Building Close Virtual Relationships With Robbie Samuels

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The pandemic has changed how people network and interact with each other. Virtual relationships have become the norm, something that would have been thought of as unthinkable two years ago. Like it or not, the virtual norm is here to stay, and this episode's guest is here to share their insights on it. Tony Martignetti sits down for a one-on-one with Virtual Event Design Consultant and Executive Zoom Producer Robbie Samuels where he shares insights on virtual relationships and networking in today's social climate. He explains how virtual events have replaced live events this year and for the foreseeable future. Robbie also discusses how a young professional can start their journey into entrepreneurship.

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Listen to the podcast here:

Building Close Virtual Relationships With Robbie Samuels

It is my honor to introduce my guest, Robbie Samuels. Robbie is a keynote and TEDx Speaker. He is a leadership-based business strategist who has been recognized as a networking expert by HBR Ascend, Forbes, Lifehacker and Inc. Magazine. For over a decade, his focus was creating engaging events that provided participants with the ability to follow through on their networking intentions. With COVID-19, that message hasn't changed but the medium is now virtual. He assists organizations with bringing this more engaging experience to virtual events as a virtual event, design consultant and MC. He's the host of #NoMoreBadZoom Virtual Happy Hour, a popular weekly virtual event that explores new ways to design engaging virtual events. He is also the author of the bestselling business book, Croissants Vs. Bagels: Strategic, Effective and Inclusive Networking at Conferences. He is the host of On the Schmooze. A podcast, which features his networking strategies and talented professionals, sharing untold stories of leadership and networking. Welcome to the Virtual Campfire.

It’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

It's already feeling warm. I'm looking forward to digging into your story and hearing about all the amazing things you're up to in the world, as always. As we do here, we often talk about what's called flashpoints. The moments in your life that have ignited your gifts to the world. That's what we're going to cover. The way we'll do that is, basically, I’m going to give you the floor to share what you're called to share. We'll do some pauses along the way to reflect, to check in and see what comes up.

I almost feel like I want to start with where I was born to see whether you'll stop me. Fast forward to fifteen years ago, I had gotten my dream job. I was working as a Special Events Manager for an amazing LGBT Legal Rights organization in Boston. About a year later, I started this meetup group called Socializing for Justice. It was about bringing together like-minded, progressive, social justice folks who had common values but very different identities, priorities. About a year into running that group, we recognize there were some people who came no matter what the topic or social was. We decided to invite them out for coffee and about seventeen people came. I started talking about the experience we wanted to create and they were all for it. They were like, “The reason we keep coming back is that it's a welcoming space. We're thrilled that we found it.” I'm like, “Now I need you to be a clique that's not cliquey.” They were like, “What?” I'm like, “Can you show up fifteen minutes early because the most awkward newcomers get there early? I can't be chatting with them while I'm finishing setting up. If you're there to receive them, there'll be landing in an active engaged social space. Can you help at the front door and sign people in? Help out with the bingo cards, the icebreakers and mingle.” They were like, “No.”

That's when I realized the people we had assembled, a large majority were shy and/or introverted. Disproportionate numbers were shy or introverted or both. The reason they kept coming back is that they'd found this space that felt welcoming to them. That's where the origin of this story for me began of me realizing, “How do I translate what I do as an outgoing expert? Help others be seen, heard and respected in a room and help them do that for other people.” That turned into a talk, part of the Schmooze, which I did, ever since. I mean, the first time I got paid was in 2009 to do that talk and it evolved. In 2014, I left my career at that same non-profit for ten years. I left there to pursue business.

It's easier to step down and help other people up another ladder instead of going past around ten to get to 20.

