Ep #16 | The Gift of Connections


Darrah Brustein is a serial entrepreneur and networking guru who's founded Equitable PaymentsNetwork Under 40 and Network Over 40.  She also authored Finance Whiz Kids to teach children financial literacy through fun and engaging illustrated stories. In the simplest of terms, Darrah is a connector. When not working, writing, or volunteering, you’ll most likely find me traveling, hanging with friends, eating dill pickles, reading a non-fiction book, doing acroyoga, and/or taking black and white photos.



Shantel: We are here with Darrah. Darrah, welcome to the show.

Darrah: Thank you.

Shantel: Yeah, we are excited to hear your story and what makes you imagine more. Can you kick everyone off with a little bit about your background and how you became an entrepreneur?


Darrah: Absolutely. Well, I'll start with that question because the word entrepreneur is something that never resonated with me. When I grew up, I always knew I wanted to own a business, but the word entrepreneur felt very highfalutin and felt out of reach and like something that I wasn't aspiring to. It actually took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I was an entrepreneur and that I could be an entrepreneur. The quick and dirty, really, of the background is that after going to college in Atlanta, I went to Emory, and graduating with a lot of confusion and uncertainty as to what I'd do, I initially took a PR internship and felt like that wasn't the stimulating challenge I was looking for and then moved into what I thought would be the dream for me, which was to work in the fashion industry. I worked on the wholesale side of a company based in LA, and I got to stay in Atlanta, which made me really happy and work and cover the entire Southeast for them to cover wholesale sales. Similarly to the PR world, I learned pretty quickly that what I thought might be glamorous and exciting and allow me to use my skills was not the case at all. I ultimately felt like while I was in an industry that was sexy on the outside, I just felt like I was not learning or growing or challenging myself in a way that I really felt that I needed to sustain. While I was interested in leaving, I found that it was really hard to find the inertia to do it on my own, so was sort of lucky in a strange way to get let go when the company went under about three months after I had bought a home. I was 23 years old with a mortgage and pretty terrified at that point because I didn't really know what was next, even though I knew it was the right thing for me to get out of that work, but so ended up spending the next about year and a half doing a ton of different things from being someone's personal assistant and writing marketing copy for her website and ripping carpeting and drywall out of her renovation rental income properties to working on inside sales in the fashion industry or working retail or working in sales for a high-end audio/video company. I literally was doing so many things because I was just trying to figure out what I didn't want to do as well as pay the bills until I could figure out really what I wanted to do. Throughout this time, having graduated from college in 2006 and being a, quote-unquote, "millennial" and being told that I was of this generation of entitled people who didn't want to work my way up and just wanted to get to the top quickly, that actually negatively impacted me because it made me feel like my dream to own a business was simply because of this millennial mindset and because I was unwilling to pay my dues and step up the rungs of the ladder. After having multiple layoffs, three really in the course of just a couple years of being out of college, I came to this realization that working for other people wasn't this fantasy scenario that I had been fed my whole life of, go to school, get good grades, get a good job, happily ever after. For me, it really turned out to be, go to school, get good grades, get a bunch of jobs, get laid off over and over again, have a mortgage you're afraid that you can't pay, and feel really unhappy and like you gave all of yourself to companies who have no loyalty to you. I made the decision, at that point, that working for myself wasn't an entitled choice. It was actually the smartest choice for me because I felt that it was no longer any riskier than in trusting my future to someone else. That's when I started, and I started with my twin brother, which actually really helped me to feel secure in taking that leap.

Shantel: Nice. Well, I'm excited to dive a little bit deeper into the businesses that you have started, but there was one point that you mentioned. You talked about your whole life. You knew you wanted to start and own something. Were you surrounded by other entrepreneurs growing up or people that also had that bone in them, or is it just something you aspired to because of who, maybe school or what you thought, your own mind frame?

Darrah: I think it was a combination of this innate desire and this, just, piece of who I was that I couldn't shake, also aligned with the fact that my mom was an entrepreneur, but, and I am sure she's going to listen to this, and I hope she's not offended by this, she wasn't necessarily the reason I wanted to do it because I saw her struggle a lot, and I saw her have a lot of businesses that, for lack of a better term, failed. It wasn't necessarily like I saw this entrepreneurial or business owner life as such a dream scenario, but I knew that I always wanted to do that. I just had this, not ... I can't explain it out of this innate desire to do it. I was, as a child, doing things like making jewelry on our porch and selling it to my parent's friends or so eager to go door-to-door and sell the fundraising whatever the thing was for the school that year for both myself and my twin who was painfully shy and get to know our neighbors and sell to them or get to know the guys at my mom's gym where she worked out and sell to them. It was just this combination of factors that made me know I wanted to take my future into my hands at some point, but didn't know what that would be.

Shantel: Well, it sounds like we would've been fast friends when we were younger.

Darrah: Good thing we're friends now.

Shantel: Absolutely. Let's talk about the business that you started with your twin brother. Can you tell the audience a little bit about that company?


