your sponsors a whole lot of love!
    • This night would be unlikely without their support!
    • You’ll probably need their support again in the future!
    • Make them feel welcome
    • We have a “sponsor info pack” which sets expectations for them & us
    • It’s generally good to be polite!

Food & Drink

This is the trickiest variable to work with. We’ve tried several experiments to get the correct balance & unfortunately sometimes we get it wrong.

The consequences here are generally a lot of wasted food or people missing out.

The primary decider for success or failure is the attendee dropout rate – we budget the food & drink on the number of “yes” RSVP responses we receive. If people don’t update their RSVP to a “no” if they can’t make it, then we buy too much…

From the beginning our stance regarding food & drink was

“We’re not here to feed our attendees tea, nor get them drunk”

But it’s important your meetup is taking up a chunk of your attendees evening, so respect the fact they will likely be hungry & thirsty.

Lessons we’ve learned from food & drinks experiments

  • Expect a 30% dropout rate – cater for 30% fewer attendees than the “yes” RSVP responses
  • We’ve opted for pizza largely due to ease of getting a variety of flavours, but also our local pizza company is awesome!
  • Attempt to cater for various dietary requirements, but don’t go overboard
    • We use a Meetup poll to determine if we should buy gluten free pizza
    • That pizza is often left at the end of the night…
  • Cutting an 8 slice pizza into 16 does actually make the pizza go further!
  • Venues with a bar may cost more, but they save you so much time & effort. Plus they generally have a greater variety of drinks
  • We limit free drinks to beer, house wine & soft drinks so that the budget spreads further
    • Attendees are usually ok with this as they will buy their own if they want something fancy
  • Don’t get the pizza delivered too early before the meetup starts as it will be cold when it comes to serve it up
  • Similarly, don’t serve it too late as people won’t be able to eat it
  • The pizza arrives & immediately served around 30 mins before we formally kick the meetup off
    • People are arriving then & it’s a convenient time to grab a bite to eat & catch up with others before we start the evening proper.

Roles

There is a core team of 3 of us who arrange the Liverpool Tester Gathering. We roughly assume the following roles:

  • Compere
  • Speaker engagement
  • Sponsor engagement

This way, people know who they have to speak to in order to get their questions answered. It also reduces the number of handoffs & shortens email threads.

The activities for each role

Each role has numerous activities, including

  • Compere
    • Prep slide deck for the evening
    • Set up tech at the beginning ready for presenting
    • Run the evening, introduce the sponsors & speakers
  • Speaker engagement
    • Receive emails from potential speakers
    • Introduce speakers to the rest of the team
    • Stay in frequent contact with speakers to receive talk synopsis, bio & slides as well as answer questions
  • Sponsor engagement
    • Prepare invoice for sponsors
    • Follow up with sponsors / confirm sponsorship has landed in bank account
    • Order & pay for pizza & venue

Obviously, there are other activities & they are not limited to the roles as described – for example, any of us can & do help set up tech and source speakers or sponsorship.

Our meetups are also recorded by Phil Hughes who puts a tremendous amount of time & effort into recording, editing & uploading the videos to our Liverpool Tester Gathering YouTube channel.

Summary

Organising a meetup is a fun & awesome challenge which will help you & your community grow in ways you can’t yet imagine!

Times can get tough; keeping a pipeline of sponsors, speakers, arranging suitable dates, ensuring people know about your event, train station closures… but always keep in mind why you run your meetup & this will help you through.

Keep running experiments to keep the night fresh & exciting – this makes the whole process that much more exciting & you never know what you’ll discover!

What lessons have you learned from running meetups?