Q&A: How Nejla Routsong is Building a Business Around a Meetup Group

March 25, 2013

It’s always fun to hear from real people who are earning money doing something they enjoy. Our guest today is a cool case study in that regard, a woman who’s using her creative genius to make a living through Meetup.com.

I’m friends with Nejla Routsong IRL (In Real Life), so I’ve watched her transition from launching DC Global Adventurers to meet like-minded people to quitting her day job so she could focus on growing (and monetizing) the group full time.

“Monetizing” is often seen as a dirty word, but as I’ve written about before on this blog, if you’re smart enough to make a living in a creative way, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it — you should OWN IT. Today we’re going to dig into how Nejla, who has a background in online marketing and international relations, has accomplished this, and hopefully get the gears turning in your head about your own side projects.

Welcome, Nejla! Where'd you get the idea to turn a Meetup group into a business? Have you seen other people do this successfully?

Nejla Routsong

Nejla Routsong

Nejla: When I moved to D.C. less than two years ago, I joined Meetup as a way to help me make some new friends. I even volunteered to co-organize a few groups. What I quickly found out was that in most Meetup groups (and you'll know this if you've ever joined or organized one), it's the co-organizers who do 100 percent of the organizing work. But the groups often slow down or disappear altogether because the organizers put in tons of time and effort for no pay, so it's ultimately unsustainable.

After trying out a few groups, I came up with the idea for my perfect group. But I didn't want to half-ass it. To make sure I was giving 100 percent through and through, I decided I'd charge for events.

This isn't really my idea — there are several other people who run Meetup groups full time in the D.C. area and charge for their activities. In fact, the groups that are run full time tend to be the biggest and best organized. Charging an organizational fee for the events actually helps the group maintain sustainability in the long-term and incentivizes the organizers to make sure the events are fun for all members. It creates an accountability that the group owes to its members to ensure that they are getting a value for their fees. All of this stuff — sustainability, incentives for quality, accountability — are vital to the success of any organization.

For example, in early April I am hosting a “Black Tie with A Spy” event at the Carlyle Club where we'll have spy-themed cocktail games for singles, James Bond music, a served dinner, 007 martinis and a real CIA agent as a guest speaker! You just can't pull off this level of events — and continue to do it sustainably — as a hobby.

But having the idea was just half the battle. Originally, I was hoping to incorporate my idea with my job at the United Nations Foundation – I thought a Meetup group organized around fun global-themed events would be a great way to attract local supporters of their global health campaigns. I shopped around my idea to several people at the Foundation, but I didn't get the go-ahead to actually do it. Another friend of mine encouraged me to just start the group myself, so I did.

How is your Meetup group different from other Meetup groups in the D.C. area?

Without a doubt, the most unique events that we do at DC Global Adventurers are the international trips. With other groups, you might join a larger group of travelers of up to 50 or more people on one trip that is a typical high-capacity, low-authenticity tour — these are the “group tours” that most people hate.

On the other hand, our trips are more for experienced solo travelers who want some company. Each trip is a private trip smaller than 20 people, and we find local tour operators that practice sustainable tourism and give us the most authentic experiences you can find in small group tours.

We also organize bonus events like pre-event dinners in the D.C. area where travelers get to meet each other and anyone considering attending a trip can meet everyone else first and decide if they want to come. Sometimes we even arrange for a private visit to the embassy to meet with diplomats! I personally lead book discussions during the trips to give us a creative way to learn more about a local culture and discuss our experiences together. After we return to the US, we have another group dinner at a local restaurant in DC as a reunion. Basically, we offer lots of perks and bonuses to help people get to know each other and make friends before, during and after our trips.

When all is said and done, I really think it's our focus on making friends, rather than any one activity or age group, that is the “secret sauce” to our success. Most people in D.C. are unpretentious types; we don't try to be ultra-cool or super-anything. We just want to have adventures and make some good friends along the way – this is what DC Global Adventurers is all about.

Your group is growing at the rate of 600-700 people/month. How are you growing it so quickly? What do you do for marketing?

It helps that I keep 9-10 unique and fun events on the schedule all the time, so the group stays active and the variety of events is constantly attracting new people. I post our events on a few local event websites, but mainly my members are growing the group by word-of-mouth. I've honestly had little time for marketing. So I guess the takeaway for readers of this blog is: Worry about your content/product first. A good product will sell itself.

