How to blow $3000 in 9 months trying to build a developer community

This is the remains of the original (and now-defunct) GDG Chicago meetup that ran from March-December of 2014. All members have been removed and no further members are being accepted. 

This meetup was a failed attempt to help create a Google developer community here in Chicago, specifically one that was geared towards Android development. For years before the group was created, many people in Chicago expressed their frustration with the GDG Chicago Android meetup group (also now defunct), how it was a terrible meetup, how it was filled with sales pitches and recruiters, how they went once, hated it, and never returned, and how they wished there was some alternative out there.

So I created one.

My vision for GDG Chicago was for a group that would bring together Android and, more broadly, Google developers so they could find each other, share their knowledge, learn from each other, build enduring professional and personal relationships, and ultimately form a solid community that a city the size of Chicago should have. A group by developers, for developers, safe from the business interests of companies and recruiters.

I did everything in my power to bring interesting content to the meetings. Nearly half of the meetings were presentations/content that I made myself, many of them taking 20-40 hours apiece to create. The other presentations were from people who spent an equal amount of time, if not more, on their talks. I spent many hours working to find meeting spaces and eventually being able to acquire the space at 1871.

I started holding Code-and-Coffee morning meetings (based on other groups of the same name which had been successful in other areas) to give developers a place to get to know each other outside of a structured meeting. We usually had 4 of us attend, but we never got above 6 people, and few of the people actually developed for Android or with any Google technologies. It turned out that people weren't really interested in getting up early in the morning to meet other developers. 

However, the most painful part of this GDG Chicago experience was the cash outlay. I paid for all of the meetup expenses out of my own pocket, including the initial meeting space that was $200 (because our attendance exceeded the size of the free space and I wanted everyone who RSVPed to be able to attend), and all of the food and drink that members gladly came to expect at each meeting. Pizza, soda, plates, cups, and plasticware ran between $250-350/meeting. At the Angular.JS meeting, we had 120 attendees and the bill for the food/drink came to $560. When we asked for people to potentially help offset the cost, we received around $120 from the attendees, most of which came for a few generous people giving us $20 bills. I ended up spending around $3000 over 9 months, most of it on food and soda.

Aside from two sponsored events in the beginning of the group, I covered all of the group's expenses out of my own personal pocket. Why did I not get sponsors to defray the cost? I had actually tried to get sponsors for the December presentation that no one saw. No one saw the December presentation because it turned out that the sponsors and speakers were planning a sales demonstration under the guise of a tech talk. In the interest of keeping to my original vision of a pure developer group with no sales pitches and recruiters, I had to decline having them sponsor and present. 

December's meeting was the most painful part of GDG Chicago experience. When people found out there wasn't an actual presentation, but it was going to be me talking about the future of the group, half of the 30 attendees left, after eating the free pizza of course. I sat in front of a group of 15 people for an hour and asked them what they would like to see in 2015 for GDG Chicago. Most people never asked a question and the majority of the hour was spent in awkward silence with a desperate attempt to keep the meeting moving. Of the few questions asked, most were asking for additional content, more education, more things. No one offered anything in return. Multiple people said they were expecting to get inside information from Google on new products and services in 2015 and it was the only reason they attended the meeting.

It became evident at that point that my vision for helping to facilitate building a developer community would not be fulfilled through GDG Chicago, so I decided to end it and stop throwing money at a lost cause. The experience showed me that most people love free information and free food, but are not very interested in giving anything back in return. They complain incessantly about not having a community, but when presented with an outlet for a community choose not to be involved. It turns out Android and Google developers in Chicago really aren't that interested in a developer community for the sake of bringing fellow developers together. 

I've left all the pictures and comments intact with this meetup group as a reminder that great attendance numbers (even over 100) don't mean you have a successful developer group. It means you're very good at marketing and effectively paying people to attend by giving them free information and food. If you asked most of the people who attended these meetings which group held the meeting, I doubt many would even remember the group's name. Few probably even knew a group actually ran the meetings. 

GDG Chicago was a painful and expensive lesson that I hope others do not make the mistake of repeating.


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