October 12, 2000

Sulzberger on success: how to start a killer user group

Author: JT Smith

By Tina Gasperson
News Editor

Jay Sulzberger was cooking dinner when he answered the phone at 10:30 p.m. "Why do you believe that LXNY is successful?" he asked. Those who know him wouldn't be surprised that he beat the reporter to the first question. Besides filling the role of an irrepressible spokesman for New York's free software and free computing organization, Sulzberger is a mathematician and classic geek. One of his favorite online hangouts is Crackmonkey.org, a bizarre compendium of unusual humor and biting sarcasm.

Sulzberger is the secretary for LXNY, a highly successful user group that regularly attracts big-name speakers and lots of enthusiasts to its monthly meetings. Bob Young founded the group before he moved on to become the CEO of Red Hat five years ago. At that time, Sulzberger was using Unifix, an old German Linux distro. "Before that, I avoided PCs. I never ever used a BBS," says Sulzberger. "I finally got a machine with this horrid operating system on it, and that's when I bought the Unifix. That distribution is still around." But now, he's using Debian. "Actually, I prefer FreeBSD as an operating system. But I won't use it in a for-profit endeavor because of the BSD license."

Sulzberger was willing to share his advice with Linux user groups who want to be as successful as the LXNY group. He says there are nine steps you can follow to do it the right way.

  1. "You need more than one or two people to run a group." It gets to be too much work, even with a small group, if there are just a couple of guys handling all the details. Enlist a lot of help right from the start. Form a committee and meet often, even if just online, to discuss details and plans and distribute the workload.
  2. "You need to have a regular meeting place and a regular day." Sulzberger says that the New York LUG, a sister group to LXNY, has never missed a monthly meeting. It's important to establish regularity so that it becomes a habit. If people have to try to figure out when the meeting is going to be, it makes it less likely that they'll show up. It's too much trouble.
  3. "Have meetings with a formal purpose." Even with a small group, each meeting should have a scheduled presentation or topic of discussion. And the purpose should be announced as far in advance as possible -- preferably at the previous month's meeting, so members can make plans.
  4. "There must be eating and drinking after every meeting. And possibly the ingestion of illegal drugs. (ed. note: this is humor)" But make sure its after, says Sulzberger. Too much partying during the meeting distracts from the on-topic discussion. Members of the LXNY depart to their favorite watering hole after each monthly meeting to do their eating and drinking.
  5. "Don't have membership fees! The reason a lot of people support free software is because they're, well, poor." You're going to lose a lot of your membership if you charge. And besides, what's the point? asks Sulzberger.
  6. "Get a Web page and a mailing list." This should go without saying, but make sure your Web page is updated regularly. There are large numbers of LUG webpages with old, dead information. Mailing lists should be separated into an announcement list and a discussion list.
  7. "Make publicity happen." Use your Web site to post announcements, like the topic of the upcoming meeting. Use your announcement list the same way, and sign up as many people as you can. But do not spam -- make sure you specifically ask each person if he wants to sign up. And to remain in the good graces of the general public, honor each unsubscribe request immediately and without question. "All publicity is created -- but don't do anything false," says Sulzberger. "Get the news media involved. Call all of them. All of them." The LXNY has sponsored refund days, when members purchase a computer pre-loaded with Windows and they uninstall the Windows without using it, according to the EULA (end user license agreement), then ask for a refund.
  8. "Have install fests." The majority would agree that the most difficult part of becoming a Linux user is the installation process. Make sure that your newbies are well taken care of. Organize regular install fests, as often as every other month. You can still proceed with your regular meeting topic to satisfy the "oldbies" -- just have a few experienced volunteers in the back of the room, ready to help with the installations.
  9. "Get involved with the schools." One way to stir up interest is to donate time and materials to local public schools. Volunteer to teach the teachers and the students about Linux and other free software. Show them how to install it and run networks. Invite them to your meetings and treat them with special honor. Developing relationships with students is a great way to nurture future free software supporters.

Sulzberger is currently working as a mathematician, but he says he is founding a "company that will sell some kind of free OS thing-a-ma-jiggy." And that's all he has to say about that.

Author's note: I am available to respond to questions, comments, and criticisms. Please post your thoughts in our discussion forum -TG.

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