The next flashpoint was figuring out, that I wanted to do this as a business. I actually realized I needed a different audience. The one I've had for the last five years. I needed to not be focusing on non-profits. I needed a different shift. Honestly, podcasting is the next point for me. I discovered Pat Flynn in Smart Passive Income. I got excited by his work. I was like, “I want to do that.” Every time he had a guest on, “I want to do that.” One of the things I learned from his guest was the difference between just-in-time learning and in-case learning. I was like, “I need to pause here. How do I take action now?” I decided to host a podcast. Six months later, my first son was born. I have two. The podcast didn't launch until a year later. I started interviewing people and that gave me a platform. A year later, after my podcast came out, a year later my book came out. Right on the heels of my book, I piloted a group coaching program. I developed that for the next 18 months. In 2019, I did a TEDx. I had all the pieces of a good business and a smart strategy behind it but I wasn't making a ton of revenue. I was building towards this new concept, talk. I spent six months working on it and it was going to launch in March 2020. Do you know what happened? The pandemic.

My work is all about in-person. It's about eye contact business cards, handshakes and body language. None of that feels very relevant. It took me a month to stop carrying my business cardholder around. A month of being in my house for four weeks without leaving until I finally was like, “Why do I keep putting this back in my pocket every day?” I'm not going anywhere and nobody's going to want to take my card from me. I want to throw it from six feet away I will say, the most magical thing has happened. I went from like March 9th, seeing the writing on the wall, what's happening? How do I help? What do I do? March 11th, I was meeting my peer mastermind. I was like, how do I show up and add value now? Everything I know how to do. Doesn't seem like it's necessary. They kicked me in the butt. They were like, “Go. You know how to do something. You'll put something out in the world.” March 12th, I put out nine ways to network in a pandemic and I shared them. It was going to be an email but I decided to share it on social first. Got really good responses. I said, “I'm going to do something tomorrow on one of these things in the list.”

44VCPCaption1One of the things was hosting. Hosts your own thing. You and I are already known each other through Dorie Clark in her Recognized Expert community. I posted in that group, “I'm going to do a virtual happy hour tomorrow, 5:00 Eastern.” News in, three people immediately replied. The next day I'm like, “It's like two hours to the event. Maybe I should tell more people.” I go out on the internet, tell everybody twenty people came and we had a good experience. I left that thinking, “I'm never going to have that format again.” Everyone thought it was so well-run but no. March 20th, the first time, I remember doing breakout rooms. Like many, I did not know I had them. Also, I wanted to tell you that on April 14th, I committed to doing the Weekly Thing. I've been doing it for a month. I was like, this is a thing I'm going to do from now on. I started collecting registrations. Almost 600 people have signed up since April. In May, I piloted a four-week program.

Just backtrack here and realize March 11th, I'm useless, March 13th, I have this one thing. March 20th, I start testing out and experimenting with Zoom. May, I'm now piloting something. I ran it in June and in July. I was going to take off August but my client said, “No. You have to do it because we want to give you money.” In three days, seven people signed up when I wasn't planning to even do it. I am finding a new way of giving back. I love it. I love when I connect and engage with people. I have clients who have hired me to help them bring their events to life online. For me, it's the same message, a different medium. Events are about continent connection. Virtual events are no longer an exception.

You make it sound like it's such a natural flow of just getting there. What I'm going to do in true form is, we're going to take it back a few steps. See what we can unwind from that because it's just amazing. First of all, in your early days, you get these people who are shy and introverted. You're helping them to come out of their shell and make connections. You're not changing them. You're finding ways for them to make networking fun and to make it work for them. I think that was the one thing I wanted to make sure that I truly understand. It's about leveraging who they are and making sure that they understand that it's okay to network, even when it feels awkward.

I think that Harvard actually did a study that found networking makes people feel dirty. I love the study because I think it's funny that you can even test it. The people in the study did not feel that way, where people who are not transactional in their networking. It was like senior executives who are relationship-based in their networking relational. Similarly, when people stop thinking about networking as like, “What can I get or what's in it for me?” Instead, it's like a, “What can I give and how can I help?” They then already start feeling better. This community of mostly shy and introverted people started seeing their role as leaders in this community. Looking for outliers, both people who are often the wallflower type at the side of the room. Also, demographic outliers who are different in some way that's visible.

What's amazing is, once they have that awareness, they couldn't turn it off when they were in some other space. They learned it here and they would take it elsewhere. That changed how they showed up. It actually helped them be more present in the room. They had the role of being a host. Even though it wasn't their event, they still have that host mentality, the host mindset. The other thing about, particularly people who are more introverted, and don't get energy from being around people, the prep ahead of time is what most people skip. If they are willing to do the prep ahead of time, they could spend one hour instead of four hours.