Darrah: It's called Equitable Payments, and it was really his brain child in a sense that he started doing research on the merchant services arena and found that while there's a brokerage model that's well represented in just about every facet of financial services, it wasn't represented in merchant services, also known as credit card processing. With his due diligence, he came to recognize that there were no reasons why it couldn't be, but that there's every reason why it should be, and those reasons, simply based on the fact that it gives a lot of benefit to the end user, to the customer, to the business as you would know from an insurance broker who is maybe finding your personal or your PNC insurance or your health broker where they're vetting a marketplace for you to find the best solution based on your specific needs. It's no different in credit card processing, but that wasn't represented. Having come from industries like fashion where it's really subject and so trend-based, it seemed really enticing for me to get involved in a business where I could help a business, help their bottom line, connect them to a resource that was valuable to them, and then bring this new model to that industry who know's a tried and true model in all its surrounding industries. We started that in February of 2009 under the basic premise of brokage is going to be beneficial, not just to our customer but to us and to the end users. It was like this triple win. In addition to that, that we were going to grow it based on relationships as opposed to the way this industry traditionally works where people are cold calling and they're going door-to-door, and they're making it quite transactional. I told my brother from the get-go, I said, "It's going to take time, but we're going to grow relationships. We're going to grow strategic relationships with partners and with our customers, and we're going to find that that's going to be the winning scenario." While it took a long time, and we had a lot of ups and downs, now, almost nine years in, we've come to find that that's the case. We're 38 states now. We process over 40 million dollars a year in transactions, and that's after even selling it multiple times through the process and just found that when you really treat people fairly and with transparency and as someone that you care about that that goes a long way and keeps long-term clients.

Shantel: That's amazing. Did you, very early on, kind of distinguish the roles between what you would do and what your brother would do and leverage those strengths there?

Darrah: Absolutely. One of the greatest things about having my brother as a partner, one is, we're twins and we are just, we've known each other our entire lives, but more than that, I think there's something about opposite-sex twins that I've seen in a lot of my peers who are that way as well where you are just so different that while socially my brother and I are not the closest because of that, it makes us exceptional business partners because where he is great at operations and logistics and what I consider my inertia, and that's where he shines, I am great at relationships and business development and sales and bigger visions. We partner and align so well in that way. We did delineate that at the jump off, in the outset, but it also was very clear for us, just because we've known each other. We know our strengths and our weaknesses so well. I always say if could share a room, you could share a business, and in that case, that's been true.

Shantel: That's great. Now, has it gotten to a point where that's pretty self-sufficient? I know that you have other business, so I imagine you have freed up time from that company.

Darrah: Yes, exactly. It's an interesting thing because I'm someone who is extremely values-based in the way I make decisions. For me, growth and learning is such a thing, and I know for you too, that drives me. While there were certain things that kept me feeling like I was growing and learning with Equitable Payments, it also became something that felt routine where I didn't feel like I was being challenged anymore and I could help my customers in my sleep and it wasn't as exciting. I found ways to design the business over time that I could hand things off, and everyone was being treated just as well as I would've treated them and still have interactions with them that was able to focus some of my attention onto other things. Yes, I was able to do that, and then start another business, and then sort of a half business after that.

Shantel: Let's talk about that next business and that next leap of faith for you. Is that Network Under 40?

Darrah: It is.

Shantel: Can you tell the listeners a little bit about that?


Darrah: Sure. In 2011, I guess at that point, I was about five years out of college, I had some friends from undergrad return from graduate school or pop their heads up from their first jobs and say, "Hey, it's really hard to connect with people at this stage of our lives, in our mid 30s and early 30s." I don't know where to go to make friends after college, and all of my friend's lives have diverted. This is just strange, and it's the first time, really, in your life that you're in this stage where you don't have a built-in social network. They said, "Everywhere I go, I feel like everyone's either my parents age or I'm getting hit on, and/or I'm getting sold to," and they weren't looking for that. They said, "Where can you send me?" I wrapped my brain and thought about it, and I said, "I'm super involved in our community, and I can't really think of a place that's not going to hit on one of those things for you, so I'll just start something." Being someone who loves to connect people, it's probably the thing that gives me more joy than anything in the world, I said, "Let's just start an event, and we'll tell people this is peer-based. It'll be called ... " at the time," ... Atlanta Under 40, and you're going to get to meet other people in the city who you probably don't know from all different industries who live in all sorts parts of town," which for Atlanta, as you know, is not usually that frequent that people get outside of their little community. "More than that, it's going to be a place where we intersect friendship with business, that it's not just about a business card exchange, nor is it a singles scene or a meet market or is it frat party. It's a place where you come, it's still professional, but you can be yourself, you can be authentic, you could have a good time, and lead with social interactions. You can build rapport, and if the business wants to come after that, then fantastic, but that's, really, I think the best way to go about starting to kickstart a relationship." Doing this just for my friends at the time, our first event had 94 people, and the energy was absolutely electric. They just said, "Keep doing this. We want more of these. We want more of these." Started running them once a month, and started seeing upwards into years two, three, four, five and six hundred people a month in some cases at the coolest venues in town, and then we started having sponsors want to join up. Then out of the blue, maybe 18 months in, Inc. Magazine wrote about us, and we weren't expecting it. We didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't ask for it. They said, "Networking sucks, but here's a place that's doing it well." As a result of that, we ended up getting inquiries from people all over the world who were saying, "How can you help us bring this to our city?" At the time, I really underestimated it and undervalued it. I would get on the phone with many of them and say, "Here's how I did it. It's this simple. This is what you should know. Go ahead and do it, and let me know how it goes." Many of them followed up with me and said, "I really struggled, and here's why. I need more of your help to do it." It was at that point that I realized this is probably a business, and I didn't quite recognize that it was because not only were we making money off of people coming to attend, and then sponsorships, but then suddenly, other people in other cities wanted our help to bring it to them. I spent probably after year four, maybe, figuring out how to package it and systemize it so that we could help expand it into other cities. We've continued to play with that model in different iterations, and now we're going to be launching our sixth and seventh cities at the end of the month, so continue to grow slowly and surely and learning as we go but have accidentally created this business out of something that comes from something I deeply feel is my gift in the world, which is connection.

