Technology User Group Uses Association Model to Succeed
Palo Alto Networks Inc., a security company dedicated to protecting enterprise, government and service provider networks from cyber threats, launched the user group Fuel in February to help its customers collaborate with each other.

User groups are similar to associations but normally reside in the technology space and are generally affiliated with a company that is a developer or Original Equipment Manufacturer, and the user group cultivates a relationship with that entity. In the case of Fuel, its community consists of users of Palo Alto Networks technologies and those interested in advancing their knowledge on 1) safeguarding information, 2) critical infrastructure and 3) Palo Alto Networks technologies.

Before the launch of Fuel, Blake Wofford — a 15-year veteran of the IT industry, a senior security engineer at the company CenturyLink and one of Palo Alto Networks’ 14,500 users — was looking for an efficient medium to network with other security professionals.

“As a field engineer, I had no one to talk to about Palo Alto Network Firewall technologies,” said Wofford, who also serves as Fuel’s first board president. “Establishing a user group was the key to helping me perform my job even better. I remember back to those days when I was wishing I had someone else to talk to about my designs. I know that Fuel is making a difference in the careers of others because they don’t have to struggle through many things on their own. They can now reach out to other individuals facing the same kinds of challenges and issues.”

To make Fuel a reality, the board — currently a team of five — leveraged strategies often used by associations to successfully create Fuel, manage its launch and prepare for its future. It is no surprise the organization experienced immediate success, and much can be learned from Fuel’s story.

Early Success

The board’s due diligence during the startup phase was clearly worth the effort when it opened its doors to members on Feb. 10. In just five months, Fuel’s reach already spans 75 countries and features 103 chapters. Membership is at 5,100, with 1,700 joining in the last three weeks (as of July 16). Fuel's goal is to eclipse the 10,000-member mark by the end of the year, a milestone all parties involved are confident the organization will hit.

The numbers are strong but Wofford has other measurements of success in mind.

“Membership numbers are exactly that, numbers,” he said. “Having 10,000 members that are not active in the community is far less valuable than having 1,000 members who are active. While we’re glad that there are a lot of people signing up for Fuel, we are even more excited when we see members participate through forum posts and articles and volunteer at the local, regional and national levels. Engaged members are members that find value in Fuel and bring value to Fuel.”

John Matelski, a Fuel board member, is also not satisfied with just numbers.

“Seeing our membership skyrocket brings great satisfaction," Matelski said. “The key, though, is to not be complacent — which we aren’t — and to continue to build Fuel into the premier security user group that will shape the future of security.”

Strategic Planning

So what is driving Fuel’s success with member acquisition? The board credits the organization’s value proposition and mission, which are clearly resonating with the target audience.

Value proposition: Fuel is the premier community for driving thought leadership and knowledge for all professionals responsible for securing information and critical infrastructure. Fuel members are able to influence and shape the future of cyber security through meaningful online and in-person engagement with peers and industry experts. Members have access to valuable leadership opportunities and educational resources to further their knowledge and careers.

Mission: Fuel will provide a collaborative community driven by Palo Alto Networks customers in partnership with Palo Alto Networks and industry experts, partners and other thought leaders sharing knowledge that positions Fuel as the preeminent resource for innovation and trends in the network security industry. The organization will maintain an ongoing channel of communication between the membership and Palo Alto Networks. It will also educate, develop and inform members on industry trends, concepts, experiences and Palo Alto Networks products and services.

And although these statements are critical, Fuel’s successes are also fundamentally driven by the organization’s strategic plan.

“Without a plan, you cannot expect to have success,” Wofford said. “While you may accidentally stumble across success, more likely, however, you will find failure. Sitting down and setting strategic goals and a vision are paramount to anything else. In the early stages, defining a plan that is actionable, realistic and makes sense is well worth the time spent. If you don’t plan for success, then you have already planned for failure.”

Despite being able to lean on its strategic plan for guidance, the board still had to manage curveballs at nearly every step of the way, which is especially common for a startup organization. The board, though, was able to manage the unexpected while staying focused on the bigger picture.

“We manage the unexpected by handling each situation as it develops,” Wofford said. “We don’t wait to let it take over our direction. We focus on it immediately and address it. Another way we handle unexpected situations is through constant communication. If something comes up, or is on the horizon, our staff team is reaching out to us, or we’re communicating amongst ourselves. While being a board member is a volunteer position, each of us has accepted the responsibility of that role, and all of us take it seriously. We’re proactive in making sure that we understand what has happened, is happening and could happen.”

Fuel Leaders Share Recommendations

The Fuel Board of Directors has experienced and learned a lot during the last year that could help other user groups and associations. Below is a list of additional recommendations from Wofford and Matelski:
  • Always be honest and truthful with yourself, your board and your community.
  • Engage and participate; just like any other user, be a customer of your own product.
  • As volunteers, be flexible with your time, your level of effort and your expectations.
  • Keep an open mind. You may have a vision, but someone else may have a better idea. Listen to those on your board, your staff and, most importantly, listen to your members.
  • Remember that a board member is no more important than the person that volunteers at the smallest local event. All volunteers are important and should be treated as such.
  • Create a good working partnership with your staff; being antagonistic to those that can help you will only hurt you.
  • Engage with other volunteers and help build the community.
  • Partner with vendors and other members of the ecosystem to ensure that you are working in alignment with each other.
  • Recruit and attract exceptional leader volunteers.
The Next Phase

The board plans to use its successful launch as a springboard to future accomplishments. It plans to be forward-thinking and proactive in meeting the evolving needs of its community. When thinking about the organization several years from now, Wofford is confident the user group will be an even bigger success.

“We have an active volunteer base to draw talent from, and we will continue to be a freestanding organization that fulfills its mission statement,” he said. “Moving forward, Fuel’s members will enjoy many member benefits and our organization will produce a large number of industry thought leaders that are active in shaping the security community.”
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