Get a lot of valuable connections out of that hour. Whereas, I could spend four hours and not leave until all the chairs are stacked up. I stick around to the very end. That doesn't mean I'm better than them at networking because I'm less focused. I think, they can work to their own strengths. The other thing is, hosting in general, like hosting dinners, gathering people together, even now online. That's a great strategy for people who are a little bit worn out by going to those big events. They organize it, something that they bring people together. One of my biggest strategies has been to organize smaller gatherings alongside these major conferences. Whenever I traveled to a conference, I organize dinners, breakfast, lunch, drinks. I honestly do not have a meal alone because to me that's the value.

Those who have a lot of experience with the tech, but don't understand the cultural piece, aren't thinking strategically about engagement.

You truly see value in that connection you can get and maximize from the perspective of making sure you get to meet as many people as possible to further your understanding of who's there. I think this is a true gift. Once they learn this, once they see this, you can't unsee it. It shows up not just in every aspect of their lives. Everywhere they go work, personal life, everything. I want to rewind. Before you got to the point where you're helping people, where did this come from? Were you always this way? Were you always outspoken? Were you always comfortable speaking into a room? Are there moments when you're like, “I was the shy kid myself?”

I actually have never been described as shy or a wallflower ever. I've been asked this question. The people I tend to work with, don't match what I look like. The best origin story I can come up with is, I can remember being at camp as a kid. I'm twelve years old and I love going to camp. The thing I loved about camp, wasn't the other campers. I loved all the adults. I made all these connections with the office staff, the arts and craftspeople, the kitchen. I learned how to cut a watermelon. There was one time for three weeks, the arts and crafts person didn't come in and I ran it. They only discovered that I was running it when I had to go to them and ask for more supplies. I spun that into a really positive thing.

I can remember walking up to a group full of campers, standing in a circle. My adult mind will tell you that they didn't see me. I know that they didn't make space for me. That classic cluster or people standing in a circle and you're like, “How do I break in?” Later on, I write about this, that's the bagel. If they opened up a little space, that would have been a croissant for me to join them. I really understand what it feels like not to fit in and to wonder whether you belong. I think that's something I understand. It took me a while to figure this all out. I came out as queer and later, I was transgender. I think that's part of how I see and view the world. I mean, I very much blend into the world now. That's no longer a front and center issue. I think I can have a real appreciation for others who feel a little different. Not part of the main demographic of the room can feel. For me, that's who I'm drawn to talk to.

There's something about being able to empathize with people and to see where their pains are. Being able to help them to overcome those by making them feel a little more comfortable. In the fact you said, you see those outliers and you're able to draw them into the circle, that's powerful. We need more of that in this world. We need more people to feel they belong as part of a group. More belonging and connection is all we need. I wanted to bring that brought the story very far back. I want to come back fast-forwarding into when you started to build your first podcast. It was early days, 2014 was still relatively early days. Podcasting, was it not?

I guess it was. It's funny how consistency is something I learned was a virtue when I was starting a business, more than a decade ago. That's one of the things I've stuck to like every Tuesday, 50 times a year that comes out. I didn't do a weekly email for a while the last three and a half years. I've had a weekly email that goes out with that. I was listening to Pat Flynn who launched the thing in 2009. It didn't feel that new in some ways but it was. There are definitely a lot of people on. Even now, if someone pointed out to me, there are about a million podcasts. That's nothing when you compare it to the billion blogs. There's the listenership, the percentage of people in the US who are listening to podcasts. It's got nowhere to go but up. It's going to become easier and easier. I love the medium. I mean, for me, it's been wonderful to meet people, share content, to build community.

The keyword you said was consistency. The ability to start and stay with it and still stay in love with it. There's an element of when you start something, “Am I going to still love doing this a year or even two weeks from now?” That's what's really amazing.

