NY Gaming Meetup: A Study in Iteration and Hockey Sticks
The more time I spend working with startups, the more I find useful lessons for growing companies in random places. Take my gaming (industry) meetup, for instance. I've been running it for over a year, but only recently has it begun to "hockey stick", in industry parlance. The Opportunity: After running a gaming company in New York City for six months, I realized that there wasn't a good place for people in the gaming industry to meet others in the gaming industry in an open, cross-pollinated environment. The International Game Developers' Association's New York chapter held regular events, but they were primarily focused on software developers, not the entire game creation ecosystem.
The Tactic: Create the New York Gaming Meetup, a (monthly) event where game developers can freely interact with others in the gaming industry as well as those outside the industry. Events would be regularly attended by investors, marketers, designers and others with a big role in making successful games. Meetups would be oriented around a series of demos of games built in the NYC area with networking before and after the demos.
(1) The NY gaming industry is highly fragmented with a focus on small (1-3 person) indie development shops. This isn't Seattle or LA; there are only a handful of mid-sized gaming studios in NYC. It was critical to recognize that New York is a very different place and build a program that caters to those differences.
(2) There are few potential sponsors of such a meetup in NYC. This event would have to take root with minimal budget.
(3) Space in New York is hard to come by. The event would have to be structured and timed to let us take advantage of free space in bars and restaurants.
(4) As I've previously written, the New York tech landscape is very siloed, with little cross-pollination between verticals. In Silicon Valley, anyone working on a tech-enabled solution considers themselves part of the tech industry. In New York, we frame ourselves in terms of the particular vertical we are tackling -- the "advertising industry", the "gaming industry" or the "fashion industry", for instance. This makes it difficult for events to reach across the social graph, and to this day I rarely see any Gaming Meetup regulars at other big tech events like the NY Tech Meetup or the Y+30.
Execution: For its first year, the event took place at Gallery Bar in the Lower East Side on Tuesday nights. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give the location a 2, the venue a 7 and the cost a 10 -- it was a free (but good) space with AV equipment in a out-of-the-way Manhattan neighborhood. Don't get me wrong, I love the LES, but it's a suboptimal place to host an after-work event.
Initial Results: The Gaming Meetup got a decent but not overwhelming response. We had a fairly predictable number of attendees -- 55 to 75 per meetup -- over our first ten months. The event wasn't really gaining traction, but it was establishing a good core of game developers and people who loved what we created. The content (demos from local game developers and entrepreneurs) was hit or miss. There weren't enough games being developed in New York City for us to be truly selective, and for every awesomely cool and instructive game that took the stage we had one guy just trying to sell something to the audience.
Iteration: A few months after starting the meetup, I started iterating on the model. Here are some things we tried and the results we got. Since metrics are important, changes were evaluated on (a) the number of attendees we got, (b) how long those attendees stayed and (c) how people reviewed the event.
Moving it later: Most people would show up at 7:30 anyway, so our 6:30 start time didn't make any sense -- especially since attendees had to travel to the Lower East Side. Good change, kept it.
Focusing on networking rather than demos: The demos started to get stale after a while, so I created one networking-only meetup to see how people would react. Bad idea; many people will only travel for content.
Fewer Demos: This was partially out of necessity, but ultimately it proved to be a good call. Six demos is simply too many. Four is much better.
Themed Meetups: We ran our first themed meetup (on Mobile Gaming) in March, and it was a tipping point of sorts. As it turns out, there is a certain "optimal specificity" in this kind of stuff -- make it too general ("Game Demos") and people aren't sure what they'll get. Make it too specific ("Android Development Best Practices") and most people won't care. Something in the middle ("Social Games", "Mobile Gaming", "Innovation in Consoles") is ideal.
Higher-profile speakers: Last month, Kenny Rosenblatt (CEO, Arkadium) came and spoke on the topic of social games, and our meetup got 2x the number of people we've ever gotten. I'm a bit surprised that I hadn't gone the high-profile-keynote-speaker route before. I'm certainly capable of sourcing them, and they give me far fewer logistical headaches than half a dozen demoers (one of which will inevitably bring a mac without the right VGA adapter).
The Hockey Stick: As you can see from my chart of RSVPs, I've started to figure this thing out. Popularity, of course, is self-reinforcing -- now that we're getting real traction, we've landed a great venue at AOL Ventures in the Union Square neighborhood. And our May meetup already has 90+ RSVPs, which is well beyond what any previous NY Gaming Meetup has gotten by this point. Most excitingly, we're lining up partnerships with other Meetup groups for this summer -- for example, we're getting together with the Y+30 to host a panel on the future of gaming.