Ever since I started co-hosting the Stanford off-shoot of the Financial Independence and Early Retirement Meetup, I have been amazed by how easy it is to get strangers to show up and talk about their personal and financial lives. There's a thirst for implementable personal finance information and a camaraderie that naturally develops from discussing how to optimize and improve our lives.
Yet, the steps required for financial freedom are simple: earn more and save more. Invest the difference. Do you really need a meetup to explain how to do it?
Dig a little deeper though and you'll discover that what people are looking for isn't more information. What they want is community and relationships with like-minded people.
This desire for community is what draws strangers-turned-friends to show up to a hike in Woodside on a random Saturday afternoon advertised on the Internet. It's what develops an in-group language with jargony terms like backdoor Roth conversion, tax-loss harvesting, and CD laddering.
I've made real friends since joining and organizing this meetup, including friends I text regularly and discuss topics unrelated to finance.
A month ago, I thought:
The FI meetup is such a fun way to meet like-minded individuals and go on hikes together. I enjoy it so much even though I'm not even that passionate about money. I wonder how awesome it would be to meet people who shared my actual passions, like cooking and making stuff.
Enthusiastically I jumped on Meetup.com to find a group, excited to get my hands dirty rolling out a pie crust or folding dumplings.
To my surprise, there aren't any cooking-based meetups in Silicon Valley. A lot of restaurant-trying meetups. But a dearth of cooking among friends and hobbyists (except for the few $80-100 cooking classes with a professional chef -- not the kind of community I was looking to join).
It seemed I would have to start the meetup group myself if I wanted a community around home cooking. But I quickly shooed away the idea, reasoning it would be too much work and too annoying to manage. Yet, the desire to join a community around cooking and eating continually nagged at me. Writing this food site gets lonely very quickly because I don't get feedback or interact with many people. I run out of ideas and don't know how else I can help people.
Luckily, Alex persistently encouraged me to give it a try. Finally, I started a new meetup group, Rediscovering the Lost Art and Delights of Cooking, and posted my first event, Lemonade Infusions.
My first journey meeting strangers on the Internet, playing with our food, and sharing word-of-mouth tips went surprisingly well. First, more than one person showed up, which was all I hoped for.
This post is the first in a new series of "How To Build Community" posts where I plan on chronicling my adventures trying to build a real-life, in-person community around home cooking and the pleasures of making food. My hope is you can glean information to start a group in your neighborhood and learn from my mistakes (Oh yes, because I've already made quite a few). Because food is too fun and delightful to keep to yourself!
I'll continue to update this post as I learn new tips to make our meetups run smoothly. And if you live in the Bay Area, please join us for fun cooking projects.
So, what have I learned from starting a Meetup group to build a community around hands-on cooking?
Should You Start Your Community On Meetup.com?
The problem with this food site is that nobody knows about it. I have 101+ excuses blocking me from promoting this site as much as I should, in addition to my ignorance about how these things work. Unless you have a blog with tens of thousands of readers and you know many of them live within 30 miles of you, nobody will know to show up at your meetup if you simply rely on a blog or Facebook group to announce it.
Thanks to the early success of the FI meetup and impressed by the lack of effort required to cultivate a meetup group, I knew that leveraging Meetup.com's platform would entice more members to join it than starting out on my own.
This turned out to be true in spades. Not only did 66 people sign up within 2 weeks of creating the meetup group, I had 3 attendees at my first event. When I asked multiple people how they found out about the meetup group, they said meetup sent them an email based on the interests they opted into.
Additionally, meetup has useful tools to manage events like handling RSVPs and messaging attendees that I found helpful.
Why Spend Your Precious Time Building A Community?
Because it turns out it is really fun to spend time with other human beings (especially if they're not annoying). Human interaction is foundational to joy and health. We're social animals, and we love to build relationships. It simply feels good to be with other people like you and whom you like. Couple that with doing a fun activity like cooking that many people are passionate about, and you've got a winning combo.
Don't believe me?
Check out the Blue Zones research by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner who looked at what's common across communities where members consistently lived to 100 years old or had the longest lifespans. #9 in his Power of 9 lists the "Right Tribe" as one reason for the long life spans:
The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life.
Should the Events Be Free?
While super fun, organizing these events requires work.
For my first event, the Lemonade Infusions, I researched the ingredients and method, made 2 trips to the grocery store, practiced the event, shot nice photos, and wrote up the event details to entice attendees to show up. I wouldn't blame anyone if they decided they wanted to make $$$ from doing this work.
But Alex was adamant that he doesn't want to charge for events because:
- it changes expectations - it's becomes more hospitality focused than community building
- it adds pressure - would people feel they got the full value? how do you mitigate the risk when you're unproven?