DC Global Adventurers is not just a Meetup group — we're a community of people who share common values, interests and goals in life. I make it really easy for our members to make new friends and have a blast at every event — they do the rest! Small touches like having printed name tags and doing introductions may not seem like a big deal, but when it comes to making new friends, the small things can make a huge difference. People come and have a great experience and then recruit their friends. Our community is full of amazing professionals who enjoy learning new things and experiencing life together. My Meetup group just brings them together.

How are you actually making money from running the group?

It's free to join the group. We add a small organizational fee onto most of the events to pay for the work of organizing them. As the group has grown, I also have negotiated discounts with several organizations to be able to offer low prices to our members and still earn enough to cover the organization of the events. There are lots of costs involved in running a Meetup group that people don't consider: besides the bi-annual Meetup fees, there are costs of paying deposits for events and even insurance costs.

So I started out just charging enough for events to pay myself for the time I invested, and I haven't raised event prices one dime. Now that I'm running the group full-time, I just do more events and make them all the more awesome.

Part of what makes my income model sustainable is the mix of local events with international trips. The local events have a lower profit margin, but can be held more frequently than the international trips. Combined together, they create an income that matches what I was making at my last full-time job.

How'd you decide it was time to leave your day job to do this full time?

I guess you could say my Meetup group decided it was time for me to leave my day job: I was spending significant amounts of time on the group, but members were constantly asking for more events to be added to the calendar! I could have tried to hold back the tide, so to speak, but this was an organic movement that was bigger than me that was pulling me along with it — so I decided to just go with the flow.

You're also a natural at growing Facebook pages. Can you give my readers one or two tips for doing that successfully?

Facebook hasn't been a major part of the growth of my Meetup group, although maybe it will be a bigger part as the group grows. In my past work with social media, my general strategy on Facebook was to encourage fans to take ownership of the page. So I would post daring content that explicitly tells FB fans to “Like or Share,” or ask followers to comment to share their stories.

For example, find posts that are edgy, funny, surprising or make people think. Add a caption telling your fans to “Like this post if you agree!” and be sure to include a link to whatever website your want to send people to!

Let's talk about email marketing for a moment, because I know that's a big part of your Meetup group strategy. What makes a good newsletter? How do you use your newsletter to support your goals?

I send emails out regularly to the group that let them know of upcoming events, how past events went and how they can be more involved with our community. Sometimes, I send out special emails to celebrate the holidays. Sometimes marketers are afraid to email their lists too often, but if you've got something to say, I think high frequency is good. These are really important to helping everyone feel like a part of a larger community.

I also follow all the best practices of running Meetup groups like welcoming new members individually and following up every event with pictures.

Finally, how'd you learn all this stuff?!

In hindsight, I've had a lot of different kinds of jobs that prepared me for this experience. I taught classes in world cultures and international business with the University of Phoenix for eight years. Since the classes were all online, I picked up lots of community management skills – even before social media was big.

I've also worked in online communication at non-profits in the D.C. area for the last few years, and those roles gave me a chance to hone my skills in nurturing online groups and getting people excited about a cause. Before that, I was a catering manager at Sodexo with over 100 employees, so I am used to organizing large groups of people and complex events, and I understand how that side of things work.

Thanks for joining and educating us, Nejla!

Readers: If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments!

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    5 Replies to “Q&A: How Nejla Routsong is Building a Business Around a Meetup Group”

    • It’s always good to hear stories of people who have successfully used social media and marketing principles to grow businesses outside of the writing and making money online niches. Thanks for sharing, Alexis!

    • Huh – what a cool idea!! I’ve definitely been a part of a few Meetup groups that have fallen apart due to stress on the co-organizers, so it’s great to hear about people who are committed to their groups and finding a way to do it sustainably.

      Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    • Will Irish says:

      Very innovative, and great initiative. I see the seeds of a great digital information product on how to effectively organize a meetup, best practices, and more detail.

      Thanks for sharing!
      Will

    • cher says:

      What a great way to meet people, have some fun and even see different parts of the world. So I have a question, have you grown this group primarily from email marketing, or word of mouth? Just curious to know how you have grown to be so big.

      Thanks,
      Cher

      • Cher, thanks for your comment and question! It has been a combination of email marketing and word-of-mouth. When I ask members how they heard of DC Global Adventurers the most common response is that a friend invited them, so word-of-mouth definitely plays a big role in attracting new members.

        By the way””I just came back from our trip to Morocco, and I am in love with the entire country! We all made so many friends and had an amazing adventure…we’re all planning on several more group reunions over the summer and most of the travelers who went to Morocco are planning to sign up for more trips later this year!

        I feel very lucky to have this job. 🙂

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