Building A Powerful Community Through Deep Conversations With Jan Keck

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TTB Yan | Building Community


A community doesn’t happen overnight. It takes dedication and communication from its members. In this episode, we take a look at what it takes to build a community as Mitch Russo talks to experience designer, trainer, and adventurer, Jan Keck. We listen as Jan discusses community-building, effective strategies, and why community is important. Listen and learn how Jan built a community by communicating and sharing meaningful conversations and experiences.

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Building A Powerful Community Through Deep Conversations With Jan Keck

If you’re a coach, you may want to check out my newest SaaS platform for coaches, which boosts productivity and saves time on your session admin. It’s just $20 a month. Go to Onto my guest and his incredible story. Starting a community with a card deck to help his friends connect on a camping trip, he has been facilitating community conversations for many years. His work has been featured on CNBC, Huffington Post, Breakfast TV and many others. He helps people effectively communicate on Zoom but his real passion is building the deep connectors community. Welcome, Jan Keck, to the show.

Thanks so much, Mitch. I’m excited about our conversation.

I like to start the show with my understanding of the definition of a tribe. Here’s how I see tribes. I have spoken to many tribe builders and there’s a common theme. The first is that most tribe builders have a manifesto. That manifesto might be short, long but it’s a vision, a mission with a purpose. I’ll be asking you at some point in the show to share that with us because we both know that a passion is one that drives people to you and excludes those you don’t want because that passion is polarizing. Why don’t we start by having you figure out in this moment in time in one quick second what is your vision, mission and purpose?

From the beginning, I called myself a community builder for not that long but I feel like I’ve been a community addict. I’ve been part of different communities my whole life. Only looking back, I realized all of the parts had brought me here. One main thing about my work is I have a button somewhere. If I could find it, it’s in a drawer somewhere that says, “I’m going to small talk detox.”

One of the big things and big values of my community and work that I do is that we try to have deeper meaningful conversations. We don’t like to talk about the weather and sports for too long because I often feel that’s where you get stuck. I would say that’s probably one of the biggest values in my community. I created some kind of manifesto on our website.

The community of people that I’m bringing together like they’re all also community builders. They’re all creating meaningful experiences. They’re bringing people together. One thing that I love to use to track the progress and the impact that we’re making is collecting love notes. I started this a couple of years ago, where I have a folder on my desktop. Whenever I see a comment, an email or a message that says something great about an experience that I created or somebody that I work with, even testimonials, they all go into this one folder.

In our community, we use that to track our progress. There are different milestones that I’m hoping everybody will hit. We’ll celebrate that more than making a lot of money or getting a lot of people to sign up. If the experience is meaningful for the people who do show up then they will let you know. The two things that I would say are the big values in my community.

We try to have more deep, meaningful conversations. We don't like to talk about the weather and sports for too long, because that's where you often get stuck. Click To Tweet

Speaking of your community, tell us the story of the camping trip and how you got the whole idea of trying to create deep and meaningful conversations.

I grew up in Germany and then I moved to Canada. I’m now in Toronto for many years. I didn’t know a single person. In Germany, I was very connected. I was always part of different communities. I came here and I had to start from scratch. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a plan of how to meet people and how to make friends, which is something that is a lot more challenging. I realized as an adult than it is as kids. It took me almost six years until I attended a weekend retreat where I could say, “I finally found my people. I found my tribe.” It was that weekend that I heard for the first time, “Your vibe attracts your tribe.”

That became my mantra. I realized that weekend I could drop all the BS. I could be myself and still feel like I’m accepted and I belonged with that group of people. After that experience, I was like, “I made 30 new friends in 48 hours. What happened?” I tried to re-engineer what the community builders did at that event. First of all, we were outside of the city, like North of Toronto.

I did not have cell phone reception. I knew that not being distracted by technology was definitely helping. The main things are we came together because we all shared the same values and we had similar goals and then we had to step outside of our comfort zone. That was through the conversations that we had of being vulnerable and sharing things that we might not have shared with anyone else before. It happened because it was in Canadian winter and we did this team building activity where we had to climb this rope structure.

