Why meetups matter

There is a lot of focus on the negative aspects of web design at the moment such as the debate about the role of accessibility. However, I believe web designers have a lot to be proud of and that other professionals (like website owners) have a lot to learn from them.

I went to my second Geek Dinner on Friday and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was superb to meet up with other people from my industry and talk about everything from personal blogging to emerging screen reader technologies.

It’s amazing when you think about it. The majority of people in that room are in direct competition with Headscape, and yet we freely discussed techniques and good practice that would normally be kept confidential in order to maintain a competitive edge.

I would argue that there are few professions outside of academia who so freely shares knowledge. What is more, I believe that the phenomenal evolution of the web can be partly attributed to this free exchange of ideas.

Personally I know I have learnt so much from the online and offline discussions I have had with other designers and I hope that in turn people have learnt from me.

If you are a web designer then I would really encourage you to take the time to attend some of these meetups. Unlike conferences, meetups tend to be free or at least very cheap and so there is little excuse not to go. The only problem I can see at the moment is that not much is happening outside London, which is frustrating. However, there is no reason why this is the case. If there isn’t a meetup in your area, organise one. Even if it is only four or five people, it is still a chance to swap war stories and have a drink while you’re at it.

However, what really saddens me is that this current enthusiasm for knowledge exchange seems to be limited to web designers and developers. What we really need to see is website owners sharing ideas in the same way. Although there is always the exception to every rule, it appears that most website owners are more reluctant to give away their competitive advantage. They are happy to attend conferences where they receive information but reluctant to attend meetups where they may be required to give out.

This attitude needs to change. There are important issues web site owners need to discuss. Things like marketing, fulfilment and customer retention (to name but three). From my perspective business strategy lags behind the technology and this is at least partly due to the communities’ hesitancy to share.

If you are interested in attending or organising a meetup then I suggest the best place to start is Upcoming.org. This site allows you to quickly and easily find events in your area as well as post your own.

Finally, if you are interested in a boagworld meetup then post a comment below. Also if you could add your location to our frappr map that would be useful too.

  • Michael

    Do you have a Podcast of this Geek Dinner like you did last time when you spoke? I really enjoyed that one and hope to hear this one. Thanks

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    Nope Michael. Molly didn’t exactly give a presentation :)

  • http://www.ltheobald.co.uk Leesy

    It would also mainly revolve around who had the best geek t-shirt :)
    The BoagWorld meetup would be a good idea Paul. Where were you thinking of hosting it though – the west country, London or somewhere else? I hear Cambridge has many lovely venues ;)

  • Iain

    I can’t see site owners wanting to share too much – after all, having an edge over your competitors is everything. No firm in its right mind would start discussing how it achieves things when talking to the opposition.
    It would be lovely if all businesses worked together and shared everything for a nice utopian world but the harsh reality is quite the opposite.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    Well then I am regularly not in my right mind. I share stuff on this blog and podcast all the time Iain. Should I stop? What about Andy Budd, should he stop talking at conferences because my web design company Headscape is currently tendering against his company Clear:Left.
    I believe that is a very narrow minded outlook on business.

  • Iain

    Paul, you’re missing the point. It’s one thing to share and discuss web skills – they’re the tools of the trade. it’s quite another to discuss your customer retention strategies.
    As an aside, you do seem to take things rather personally. This is twice you’ve taken umbrage at what I would consider valid points. It’s probably best if I don’t bother contributing to this site as I suspect we have a clash of styles and I don’t want to upset things here.

  • Tim

    Hi all,
    Paul, I am in absolute agreement with you. Networking with others in the same industry is critically important, regardless of your profession.
    Website owners who don’t want to share simply won’t attend these types of gatherings – and they’ll be the ones who are missing out on the shared experiences, moral support, advice, industry intelligence and leads.
    My experience has been that when you share what you have to offer with others – professionally and personally – it comes back to you in spades, and in all sorts of ways you can;t predict.

  • Ruth

    Iain does raise a valid point. I could see a group of charities or universities sharing ideas but you would hardly expect Tesco and Sainsburys to get together with all the other supermarket chains for a friendly chat comparing their web sites, would you? Maybe it’s a geek thing? Most web sites are not owned by geeks ;o)

  • http://thepisstakers.com Andy

    There is a shady area where real innovation is best kept under wraps until it is out, but once in the public domain, talk talk is the best way to keep ahead.
    I come from a construction background, and that industry is about as close minded as you could hope to find. I learnt that there is not really any such thing as competition for most companies and they should talk and share much more, with everything to gain and not much to lose.
    When I say no competition, what I mean is, unless they are inventing the wheel, for most businesses their USP is the people in that company doing just about the same as what most other people are doing, but in their own style, with a tweak here or there. So essentially, I can copy Joe Bloggs ideas as much as I like, I will probably not do it like him so probably won’t get any of his customers. To do him down, I have to do it better or different. This is the exact environment that a vibrant company or economy needs in order to work well in the long term, I suggest!
    So even if Joe Bloggs invented a way of working, and sees me “copying” and taking his customers, then clearly he has room for improvement with his “great idea”, so he should respond and improve what he does to keep up. I think that idea of “stagnate or die” is a scary proposition for a lot of people, but not, for the winners. And if you arent trying to win/attain specific goals, you shouldnt be in business.
    And on another slightly different tack, does anyone really say, Oh, I am not going to use this shopping cart to order online from the widget company because it works perfectly, just like Amazon’s shopping cart that has been around for 5 years? No, the customer will be glad of the ease of use, the company selling widgets will be OK with the idea that they dont have the newest shopping cart, but at least they didnt have to invent what they have. and Amazon can do their thing, innovating. And for Amazon, the more people who get the hang of shopping on line, the better it is for them too, because online shopping is their thing! So in that instance, Amazon must surely want as many widget companies as possible adopting their once highly original shopping cart ideas!
    And Ian, at least you get a response from Paul, he doesnt even post some of my comments! :)