44VCPCaption2I might say, when I launched my show, I started working on it in 2015. That's when I can concede it. It launched in 2016. I made a decision. I was going to run it for two years before I made any more decisions about it. About a year and a half mark, I started working on a second podcast. I got serious with this other idea that I'd been sitting on for a while, a year and a half. I even went so far, as to register a trademark for the title, for the concept. I had this realization from a business coach that I basically had done all this work to build my business to a certain point. I was about to start over again. It was because I couldn't see what came next. It's easier to climb. He kept picturing the ladder as you're doing a high board at a pool. If you're unsure of what's going to happen when you get to the top and whether you're going to belly flop, it's easier to step down and help other people up another ladder. Instead of going past around 10 to get to 20. I committed and honestly, I'm now four years in. The last two years have been the best. The people I've been able to attract, the conversations I've had, my own comfort, doing it. I'm so glad I stuck with it.

There are many lessons that come out of this. I'm sure we'll cover more of that as we go along. The way to really get there is around this consistency and sticking it out and leaning into the unknown, which is powerful. It's not just the one thing it's hearing about, when something hits like COVID, pause and then, “How can I pivot and create that next thing?” That's exactly where we last left off and your story. I think that's beautiful that you're able to create something powerful.

For me, I felt stuck. When I go back and look at it, it's three days. It wasn't, how do I pivot? It's funny how it wasn't, how do I save my business? It was, how do I show up? I kept thinking, we're going to remember, ten years from now, when we look back is, who showed up? That's what we're going to remember. I was like, “How can I translate what I know how to do in the world, to offer something?” I learned a lot. I think I learned this from Dorie Clark. I know she talks about this too. The idea of looking for the gaps and thinking about how you can offer value within those gaps. It was clear to me that even though there are people who have a lot of experience running webinars that were like, “This wasn't hard at all.” Except that the webinars they were running are the 45-minutes of death by PowerPoint file by ineffectual Q&A and moderating chat. That was fine when that was bonus content. We went to events in person to find our connections. Now that the virtual world is the only way to get both content and connection, everything we produce online has to meet those criteria. Even those who have a lot of experience with the tech but don't understand the cultural piece, aren't thinking strategically about engagement. They think of engagement very differently than I do because again, my background is helping people network in person. Re-imagining all of that using these online digital tools.

It's been exciting. Who knew I had all these adjacent expertise skills and history that lined up background running events, my interest in technology within the context of productivity, tech tools. How I used to teach that with my wife. Who at the time was a friend and then a girlfriend and then my wife. It was something I was drawn to. I like details. I like helping people, training, coaching. In some ways, it feels inevitable but it wasn't. I will tell you on March 11th, it was nothing. It was not inevitable. There was like a blank slate in my brain.

People will find reasons to connect year-round, not just wait for these in-person moments.

It's funny when you step back and you start looking at all those things like, “The multitude of things I've accomplished throughout the path that has gotten me here.” It's almost like people say, “What's got you here, won't get you there.” In fact, it has and it will. If you lean into the strengths that have built you up to where you are. There are some clues that have been left behind that really made you capable of being able to lean into the future. It's funny how that just played out that way.

My dad taught me. He learned something when I was twenty. He read an article about how I would have as a twenty-year-old four careers between ages 20 and 40. It made me stop and think about it. I don't think he remembers telling me this. This is like something profound in my mind. What I would need is transferable skills and the ability to be responsive to the moment. To be more flexible than not. Some of the things I would do in my life didn't exist yet. To imagine that at twenty, there were things in 1994 when I realized, there are things that I will do in my life that haven't been invented yet. That’s evident now. That's still true. Here I am in a field. I got recognized by this JDC Events out of DC, reach out to me and said, “You've been recognized as an Industry Expert in the field of Digital Event Design.” I'm like, “Of course but what that's amazing.” I was invited to participate in this video project because of it. Consistency for me, it's continuous improvement. That's what I'm aiming for. That was true for my podcast. If you want to listen to my show, don't judge me on my first three episodes. Judge me at my last three. Consistency and continuous improvement I'm translating that to the work I'm doing now where I’m helping people do that every time they are hosts or present on zoom or any online platform. Getting 5% better. That's my new program, the 5% Advantage Program.

I have a question that just will follow suit with this. I'm sure you'll have an answer that's going to be just right on spot. Obviously, there's no exception to an in-person meeting. What do you think is going to happen when people get back together again?