It was minus 10 degrees Celsius. It was below freezing and challenging but we supported each other. All of those things combined led to us connecting on a very different level compared to all of the people that I meet at a networking event and exchange business cards with. We’re LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends. That weekend, I found the real genuine connections that still to this day are some of the most meaningful friendships that I’ve made in Canada.

That’s such a great beginning. What year was that?

That was 2014, 2015.

This moment in time happened when this realization that, “I have all these new friends.” I created this relationship almost faster than maybe you’ve ever done before. It was because of the structure of this group and the disconnection from the internet, the web and the technology which is fantastic. Let’s fast forward here. We’re in November of 2021. You have built a sizeable group of people who followed you. How many people do you have following you now?

There are probably around 1,000 people that facilitate connections. I call them the Deep Connectors. There’s also a larger community of people who appreciate meaningful conversations. What came out of that weekend retreat was me creating a card deck that has deep questions on the back of each card to help people get to the vulnerable shares a lot quicker.

TTB Yan | Building Community
Building Community: We came together because we all shared the same values, had similar goals, and had to step outside of our comfort zone.


I’ve sold about 2,500 decks and they’ve been going all around the world. I even had one person take it to Antarctica. I can say that they ended up on each continent of the world. He brought them back though because it was like an adventure trip. They’ve been used all over the place to facilitate more meaningful dinner conversations, workshops and all kinds of experiences.

Realistically, if you were to think about the core mission of your tribe, is it simply to help people create deeper connections? Is there more to it than that?

If we go a little bit deeper with what does it mean to have a deep connection with someone, it comes all back to not feeling lonely and creating a bigger sense of belonging. I often say that my mission is to help people feel less alone. The reason why I created the cards, the experiences and when I do training, I always approach it with how can I make sure that the people who show up feel a little bit less lonely by the end of it. In other words, feel more connected with this greater sense of belonging within a community.

Let’s go and talk a little bit about evolution. You said you started in 2014 with this realization. How did you attract your first group of members in? What was that then? Maybe you didn’t know what it was at first. Tell me a little bit about that formation experience.

In the beginning because I attended that weekend retreat, that opened my eyes to the types of experiences that fill me up, where I can be myself and I am more open to connecting with other people. I attended a few more of those types of experiences that same year. I feel like I grew my personal community quickly as I was creating the cards and started to create my own experiences. The very first thing was a camping trip and I only took six people with me. It was seven with me. The goal was to get outside into nature, a way where we don’t even have reception so we can turn off our phones.

The cards were literally a tool to help people connect on the car ride because I knew once we’re out there, it’s going to be easy. We’re going to be sitting in canoes and a campfire. I’ll be able to facilitate it but I can’t be in each car as we’re driving up there. It’s 3 to 4 hours from the city until we arrive. That’s why I said, “I need to create a tool that helps them get started because most of them didn’t know each other.”

It turns out that looking back, each one of those people that came on that first camping trip ended up leading their own community or building something where they’re in a way a community builder or a tribe builder themselves, which was not an accident. Again, going back to your vibe attracts your tribe, the people that I reached out to and were open to join this experience were attracted by something. Those are the people that I love being around and the ones that are also bringing people together.

What does it mean to have a deep connection with someone? It all comes back to not feeling lonely and creating a bigger sense of belonging. Click To Tweet

Clearly, you had something very magnetic because it pulled people in. At that point, you’re codified what it was that happened for you. That’s a very big step. It’s a step that I would recommend to anybody who’s reading our conversation. Think about taking as well because this show is all about helping others create and build tribes and communities.

As a reminder, this conversation is between Mitch and Jan. Jan has this incredible community, which he has built carefully and slowly over time. He’s going to be and has been sharing some incredible and valuable lessons for you as you begin to build and grow yours. Let’s get into a little bit about the nuts and bolts of this because it’s fun to have a community but if we don’t make money eventually then we can’t support it. Tell us a little bit about your plan that has already started for you that helps you monetize this group.