  • http://www.crimsonfox.com.au Russell – Crimson Fox

    I have to say that although what Ian says may be true of most industries. Web Design is probably one of those areas that is an exception.
    There is a hell of a lot work out there for everyone at present and until the development of the web slows down, I suggest, there will continue to be enough work for everyone.
    So, by getting together to share ideas, you are becoming a larger consciousness. We can learn more, since there are not many web design companies that are literally ‘doing it all’ because of the speed of development that I was talking about.
    That being said, I certainly think there is benefit for all businesses in sharing ideas with other groups of business not EXACTLY in the same field. As there scope and field of expertise is slightly different.
    I suppose this is the way I see the web right now. No one is offering the client EXACTLY the same thing and we are defining our own job titles.
    Perhaps if we took a small town, that only had 2 competing web design companies. you might see that sort of competition stopping the ability to work together. BUT…that’s now how the web works, we are competing on a global scale so I think a different approach can be taken. Suggest as what Paul is describing.
    Or am I just talking out my ass.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    Although I except that there have to be limits in conversations that happen between people in direct competition (such as Sainsburys and Tescos) that doesn’t exclude discussion entirely. For a start people who aren’t in direct competition can still share very openly with one another. Even in situations where they are in competition there are still areas they should discuss together. For example sainsburys and tescos should discuss things like labellings, and terminology. Doing so would create a consistent user experience and would encourage more people to shop online reducing the overheads for both companies. By working together they could significantly increase efficiency in a number of areas and increase BOTH of their profit margins.
    @Iain – I did take your comments in regards to the “business of web standards” podcast personally because I felt you criticized without providing constructive comments. However your comment above was totally different. Just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean you should stop posting. You made a point and i countered it by giving a personal example. That doesn’t mean I was taking it personally. You are perfectly in your rights to disagree with me.
    I would be interested in your opinion however. Am I damaging Headscape by giving away all of my experience?

  • http://www.crimsonfox.com.au Russell – Crimson Fox

    I have say I don’t think you are damaging Headscape by giving away all it’s secrets, at least in the podcast, because…
    I’m yet to hear any really specific details about how you deal with clients, pricing, hiring, etc, etc.
    Every time you get close to any of these subjects, the two of you especially Marcus, side step the issue and give a generic response.
    I would love to hear the raw content of these details. I’d love to hear the numbers, but I fully understand if you don’t divulge them.
    I do love the show and love the banter between both you and Marcus so keep doing what you’re doing. But I definitely don’t think you’re in danger of giving away the hidden secrets of success.

  • http://www.pcbookreview.com Iain

    Paul: Two points. Firstly, even labeling offers a point of competitive advantage so even at that level, I would not expect firms to swap ideas. A number of years ago tesco’s introduced their ‘el-cheapo’ line with plain white/blue labeling to cut the cost of packaging. I would be very surprised if they didn’t keep that very much under sraps as the money it would have saved them given their volumes would be considerable and the lead time on their competitors would be important.
    It may also surprise you to hear I often have to sign NDA’s within the company I work for to say i won’t discuss projects with anyone else in the same company, let alone externally. In many cases, if news leaked out about an intended change of process or new way of working, it would have a very real impact on our share price as well as our competitors so the level of secrecy required is intense and in many cases actually covered by governance requirements and legal necessities.
    As for your point about damaging Headscape, given what you have discussed in the podcasts thus far (and I’ve listened to every one both Boagworld and the web mag (which incidentally I can’t buy anywhere – tried 3 branches of WH Smiths and even tried their web site and got an error saying the offer no longer existed.. sigh)) I would say no. However, if you and Marcus did a detailed discussion on what you put in your bid documents that you think won you the business then I would say yes, most certainly you would be damaging yourself. Stuff like best practice in design & planning, web standards etc is IMO safe and quite reasonable stuff to share and disseminate, especially in what is (and lets be realistic here) a very immature industry.
    I suspect because we work in very different areas (I’m work in IT for a large financial institution and get exposed to sales, product design and support) that our experiences are different in terms of secrecy and the damage potential of sharing knowledge. Heck, I could get fired and/or arrested under insider dealing regulations for sharing stuff I know about forthcoming changes.

  • Tim

    Just the opposite Paul.
    All of your professional activities, from boagworld right down to the humble local meet-up, provide a great platform for showcasing the talent and expertise at Headscape.
    I think everyone needs to find a balance between peer networking/industry involvement and looking after the business, without becoming so insular that they disconnect from the industry and potential opportunities.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    I think we will have to agree to differ Iain. I agree that companies are generally the way you describe. However where we differ is that I don’t believe this is good business. I believe the attitude should change. As you said yourself, you don’t believe that I have compromised Headscape through what i have shared so why would any other company. You just need to make careful decisions about what to discuss and what not to. At the moment, as you point out, companies are choosing not to discuss anything about their web strategy at all, full stop. I believe that is an error.

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