I can't wait to hug a stranger. I know that this is all over when I go back to hugging people I don't know very well. That would be amazing. I don't know when that'll be. I was asked an interesting question. I was in a business retreat that I got invited to participate in. They asked a question, “Three years from now, describe our lives and all the multitudes of the ways we live.” Our personal life or business life, etc., family life. I realized that since the pandemic has hit, I had not had my horizon go beyond like 18 months, maybe 2 years. I will say that for the next 18 months,2 years, I don't think we're back to anything resembling what we had. I think we're going forward, going to have way more online content still available to us quality. The quality of the content will go up, which is great.

I work with a lot of people in my four-week program that is older. When I say older, as I work with a woman who is turning 87 this year. She's three birthdays away from 90. What she loves, that she has a gift she wants to continue sharing and getting on planes was getting tiring. Now she has this whole new world open to her. I think we're going to see a lot of people still sharing their gifts online. We're going to see the call for more equality hybrid events. I think it's going to take us a while to get to the point where it's quality. I think it's hard. It's two events happening at the same time. It was very resource-intensive. No longer will we have someone pointing a camera at the stage and saying, “Virtual Pass $99.” That's the whole thing, a counterpoint of the stage. I think networking will also have transformed to not be at these events. People will find reasons to connect year-round. Not just wait for these in-person moments. Maybe the in-person will be that much richer for it. People will walk in continuing conversation from the last few months as opposed to waiting a whole year. I guess I'm most hopeful about it but also feeling a little realism.

I don't think we're getting back to that. If I looked at five years from now, I feel like, "I guess five years now.” My kids are two and a half and four and a half. I'm wondering what they're going to remember of all this. It's wild to me that it has an impact on our life but they're under five. What are they going to remember from this? Five years from now, when they're ten and eight, I think they'll know it happens. Hopefully, by then, it will be back at school and all those things that are not able to happen.

That was very insightful. I agree. This hybrid approach. There’s this element of the bar that has been raised. As to how the quality and the types of interactions we have in-person and online. I think that seems to be right on spot with what you were saying.

I just want to say, a lot of people, when they were thinking about moving their events online, they got the idea of how to replicate. We had an event like this in person, had we replicated it. I think that's not the right frame. A few things, one is, there were some limitations because you were in person it had to be three days in a row. It had to be three days in a row and you had a lot of content. Maybe you had to have lots of concurrent sessions. To ask people to fly in for more than three days, wasn't reasonable. You can't last in the fly back and forth. If you're online, it doesn't have to be three days. You don't have to have tons of concurrent sessions. You can re-imagine this using the digital space, tools. In-person, you would never do multiple three-person discussion groups. Like, “Find 2 people and 3 of you talk. Mix it up and find another 2 people and 3 of you talk.” That would take forever. As a presenter, you learn very quickly. It's not feasible. In the online space, you're like, “Breakout rooms. Three people come back and debrief. Let's do this again.” Three different people. It's always going back to what the purpose of the gathering is. I got certified as a virtual convener and as a virtual presenter. As a virtual convener, we're really talking about purpose first as a framework. This is run by Conveners.org. It's a great way of thinking about this. I think that when we do annual events, we sometimes forget to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing this?” This is a chance to actually ask that question.

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I love that frame of reference is, thinking about the why. It's so important because sometimes you go on autopilot and just like, “This is because we do it every year, for an annual event for a company or something to that effect. Rethinking it makes it even more special.” I don't even know where to begin. There are so many different directions we can go in at this point. I want to give you an opportunity to share all the things you've been through. All of the challenges in your path to getting to where you are now. What are a few lessons that you want to share with people who are going on their path to becoming who they want to be? Maybe they are wanting to start a company or they are in their own role and facing some challenges of how to get to that next level. What would you recommend to them?

I believe relationships are the answer to any business or life challenge. Money can sometimes make things worse but relationships are always going to make things better. Surround yourself with quality people, nurture and sustain your extended network. Think of your network as an insurance policy. You don't pay for insurance every month hoping to use it. Quite the opposite. You got to invest every month and your network the same way you would insurance policy. If heaven forbid, you need them, they'll be there for you. Otherwise, you’re surrounded by good people. When I went out on my own as a solopreneur, I did not feel I was out on my own.

