Back in 2010, I started a community for hackers at my alma-mater, Rutgers University. It all started with just a handful of friends I made at hackathons and a Facebook group to connect them. By the time I graduated in 2012, it had grown into a vibrant community of 1,000’s of student hackers and had even transcended Rutgers.

These days, I work on Major League Hacking and help over 1,500 student leaders build communities on their campuses every year. I’m proud to say that today those communities serve over 50,000 student developers, designers, and makers around the world. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

Step 1: Getting Started.

So you want to start a hacker community? That’s awesome! Here are some pro-tips to help you get it off the ground.

Set a clear vision.

“Why are you doing this?” That’s the first question I ask when I’m talking to someone about a community they’re starting. More often than not, they immediately start telling me about a hackathon they’re organizing or a Facebook group that they run. That’s not what I’m asking.

What you do and why you do it are often (and should be) very different. What happens if you stop running that event in a few years? Does your community immediately die? Or is there more to it than that event? Having a clear understanding of why you’re building this community and being able articulate that to other people is absolutely essential for long term success.

Although our hackathon was a major catalyst for the growth of the Rutgers hacker community, it’s not the reason we existed. We existed to enable student hackers at Rutgers to be awesome and the hackathon was a way for us to accomplish that.

The Rutgers Hackathon Club Mission.

The same is true for Major League Hacking. Our mission is to spread the Hacker Ethos to every student on the planet — organizing the official Hackathon Season isone of the ways we’re working towards that goal.

Find your first member(s).

Initially, your job is to find a small group of people who re equally as excited about the community as you. In my experience, the best place to start looking is in similar or related communities. For example, a lot of the early Rutgers Hackathon Club crew came from USACS, the Rutgers Computer Science society.

Keep in mind that these early people will have a huge impact on the community’s culture and values in long run. Make sure you’re intentional about surrounding yourself with a diverse group of people you enjoy thoroughly.

Focus on people, not planning events.

In the early days of a community, talking to people and helping them get value from being a member is most important thing you can be doing. Many people don’t realize this and instead spend their time planning large events. While it’s much easier to quantify the value of planning a 500 person hackathon than time spent talking to members about their needs, I promise you that talking to people is a much better use of your time early on.

Specifically there are two things that you should be on the lookout for when you’re talking to people: (1) an understanding of who they are and why they joined and (2) opportunities for you to build connections with other members.

Understanding your members and their motives will help shape the things you do. For example, if lots of people in your community are struggling with technical interviews, organizing a way for them to practice together could be valuable. Generally speaking, no two people will have the same motivations and problems, but you should be able to find some common threads. Looking back on every community I’ve started, this is the one thing I wish I would have done more often.

“Looking back on every community I’ve started, this is the one thing I wish I would have done more often.”

The other thing you want to do is form connections between members. The more connections an individual has within the group, the harder it will be for them to drop out or get lost. Imagine a person who only knows one other member, if that member graduates or moves on, you’ve suddenly lost two people. As you’re talking to people, keep an eye out for problems that other members might be able to help solve. Connecting the dots can be as simple as sending a Facebook message introducing them to each other.

Engage people between events.

There’s a big difference between a club that occasionally puts on events and a real, engaged community. The easiest way to tell the difference is to see what people are doing in the time between events. If they aren’t talking, sharing, or meeting up, then odds are your community is in trouble.

“Congrats, your community is a leaky bucket!”

If there aren’t things for people to do in between events, it’s easy for them become disengaged and drop out of your community. You need to provide a venue for people to connect in their “offline” time.

That venue could be a physical space where people meet or a digital space for them to connect. At Rutgers, we luckily had both. Our CS Lounge was a great place to meet people and relax between classes. We also had an incredibly active Facebook group, which I grew from a handful of people into one of the largest digital communities for hackers at the time.

The key to the growth of our Facebook community was that I seeded almost all of the initial content and was meticulous about modeling the behavior I wanted to see. At first, it was just me posting links that I thought were interesting and @mentioning people in the comments to get them to engage.

An example of us using this tactic for our Major League Hacking 2015 Spring Season Finale, Hack the Planet.

As I added people to the group, I would welcome them individually by name and ask them what they were working on. Eventually my example caught on and it became a regular occurrence. People in your community will emulate the things that they see the most visible members doing.

Step 2: Growth.

Ok, now you’ve got a core group of highly engaged community members. It’s time to grow. These tips will help you as you expand.

Host Consistent meetings / events.

When people leave communities, it’s often not on purpose. More often people just sort of fade out over time because events are happening infrequently or they have other priorities that take precedence. The best way to combat this is to be religiously consistent with what you do and when.