- people are happier to contribute items - which helps with community building - and it attracts the people we're looking for
For example, I ask people to bring their own cups. I don't want to buy plastic cups even though they're cheap because the environment doesn't need more disposable trash. A free event means I have no qualms asking people to bring their own utensils and plates.
That said, free means that flakey people RSVP as yes and drop out the morning of the event. I had 3 people RSVP as no, less than 3 hours before the event started. (Interestingly enough, those 3 people were all men.) Would people be more committed to showing up if they had paid a token fee, even as small as $1 or $5?
And since I've decided not to charge for the events, but I cap the attendees to 10, what mechanisms can I put in place to reduce the flakes from hogging a spot and dropping out at the last minute?
How Big Should the Events Be?
The Personal Finance Meetup that I co-host has no size limit. We've seen as few as 16 people comfortably fit in a room. We've also had 38 people one time with a few sorry souls loitering in the hallway because we couldn't fit them. The discussions and hiking events naturally aren't limited by resources: there's enough room for everybody even if we're bursting at the seams.
But with cooking events, I deliberately kept the group to less than 10 people. And I knew there would be flakes, so realistically I expected about 5-6 people to attend, including Alex and myself.
Why a number so small that I can count it on one hand?
Because cooking events are only fun if they're hands on.
I researched cooking classes and attended some in the past. The fun ones allowed everybody to try the recipe.
The least fun ones involved a group of 35 or larger where tasks are so divided up that your participation involves chopping up a few onions and/or watching the expert chef talk the whole time. Sure, the group makes a lot of dishes for everybody to taste test at the end through having many hands helping out. But you end up leaving without knowing how to make the dish from start to finish. What's the point?
Keeping things small also helps build a community. It's intimate. We all get to talk and introduce ourselves. You actually have a chance of learning everybody's names.
Where Should You Host The Events?
Tough question. For the FI meetup, we've taken over a room on Stanford's campus which is convenient and private. But for cooking events, you need more amenities than a room with some chairs and tables. You need a pseudo-kitchen, if not a fully equipped culinary outfit.
I don't have a good answer yet. I'll continue to update this post as I do more research.
For now, I go to my neighborhood park with a community garden. It provides a beautiful setting with flowers and vegetables growing in the background.
Why not host at my place? Since we have roommates and Alex is worried about the liability of someone litigious and idiotic burning or cutting themselves, we avoid inviting people over.
I have plans to look into a shared kitchen that we can rent by the hour. I know of a kitchen co-working space with a commercial kitchen that has all the permits and equipment we'd need. It seems like a bit of overkill, so I'd like to look into something smaller and less commercial.
What Are the Minimum Supplies You Need?
- Trash bag
- Burner with butane gas cans
What Are the Unnecessary Bells and Whistles that Improved the Event?
- Mason jars
- Measuring cups
- Cutting boards
Which Mistakes Can You Learn From?
What can you learn from my rookie mistakes, so your events go more smoothly? (I will continue to update this list.)
1. Setting the time at noon - 2 p.m. and not providing food.
It's lunchtime, and people are hungry. Either I should provide food for attendees or I should organize future events during non-meal times.
Because of the awkward timing, a few attendees were late because they were scoffing down lunch just before the event.
2. Getting Nervous
It's embarrassing to admit. Before the first event ever, I was so nervous that I hoped nobody would show up in case I made a fool of myself. I wish I had chilled out and enjoyed the first event. Who cares if it sucked? It's free!
Lucky Moves You Too Should Make
Despite the mistakes, I made a few smart moves or stumbled on them by luck and accident. Here are a few that made the events much more awesome:
1. Sending my phone number the day before
Despite sharing Google GPS coordinates, the location is still hard to find. Giving out my phone number allowed people to call for directions when they were lost.
2. Asking people to bring ingredients they think would be interesting
Zheng brought Sichuan peppercorns and coffee to the Lemonade Infusion. What a great idea! I would have never considered adding that spice or seed to lemonade. Wonderful surprises happen when asking others to step up to the plate.
3. Creating a Community instead of a Following
I'm not interested in being the "leader" of a following. Empowering others is way more fun. For example, Doreen suggested making pies for the next event and even offered to host at her place. Amazing! A community is way more inspiring and rewarding than a following.
Should You Start Hosting Local Cooking Events?
Put yourself out there.
Do it anyway.
Work at it.
Make new friends.
Enjoy learning new tips that can only be shared by like-minded home cooks as passionate as you about playing with dough and getting steamy in the kitchen.
Or join my meetup and do all the above with us!