I've been running the London Internet of Things meetup since December 2011 and have helped a few friends set up their own meetup in various cities around the world. London now has over 6 meetups on this topic (see sidebar of iot.london) and I thought I'd share what you should think about when starting a meetup.
1. Why the internet of things?
The internet of things has recently suffered from a lot of hype and unwanted anxiety but at the heart of the matter is a disruptive view of industrial and consumer infrastructure and products. We need more overlap, more cross-industry collaboration and more education of a shy investment community. So let's start a meetup! The advantage of the hype is that if you start a meetup, chances are people will have read about the term. They might not understand what it means, but that doesn't matter, they'll come out of curiosity and an open mind is a great starting point for a conversation.
2. How big?
I started helping Pachube (now Xively) when the meetup had 40 members and about 15-20 people showed up. Things progressed slowly and we now have over 5K members with a steady stream of 40-60 people showing up every month. That took 4 years. So be patient in early years. Quality is better than quantity so don't get angry about who doesn't show up but be grateful and take care of those who do.
3. Keep it free
Students are a big part of the community in London with so many engineering and design programs, so keep it free. Find sponsors to cover the venue, the food, any other costs. Film it if you like and make it available (Hardware Startup Lab do a great job of that). Putting even a small contribution as a barrier may keep people out and that's not how you grow a community around a new topic everyone is trying to understand.
4. Make it fun
We usually have three 10 minute presentations with Q&As and keep the talking to a minimum. This acts as a trigger for people to then talk to each other and make new friends. This isn't a conference where the speaking part is the most important thing. The networking is the most important thing at a meetup. I used to discourage sitting down (people check their phones more easily when sat down) but with our bigger venue that's harder to enforce. Twice a year we have showcase events which are free, mini tradeshows for local startups. These are great and very easy to organise, just give people you've selected some wifi and a desk and let them set up their prototype, student project or whatever. Attendees can roam around and engage as much as they'd like. The informality helps lubricate conversations.
5. Promote everyone
I write a bi-monthly newsletter to all the meetup attendees with a list of things to watch out for (events, competition deadlines, book launches). Not everyone will sign up to these, but it's worth doing as it keeps the momentum going between meetups. I'm agnostic as to who is promoted, large corporations or small startups, but I make sure there's a mix. It helps subscribers to see the variety of activities and feel like they can contribute too.
6. Be consistent
The London Internet of Things meetup has been running 11 meetups a year for four years. It's a monthly event no matter what and I schedule my work travel around it. I skip over August because London goes to sleep, but otherwise we've never cancelled an event. That's a commitment from the organiser, but it helps a lot to be a fixture. Attendees can rely on it and can choose when to engage but they're not worried about it shutting down or a lack of organisation. If you decide to organise a meetup, just stick to it, it's worth it.