I love sharing the things that I’m learning and doing a lot of experiments. Even before COVID, I started to bring people together and share, “Here’s something that I’ve learned that worked well that I used to do at my events.” With the pandemic starting, a lot of the in-person things that I’ve been doing, I couldn’t do anymore. I was quite hesitant to do anything in virtual space because we can’t turn technology off anymore. We have to use technology to connect with each other and I thought, “We’re not going to be able to be present.

If you’re looking at me or you’re checking emails, it’s going to be hard to have this meaningful interaction. I did a lot of experiments. I try to recreate a virtual group hug. I did like virtual eye-gazing experiments. I hosted lots of events, facilitating conversations and breakout rooms. The more I learned, the more I realized I needed more people to know about this. I need more people to know that the breakout room is the most powerful feature on Zoom.

You have to start using it, which spring of 2020, most people had never heard of. I started hosting workshops and sharing all of the knowledge I’ve been acquiring from what I’ve been learning. Although I wasn’t that much ahead and I was maybe a few steps ahead, I had a lot of people sign up for these workshops. I always would ask them at the end, “Now, we’ve covered this. Which topics are you interested in next? What other challenges are you having?”

I kept building workshop after workshop and turned that into a five-week Virtual Facilitator Training. I’m basically teaching people how to create these, what I call, magical human moments on Zoom, where the participants almost forget that they’re looking at the screen because at the moment, they feel connected in the conversations that they’re having that almost recreates the magic that we had in-person. We will not ever be able to do it exactly. There’s nothing that beats face-to-face but we can get pretty close. I started creating educational content. That was the first thing I did.

TTB Yan | Building Community
Building Community: The more we focus on making sure people connect with each other and feel heard and seen before we get into the content, the more likely they will participate, share ideas, and collaborate.


What I’m picking up here is you were very open to learning from your group. I mentioned at the beginning of the show that I publish a software product for coaches. I built it for myself, to be honest, because I couldn’t find anything to speed up the admin cycle that I go through with every session. As I got it working and I’m starting to use it, others asked if they could use it too.

The real evolution came when I received suggestions from other subscribers who said, “If it did this, it would be great.” or “If it did that and it would be great.” My reaction was, “These are great. I worked with my programming team and we got those implemented.” This is part of what is an iteration cycle that all businesses go through.

Even Federal Express, which you may know the story, didn’t start as a packaged delivery service. It started as a way of cashing checks between banks overnight instead of taking seven days to clear a check. It was the core of that idea, the hub and spoke system, that made the future of FedEx, which we now see very possible.

This process of constantly iterating, accepting feedback, implementing and changing is incredible. The other thing that I also want to point out is that the fact that you’ve now built a facilitator training program is a big deal. What’s happening here is you are engaging others to spread the word for you and, at the same time, helping many people use your technology in a sense to facilitate better human connection. Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of this. How do you communicate directly with your tribe? Let’s start with the ones that are already in the tribe. How do you do that?

A few years ago, I started at Mighty Networks which I’m sure you’ve heard about. That’s where I hosted the life cohort. At the end of the first training, I would create a membership for them to stay connected and keep learning. I would bring in more other guest experts in groups. The Mighty Networks have become the hub for all of the training that I’m doing and the membership community that is attached to that. I would say that most people probably still read my emails.

I sent out an email about me moving with my family to Germany. I shared that story of how I came here, the lessons I’ve learned and now I’m going back. I had 30 people respond and reply to that email. There was no question in the email.

I shared honestly and probably a bit vulnerability because there are lots connected to the idea of, am I moving back? Is this a step backward? Is what I’ve tried to do in Canada a failure and now I have to go back or is this moving forward? I shared a bit of that story and it connected with people that they felt the need to respond. There’s no Facebook post that I would do where I would get that many responses. Email seems to be the thing that works for my audience and I would have never known until I tried it.

