Rey Muradaz recently asked me this question on the SDCFUG
email list. I thought that the question and answer would make a good post.
"...one thing I've always wondered about the Atlanta group is how it got started--in other words, what were the factors that led to the development of the critical mass necessary to have it become a thriving, sustaining community?"
That's a good question, and this may be a longer answer than you wanted...
In 1998 I started the group by starting, yes, a mailing list! I added all the CF people I knew to the ACFUG
list and they added people they knew till there were about 30 people. After a month or so about 6 of us got together at a Bar (of course) and started planning for meetings and leadership. Initially, Dean Saxe, Nathan Dupuis, and I ran the group. We went through several meeting locations and topics, eventually learning what worked and what didn't. By the time I turned over leadership of the group to Adam Churvis in 2000 (2001?) we had 4 email lists (jobs, announce, discuss, volunteers) with more than 300 on the discussion list and more than 400 on the announcements list. Of course, this was back in the dot com boom, and CF was also relatively new to most developers so there were lots of eager minds learning CF.
IMHO - Here are the things that make a successful CFUG:
1) Active and knowledgeable email list. Frequent contributors on the ACFUG list include Dave Watts, Matt Liotta, Adam Churvis, Charlie Arehart and a host of other well known names in the CF world. I also explicitly invited speakers and other advanced developers to the list whenever I met them.
With SDCFUG, this is also the case though our total list membership is much smaller. I invited Sean Corfield to the list awhile back, and I'm very happy that he's stayed on the list and continued to contribute. Alot of other really smart people are on the SDCFUG list though some are more vocal than others. :)
For ACFUG, the list is really the center of the community. Meetings were just something extra we do once a month. Really, only a small percentage of the list members show up at any given meeting, so ACFUG *is* really the list. The ACFUG discussion list is also at least as "smart" collectively as CF-Talk, with a better signal to noise ratio. People go there for answer and get them right away.
2) Speakers / Topics. Speakers are a little easier to come by in Atlanta because of the size of the community. Either way, in order to have people come to the meetings you have to have compelling topics and good speakers. I go to alot of CF conferences and tend to meet alot of people (local or remote) who are really into ColdFusion. Leveraging those connections is vital to getting good speakers and topics.
Generally people don't volunteer to speak at CFUG meetings. Also frequently people who *do* volunteer to speak are people with a product to sell, and that's usually not a good meeting topic. I HUNT speakers. Anyone I meet is a potential speaker. Developers usually don't tend to think of themselves as speakers. Some don't like speaking in public, some are insecure about their skillset. However, just about every developer knows *something* really cool that most of the rest of the group doesn't already know. My job is to find those people, figure out what they know that other people don't and invite them to speak. Once you ask someone to speak, they realize they *do* know something interesting to speak about and are flattered that you asked.
It's also common to restrict yourself to local speakers. It's surprising, but sometimes people will actually travel great distances to speak at your group. ACFUG had several people fly from out of state on their own dime to speak. I always offer my sofa to a speaker if they are traveling, and several times that all it took. SDCFUG has already had a speaker drive from Redondo Beach to speak, and we may have several more upcoming speakers from the LA/OC area come down soon also.
3) Community, Community, Community. To me, the entire heart of any User Group resides in it's sense of community. It generates goodwill, comradery, friendship, networking and sometimes even commiseration.
A strong community is better for all the people involved. It's a huge circle where the community makes itself smarter and stronger, which leads to more successful implementations of technology, which leads to more jobs, which brings more people into the community, and then the cycle starts all over making those new people smarter and stronger.
Also, in my opinion, the best User Groups are run by the community and for the community. I've seen several User Groups who've been run by companies. Some of these are successful, some are not. Though there are exceptions, almost all company run User Groups are in it for the benefit it gives their company, not the community.