Find a place where you can get together every single week. It could be a CS Lounge, a coffee shop with wifi, your favorite restaurant. It doesn’t matter. Meet there every week and do something as a group.

Even if you’re the only one there sometimes, it’s important to stick to your schedule. You want people to think of your community as a permanent fixture, not a fleeting fad.

Invite people relentlessly.

I have this catch phrase around the Major League Hacking office, “the hard part isn’t building something, it’s following through.” As hackers, we’re trained to build things quickly as prototypes, but we often have zero practice actually turning them into production systems. And quite frankly, follow-through on most projects is usually tedious and boring, which makes it significantly less appealing than the launch itself.

Growing your community is no exception. Lots of people I talk to have the “if you build it, they will come” mentality towards communities and events. This couldn’t be further from reality.

Lots of people I talk to have the “if you build it, they will come” mentality towards communities and events. This couldn’t be further from reality.

You might be able to organize the best events in the world and have amazing resources for your members, but if nobody is showing up to take advantage of those, then you’re wasting your time. Spamming out Facebook event invites isn’t going to help you recruit new, high quality members either. People just ignore those and it feels very impersonal. You need a real strategy.

The most effective way to get people to show up is to individually invite them. Attending an event you’ve never been to before can be a scary thing. What if you don’t know anyone there? What if you don’t fit in? What if it’s boring? Having someone reach out to you personally makes those possibilities feel much slimmer. You also feel special because they thought of you, which is a great first experience for someone who might join your community.

Facebook messenger makes reaching out to people super easy and effective. People I know who are really good at this will often have 20+ threads going on simultaneously. Don’t forget that you can invite people in-person as well though.

Highlight your successes.

People in your community will inevitably do awesome stuff (including yourself). Make sure you recognize those instances very publicly. Bonus points for framing the stories in the context of how the community made them possible.

Here’s an excerpt from the first blog post I wrote in my life:

There are a lot of things that Rutgers University is known for: hosting and winning the first college football match, our recently discontinued school holiday, sandwiches with literally everything on them. But, one of the things we don’t get enough recognition for is our strong hacking culture.

It’s a short post highlighting all the events that the Rutgers hacker community had been to and the amazing things they had built. Over the years I’ve had tons of people tell me how that post (or other similar ones) inspired them to join the Rutgers hacker community. In a few cases, I’ve even had people tell me that it inspired them to enroll at Rutgers in the first place.

Content is a high value, low bandwidth way to make people feel awesome and tell the story of your community at scale.

Step 3: Sustainability.

You’ve created this community, how do you make sure it’ll be around in the long run? These tips will help you make your community sustainable for years to come.

Give people ownership.

In the early days of your community, you’ll be responsible for doing just about everything. Obviously that’s unsustainable in the long run.

As soon as you possibly can, you should find ways to start giving people in your community ownership over projects. This helps with buy-in, bringing in new perspectives, and generally makes your organization more scalable.

MHacks, the University of Michigan’s Hackathon, does this particularly well. Each year they assemble a team of new Freshmen talent to organize their flagship community events and gives each member ownership over a critical component. By doing this, they’ve created several generations of talented community leadership.

Ask for feedback constantly.

It’s easy to lose focus on improving your community once it has started to become self-sustaining. You no longer need to do it, so other things take precedence. You should build self-reflection and refinement into the culture from day one. Two strategies I like for this are (1) regular surveys and (2) retrospectives after every major event.

Surveying is a really useful tool if you do it regularly and ask the right questions. Here are some example questions I like to use. The key is be open ended unless you are tracking changes in specific numbers.

Knowledge transfer is one of the biggest pain points that communities run into. Retrospectives/Post-Mortems are useful tools for collecting feedback and preserving knowledge down the line. Usually the people who are responsible for a project or initiative have the most insight into what went well and what could have gone better. Collecting those insights and storing them for future reference makes the job of taking over much easier.

There are lots of paths to the top.

There’s no cut and dry formula for building a community. Some of the most successful communities in the world are completely unconventional and have taken a long and winding path. One thing is for sure though, building a community is hard work  —  especially if you want it to be around for the long haul.

Hopefully these tips will give you the tools to get there yourself. Start by setting a clear vision, finding a passionate core team, and building strong connections between members. Once you’ve laid the initial groundwork, it’s time to put your foot on the gas with regular events, a recruiting process, and content. Finally, set your community up for long term success by giving members ownership over key projects and constantly learning from your community and iterating.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the responses below.

Happy hacking!

 —  Swift