Let’s switch gears here. How do we get people who want to sign up for your email list, start to learn more about you and what your community is about?

Breakout rooms are actually the most powerful feature on Zoom. Click To Tweet

When I was first learning about breakout rooms, I created a lot of free content as well from Zoom cheat sheets and posted those things in Facebook groups. I invested a lot into my YouTube channel as well. Sharing different tips, from tech tips around Zoom or facilitation tips and it turns out that there are a few communities of facilitators and community builders that loved that content.

I would share it or sometimes somebody else would share it because they find it before I posted. That would always get a conversation started. They would subscribe to my YouTube channel. I would have different live events happening. There’s no real strategy behind it yet. All I know is that when you create good content, people like to talk about it. I would say that even now, for my facilitator training, probably 40% are referrals. I don’t do any paid marketing. It’s mostly talking to my existing audience, a couple of maybe engaged Facebook groups and then everybody talking about it.

Part of the problem that community builders have is how to make people aware of what they’re doing. Clearly, once you have them in your world, email works better for you. To get them into your world, you say you’re not using paid media of any sort. Are you posting on social regularly? Do you have social media posting tools that you find useful? Where do you sit when it comes to attracting new people?

I’m probably not the best person to give you any tips that you can execute. The one thing I’ve learned is for myself. In my YouTube channel, I said I was going to release a video every week. I probably would do that for 2 to 3 weeks and then miss one and feel horrible that I missed what I promised to people. What I’ve started doing is I put in space in my week that when I feel inspired, I can move things around and I’ll execute.

Often that looks like, “Zoom released an update that would be a cool feature to talk about.” I would move my tasks to the next day and sit down, learn about it, record a video live, stream it on YouTube then post it on my blog, share it to different groups and get it out there as quickly as possible before it becomes a lot of work.

The same thing with the email that I sent out that got many replies. I literally sat down and said, “This morning, I have to send an email, which is going to be about me leaving.” The only thought I had was, what’s the difference between moving back versus moving forward. I sat down and typed it. As soon as it was done, I hit send. It’s out there. It probably has a bunch of spelling mistakes in it. I may be not the best thing to follow.

I had one person once reach out to me who said, “You’ve been hacked. Your email had many spelling mistakes in it.” I replied, “That is how you know that it is from me because I want to get things out as quickly as possible without making them perfect.” That’s also a little bit of what I’ve been recovering from. It’s working and optimizing. It will never be perfect. Therefore, it will never be shared. I do have projects that happened in secret because I never thought it was ready. I’m flipping the script and instead of waiting long, I’ll try to get it out right away. It’s been working well because people realize that there’s a real person there. It’s not like a copywriter that writes it for me.

Jan, where would you identify the place for others to start? What tips would you have for someone getting started building a community?

I would start with a small group or maybe even one-on-one conversations. Before I created my five-week training, as I started to get a little bit of momentum with the workshops, I did a little survey for the people who’ve signed up for any of my workshops saying, “I’m thinking of creating this virtual facilitator training. Can you take like a couple of minutes to fill out the survey?”

TTB Yan | Building Community
Building Community: When creating a sense of community, creating a sense of trust will be like creating ripple effects throughout everything else that you’re going to be doing with that group.


Where I asked them what topics are you interested in? What challenges are you having? If you overcome these challenges, what does your business look like? What does it look like for your participants? As a gift, I would offer them a free call with me. I had 80 people fill out that survey, which I did not expect.

I was very happy that not 80 people booked a call because I did twenty-minute calls that would’ve taken a long time, but I had at least 30 calls. Not only do I learn much about my audience and what they want rather than thinking my head what I think they want, which is often realizing from previous businesses. Two different things. Having lots of conversations with people helped me crystallize, “What do you need? Let me create that.” Plus, that helped me start to build relationships with people.

