Peer-production is one of the strengths of open source projects. TYPO3, a self-organized project without corporate backing, always lived from the spirit of sharing ideas, work, and values. It’s not by accident that one of our core values is, "Inspire people to share." Over the years, as a result of the massive success of TYPO3 as a product, core team members became increasingly decoupled from the work with clients. Instead, they focused on the core development. On one hand, this transition was great because it means a lot of people have contributed their time and passion into the product. But on the other hand, the change brought disadvantages.
If you do not have to deal with the ever-evolving requirements from clients, eventually you start to get more academic in terms of product development, which is what happened to our core team. As a result, we had a lot of technical improvements and refactoring, but not so many new features or feature improvements that benefitted users.
People started noticing, and I remember one marketing team meeting in which my colleague Boris Hinzer brought up the issue. We realized we would need to find a way to get input and feature requests directly to the core team. We didn't want a mandatory list of things developers would have to implement, which is urealistic because they are free to do whatever they like anyway. Rather, we needed a representative, weighted list of items that the the TYPO3 user community wanted.
The marketing team brainstormed possible ways to gather data, including online surveys, G+ Hangouts, and other options, but none of the ideas satisfied us. Then Boris came up with the idea to have in-person meetings instead—full-day events with a brainstorming time, a general feedback period, and time to socialize, which included a simple lunch. Additionally, the TYPO3 Association was looking for a way to get more input in their strategy process, so we decided to add that to the afternoon agenda. As a result, the TYPO3 Agency Meetup Days were born. (A TYPO3 Agency is a company that creates custom websites and portals based on TYPO3.)
We roughly outlined a plan that included gatherings with agency representatives in all areas where TYPO3 has traction. We ended up visiting 10 cities all over Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, and France. And then kicked off in Berlin.
Ups and downs
Berlin planning did not go well. We did not think it is important to do personal invitations to agencies in the area, and we did almost no follow up with the few number of signups we had. Additionally, although I was supposed to moderate of the event, I was stuck at home with a cold and could not make it to Berlin. The event was chaotic and disappointing, and reminded us of a few event-planning best practices: Do stuff right, which means plan ahead, communicate well, and have backup plans. We all should have known better.
After our rough Berlin event, we planned better and the Frankfurt event went well. A large number of participants showed up, vibrant and energetic discussions happened, a we gained a lot of insights. The TYPO3 spirit was back, the event was more like I expected, and the feedback was great, with many people encouraging us to do it again. Even better, attendees told their networks about the event, and we got requests for more events in other locations, from people we hadn't met yet.
At the end of 2014 Agency Meetup Days tour, we'd had almost 200 attendees, and we received a lot of positive feedback. And we had the product feedback data to compile a representative overview of how the TYPO3 product should be improved. Luckily, the big and most relevant topics had been identified by the core team already, so the feedback confirmed that they were working on the right things for future releases.
What we learned
Our meetups taught us lessons that will help in future event planning:
- Provide a local platform for business discussions: TYPO3 events tend to be rather technical, so usually developers and architects take part. Other members of the TYPO3 community needed the opportunity to meet and share insights in areas such as the market, business, recruiting, and management. I can think of plenty additional open source communities and projects that could benefit from similar, less-technical meetups.
- Inspire people to share: We realized throughout the meetups that different agencies are building the same extensions and add-ons, but do not share them for a variety of reasons. This is not in the spirit of TYPO3. Not surprisingly, when we discussed this problem at the meetups, almost all agencies agreed to share improvements with the community.
- Renew motivation: At first, some community members thought of the Agency Meetup Days as marketing events, when in reality we were discussing practical problems and solutions. I learned that much of our community is motivated and eager to contribute time and money toward improvements and solutions. I got the impression that these meetings helped re-energize many people.
The success of the 2014 Agency Meetups encouraged us to try to hold more events every year, although the focus will change. What was product improvement in 2014 will turn into joint marketing efforts in 2015.
And we will enlarge the footprint: UK, Austria, and Italy will be new on the 2015 list, with plans for other countries as well.
Regional meetups are a great way to connect to the business base of your open source community. By keeping event attendance small—for example, 30 people—a more intimate atmosphere allows attendees to talk with every other attendee.
Open source isn't all about technology, it's also about people. What counts is personal relationships. Our Agency Meetups turned out to be a great way to foster these personal relationships throughout our communities. I encourage other open source communities to try similar regional events, and if I can help, don’t hesitate to contact me.
This article is part of the The Open CMS column coordinated by Robin Muilwijk. Share your stories about working with open source content management systems (CMS) and platforms like Drupal, Joomla, Plone, WordPress, and more.