I was surrounded by great people who were there waiting for me to make this leap that will always be helping you. The other thing I will go back to is consistency and continuous improvement. Pick something and stick with it until you are one of the best. Having expertise will help you bridge to other expertise. Pick something and get really good at it. You're not going to be good at it at first. None of us are good at it. Be thoughtful about what you're picking. You don't want to inadvertently become known for something you don't want to be known for. Be thoughtful about that. Connect with people and always offer. Just thinking about how to show up and add value. Bottom line. That's what we're going to remember, who showed up, who was helpful and be that kind of person.

Having expertise will help you bridge to other expertise. Pick something, and get really good at it.

That was a lot to take in. There were a lot of C’s there too. I think you've got yourself some community, consistency and a lot of continuous improvement. The three Cs. Last question. What is one book that you would say has made an impact on your life or in the way you think?

In 2011, however old I was. I did this fellowship for New Leader's Council. The age mattered because there a program went up to 35 but almost everyone was 28. Everyone was basically just done with grad school or is still in grad school, law school. Everyone was under 30 for the most part and is maybe a couple of people over 30. I was definitely the outlier at 36. I was the old guy in the room. We had this book assigned to us called Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. I'm not a person who's really good at filling out the exercises while I'm reading a book. I like to read them and I'm like, “That's nice.”

I got the book ahead of time. I read it before the first session. In the first session, they had us do the exercises. They were like, “You have twenty minutes for this exercise.” I was like, "I guess I'm going to do it now.” One of the exercises was to design our perfect day. I wrote up this whole experience with my perfect day was going to be and I put it away. When I left five years later, I've been working for myself. For about a year, I went back and looked for it. I found those notes tucked away in a binder. I had described the life I was leading. It was amazing to realize that I could do that, that would lead me in that direction. The book wasn't telling me to do anything in particular. It was asking me to think about it deeply. It was a cool experience to realize. It's by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek. Life Entrepreneurs, it's an interesting book. I haven't heard a lot of other people talk about it.

The exercise itself is powerful. When you can do that and look back, it is really amazing. I've seen it happen for a lot of people. Sometimes, you accomplish even more than you set out to be. To hear that take on this is very cool. This has been such insightful and powerful for us to spend some time together. I really want to thank you for coming to the show. I want to also make sure I give people the opportunity to find out how to get to you. Where can they find you?

They could join Free Weekly No More Bad Zoom Happy Hours. They're a mixture of content and lots of networking, followed by 45-minutes of Q&A. If you want to get into the deeds about Zoom and how to use it. I'm there. It's a lot of fun. You'll find it at, NoMoreBadZoom.com. I love having you folks come. I've had people join from all over the globe, which has been inspiring. RobbieSamuels.com is where you can go to find my book and my podcast On the Schmooze and my program is on there the 5% Advantage Program. I will tell you that if you sign up for my No More Bad Zoom Virtual Happy Hour, you're going to also receive my Nine-ways to Network in a Pandemic. I'm sure people are kind of curious about that.

Thank you so much for coming on. This was fun. I also want to thank the readers for coming along for this journey. Hope you are leaving with many great insights and tips. Definitely check out Robbie and his podcast On the Schmooze. Thank you.

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About Robbie Samuels

1614057412619Robbie Samuels is a Virtual Event Design Consultant, Executive Zoom Producer, and a Virtual Event Professional. He helps businesses organize and orchestrate virtual events for various types of presentations. He is the best-selling author of the book Croissants vs Bagels, a practical guide that teaches readers how to build meaningful and authentic relationships. Robbie is also the host of the On The Schmooze podcast, a weekly show that features talented professionals who found success in their careers. Robbie joins me today to share how you can build meaningful relationships without physical contact.

He describes what his plans were before the pandemic and how he transitioned his business model to adjust to current events. He explains how virtual events have replaced live events this year and for the foreseeable future. Robbie also discusses how a young professional can start their journey into entrepreneurship.

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