How to start and run a successful SharePoint Users Group (Part 1)
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
While cruising the slopes out in Seattle with a few of the SharePoint MVPs (Todd Baginski, Jason Medero & Joel Oleson) this past weekend for the first SharePointSki get together, the topic arose on how to start and run a successful SharePoint Users Group. In a discussion resulting from a Joel Oleson blog post on SPUG Governances, we came to the conclusion that a detailed step by step guide to getting a users group up and running was in order. There were other guides out there from Microsoft as well as other blogs, but nothing really in-depth with details on what you will face and how to address those issues.
This is by no way the definitive end all be all on how to run a Users Group in fact, I’m sure I haven’t run into every issue possible. I like to think with the experience of myself and others that I will note in this 5 part blog entry, it should get you a good head start.
It’s important to note that, just because there is a step by step guide here, starting a users group isn’t for everyone, it takes a LOT of hard work and a lot of devotion to pull off a successful event every single month. In addition to that, in this professional’s opinion, there shouldn’t be a huge spike in users groups created just because of the desire of a few people or a guide such as this. That is not to say that everyone shouldn’t go to a users group. I certainly feel that the leverage and usability of a group gets severely watered down if there are too many groups in too close proximity. More to come on that in “A SUG’s Personality.”
Shadeed Eleazer and I started the Baltimore SharePoint Users Group back in 2007 riding the tide on the release of MOSS 2007. Shadeed had some previous experience with the Northern Virginia SPUG so when we found ourselves working at the same company, having like ambitions, and living in the Baltimore metro area, we decided to move forward with the Baltimore SharePoint users group.
Steps to creating a SharePoint Users Group
- Why start a users group (Pros and Cons, First Steps)
- Users Group Location (Location, Location, Damnation)
- Sponsors (When to say NO!)
- A SPUG’s Personality (Would you date her?)
- Synopsis (Be a good Steward. Summary and Checklist)
Please feel free to add comments below or drop me a Tweet to address anything I WILL miss. (Again, there is always extenuating circumstances).
Why Start a Users Group?
There are hundreds of reasons to start a users group. First and foremost, providing an outlet for your specific technology community, at the end of the day the main purpose should be because you care enough to help someone else further their career and knowledge base. The moment the USERS are not the priority of the USERS GROUP, you should consider handing off the group or dissolving it.
A users group is NOT:
- A platform for personal advancement
- A priority networking group for you to land gigs
- A dictatorship
- A avenue for financial advancement
I’ve seen it and heard it about many other users groups that when the above become the priorities, the overall community will begin to decline. I think the point is made clear here, there has to be a love and passion for the group otherwise, there’s no point of having it.
Pros and Cons
Just like anything else there are decisions that need to be weighed out before committing to starting a users group. In my experience here is my pros and cons list (there will be more from your perspective). But these are issues you should be aware of and seriously consider when weighing out the decision to start the group. These issues will affect every creator differently and maybe extreme in nature, it all depends on the situation at hand.
- Time consuming.
If you want to run a successful users group you have to be willing up front to put in the time needed to make it happen. Sometimes things will just fall into place, sometimes it literally will take a year to see something come to fruition. There is no timeline; you need to be ready to take on the time burden. Creating screen casts, web casts, web site updates and design, booking sponsors and speakers, planning events and so on. The more time you put in, like anything else the better the result will be.
Cliché as it might sound there are a lot of sacrifices you will need to be prepared to make. I once had to give up tickets to the BCS bowl because in order to have a speaker come out and do a session we had to move our normal meeting day up one week. So the super bowl of college football went on without me while others enjoyed 12 dollar beers and over cooked hot dogs. There is also a certain time away from family you’ll need to be prepared to commit to. Being gone every third Thursday of the month may have different impacts on your family life that need to be taken into consideration
- A higher expectation
You will need to be prepared to be held to a higher standard. Not so much that you need to know everything related to SharePoint or the users group technology focus but, you will be held accountable for making sure the information being provided is correct to the best of your knowledge. It should also drive you to learn more and more about the technology you cover.
- The Wolves
There will be times when your patience is tested by folks with ulterior motives. When this happens, for whatever reason, you will need to remain level headed and remember what the foundations of your desire to have the users group was all about. There might be times when you will need to outright stop a sponsor from speaking because of the nature of his/her “hard sell” that is a hard thing to do. Let’s face it, people are giving up time with their family to be there after work, there is no reason a sponsor should be cramming a product down the groups throat.
- Float like a butterfly, sting like a rabid, foaming from the mouth viper
Ok, that expression might be a little overkill; however it’s important to note you need to always be agile and prepared for ANYTHING. Example, have a presentation lined up in case your speaker’s plane gets delayed. Or a backup plan if your locations doors are locked and no one can be reached. These are all issues I’ve faced and was successful because we had back up plans ready to go.