They started to trust me that like, “This guy scheduled a call and was not selling me anything,” because at that time, I didn’t have anything to sell either. I literally was there to ask questions and listen. Whenever you want to start a community, getting to know the people that you want to have in there is going to be important. Building relationships is important and then inviting them for the next step if it’s a good fit.

That’s quite brilliant. The reason I say it that way is that ultimately, you’d end up there anyway, you couldn’t do it any other way. You would have to get to know deeply know the people that you’re about to start a community with. There’s probably nothing better than inviting people to connect with you and then have a genuine, real conversation with 5 or 10 or, in your case, 30 people.

This helps you define your direction as well, which sounds like it did, which is perfect. From there, once you have had 30 phone calls with 30 individuals, you’ve collected a lot of data. You’ve got a feel for each individual but more importantly, what I would think is that you found common ground. What is it that’s common among these 30 people that I can help and facilitate? What can I bring to the table that would make a difference? That’s a great tip. Jan, I understand that you have something for our readers. Can you tell us a little bit about what your free gift is?

This is something that I created before COVID. I’m updating this 2021, which is a Connection Guide. I originally created in mind for anybody who’s leading a team or anybody who’s bringing a group of people together. I realized, especially in a more corporate environment, that there is a big emphasis on being effective and getting things done.

When you have a meeting or when you bring people together, you jump right away into the content. The more we talk about the content, the more effective this meeting will be but I disagree with that. I think the more we focus on making sure people connect with each other and they feel heard and seen before we get into the content, the more likely they will participate, share ideas and collaborate with each other.

Whenever you want to start a community, really getting to know the people you want to have in there will be really important. Click To Tweet

I created this guide with different activity ideas that you can do in the first 5 minutes or 15 minutes when you bring people together, a meeting, or a Zoom call. That helps create a bit of a sense of community, especially if it’s the same people that come together all the time. You want to create a sense of community and a sense of trust. That will be creating ripple effects throughout everything else that you’re going to be doing with that group.

One of the things I’m wondering about is your reaction to what has happened in 2020 in America with this polarization. Maybe it’s just me or others who see this too. I have a feeling everybody sees it. This incredible polarization between groups of people. What are we missing here? What would you suggest as a way to either find a way to reduce that polarization or heal the wounds of the people who feel marginalized here?

That is maybe one of the biggest issues that impact everything. There’s probably no topic where I’m feeling more connected to each other. Understanding and trusting each other would not be helpful. A lot of it has to do with making sure people feel seen and heard. I even learned this as I was preparing to be a parent. This applies to adults too. If a kid is yelling or an adult is yelling especially if they’re repeating the same thing over and over again, it’s because they still haven’t felt heard.

Although you hear it, the sound goes into your ears, they don’t feel like you’ve heard it. They don’t feel like you’ve understood what they said or what they wanted to share. In my training, I love to teach listening skills. How can we listen? First of all, with the goal to understand what the other person says but even more so understand how they feel and reflect that back. That is something that doesn’t happen.

That’s not something that comes naturally for most people. Even for myself, I have to meditate. I’m trying to focus on it. As soon as you realize over your mind is wandering off, you have to bring yourself back and focus on what the other person is sharing and not thinking in your head about what you might share next.

That’s one skill that could help everyone feel a little bit more connected to each other. The words that are coming out of people’s mouths are not the actual message. If we go the levels deeper and that’s kind of what happens when you have the more vulnerable conversations, we realize, “We all want the same things. We’re not that different from each other.” Although it might be hard to find the similarities, they are there if we dig deep enough.

It’s a beautiful way of describing the one thing that I believe is common among us all is we basically all want the same thing. When we react the way we see people reacting, it’s because they don’t feel that they’re going to get it any other way. What you offer is a way to help them get what they want by simply knowing how to listen and communicate. Jan, you are a community builder and a tribe builder. I want to thank you for spending time with me and with this audience, helping us become better at what we do too. Thank you, Jan. We’ll talk again soon.

Thanks much for your time.


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