When running a user group there may be a financial obligation that needs to be taken on, for example, food. When we started the Baltimore SharePoint Users Group we had a sponsor that we later found out was leveraging itself for a hostile takeover of the group (seriously) when that was discovered we obviously could no longer leverage that sponsor. As a result we had no food sponsor for some of our events. In this case and a few others where we just didn’t have a sponsor lined up, my partner and I have had to pay for food and drinks from our own pocket. Be prepared for situations like this try to keep a stash for a rainy day.
As a note, I mention the takeover situation not to draw attention to that sponsor (which I will not name), but I bring it up to make you aware that to some people/organizations a users group is just another pawn in the game of business. I’ll cover this later in our discussions about sponsors.
- Meeting awesome people, making lifelong friends
What else is there to really say here? You will start to build long time friendships with the regulars of your group as well as speakers that come in. So be prepared for random friendship making. In the past 3 months alone I’ve made 4 new ski buddies that I’m sure we will have many more days on the slopes to talk shop.
- Making great networking connections
Again, networking alone shouldn’t be the purpose you’re in a users group. But it’s inevitable that you will start to meet the movers and shakers. Don’t be afraid to jump in and shake a little bit yourself
- A furthering of your own knowledge
It’s a given that you will start to learn a ton about SharePoint. Remember to absorb it while you’re doing the things behind the scenes that no one see’s. That is one issue I’ve faced, running cameras, food, A/V equipment etc. It hasn’t been rare that I’ve missed portions of presentations.
- Public Speaking
If you do a good a good bit of topic speaking to the group, such as myself (optional of course) you’ll start to realize that you’re getting better and better at speaking in public. This was a personal advancement for me. If you know me, believe it or not I was not always so open, and I was terrified to speak in public as well as nervous to meet new people. Since the BSPUG group has been around those fears are practically gone.
- Personal sense of gratification
As you start to see the success of the users group you will begin to feel personally happy for people and their advancements. You genuinely feel good to see other folks come to you and say, “Hey, because of your presentation on putting InfoPath forms within web parts I was able to……..” It’s a great feeling and one that will NEVER get old.
Obviously there is room for this list to grow this wasn’t meant to be all the reasons why users groups are awesome but just some of the main points.
There will be some decisions early on that you will need to make to first decide if you have a chance at success and alignments you will need to make in your process to make it work. Along with the final synopsis at the end of my write up these should be taken into consideration first and foremost.
- Research other users groups in your area. There have been times that users groups have been started only to find that there were 3 others in the area, and some even on the same day. In this techies opinion there is no reason to have more than 1 within a 75 mile radius (or major technology corridor zone). If you still want to be involved in a group, contact the facilitator of the other group and see if you can contribute on a higher level.
Obviously there maybe reasons that there is a Users Group close by but still a need for a separate one. Take that into consideration and make the correct choice. There is power in numbers and a great chance of success if resources can be pulled together.
- Make sure you are aware of some of the Cons we’ve listed above. You will need to be pretty fluid with the ones listed above, as well as accepting of any that come down the pike in your specific circumstances
- Know the market! For example the Baltimore SharePoint Users Group is just north of the major DC tech corridor. As a result Baltimore is always 6-18 months behind the tech curve; our group is smaller than, let’s say a New York users group would be. Know the market you’re going in and have expectations accordingly.
- Organize a location to meet. This will be covered more in depth in the “Users Group Location” portion of this write up.
- Isolate marketing avenues. In a way a SharePoint Users Group is a lot like a business. You have to market it almost the same way. Taking advantage of networks to get the message out there about the group. Get involved with the blogs . Here are some other avenues to promote the users group (please send comments on other options):
Meetup lets you post events to the masses
LinkedIn Groups allows you to maintain groups from users within LinkedIn. It’s a good place to post up events as well.
Real time or updates on events going on in your group. This tool gets more and more powerful the more you use it.
International SharePoint Professionals Association (www.sharepointpros.com) a nonprofit with ties to many MVP’s and Microsoft itself, ISPA helps as the go between all the details that need to navigated for events and groups.
o Other Users Groups (NETWORK!)
Meet with and go speak at other user’s group events. This is so important because in the end, we’re all in the business of collaboration. Get other groups to link to you.
- Make a choice! I live by a personal motto. “It’s better to make a choice quickly when the right decision isn’t always clear. Because at the end of the day, you didn’t waste time wondering what the right choice might be and in the event you were wrong, you figured out the correct path to go.” Use this
Next: “Users Group Location (Location, Location, Damnation)”