Shantel: That's great. I've been talking with so many fascinating entrepreneurs, and the thing that seems to be that common thread is that all of their businesses, for the most part, have spurred from an opportunity or a need, and not necessarily because they sat down and they created a business plan and then tried to execute. It was moved really quickly, and there have been multiple iterations, and you've learned as you go. Would you find that true for some of your colleagues in the industry as well and people that you admire?

Darrah: Yeah. I think it can work in a lot of ways, but I think that's a smart way because at that point, you already know there's a market need, you have momentum, and if you're willing to do the things that you said of iterate, change, learn as you go, and not invest so much into the planning, then you're likely to find success somewhere along the path. It's probably not going to look exactly like it did in the beginning, and that's okay, but what I think so many people do wrong, which is something you're hitting on is, that they go in thinking what do I want to offer the market, not what does the market want and not what does the customer want and where are they now and where do they want to be, and then how do I insert myself, my business, my product in the middle to help them get from point A to point B. Instead, they just think, here's this thing, let's shove it into the market. That's going to be a lot more of an uphill battle. Any time, I think, you have momentum and you can move with the current as opposed to swimming against it, it's going to work much better in your favor and you're probably going to enjoy the process a lot more, too. While it can work in either capacity, I think if you're going to do it from the planning stage first, then you sure as hell better go do your research and figure out through customer insight interviews or any number of other ways that you can do some research and investigation, figure out is this something that the market wants.

Shantel: Absolutely. I'd love to dive a little deeper into the expansion and the cities that you're branching into and maybe touch on one of the biggest challenges that you've learned through expanding or something that you wish you knew upfront when you were starting to develop those other cities.

Darrah: Thank you. I've only focused on, and I hate to use it this way, but it's hard to explain it any other way, second to your cities. Starting in Atlanta, which is a top 10 market, I basically said there's something unique about being in a city like Atlanta where there's so many young people flocking but there's not a lot of vessels to help them connect with one another. I knew from growing up in Baltimore in Philly that are similar sized cities, Baltimore even smaller, that there's similar needs there, too. Rather than going to these cities where everyone was going, I thought, let's just focus on those. Of all of the things that I estimated, I'd say that's been probably the most right, and I'm really glad that we've been doing that, so we now are in Baltimore, DC, Nashville, Birmingham is soon to be at the end of the month, and Austin and Dallas for that very reason that there's such a fluctuation of young people, and we want to help be this place that they can catalyze relationships with their peers as opposed to going to a place where you're competing directly with everyone. I would say it's like this Walmart model, but up leveled by one. Walmart always went to the tiny cities where there was no one to compete against. We're not going to Bentonville, Arkansas, for example, today, but we are looking a there's so much to do in, say, New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, so let's not focus there. Let's focus where there's less in the market where we can really make a splash more quickly. From a scrappy perspective, I think that's really important to note. The thing that I think that we've done most poorly, I guess, or the thing that I wish that I had known better was really how hard it would be to manage a remote team, especially a part-time remote team because the way that we started to build this out was to have someone in each market who was part-time who's full-time work really complements this idea of being someone who is a connector in their community and has an incentive to be knowing more and more people all the time. They're likely a small business owner in business development or in some sort of sales role. While that is true, we really underestimated the challenge of keeping their attention, keeping their level of work high, keeping their communication steady and regular. That's part of the iterations where we continue to work on how do we adopt that model so that the users, the customers in each city get a high-quality, high-level experience that still echoes the culture of that city. That can only really happen with someone on the ground who knows what that city's about and where the cool places are and who the right people are to get involved in all of that, but still doesn't have us losing the value or having it be so challenging on our infrastructure to be constantly managing and working with those people as deeply as we had in the beginning.

Shantel: Do you ever see those roles transitioning into a full-time representative for Network Under 40 as opposed to a part-time or contractor role?

Darrah: Yes and no. What we've done is built full-time roles in our in-house staff, like our HQ, who do a lot of the tactical work that people in our markets and other places were doing before and working alongside them where basically, they're getting the recommendations and help with the grassroots marketing from the people on the ground, but the person in-house is full-time focused on the logistics, the marketing, the booking, the follow up, all of that stuff. We've sort of found a hybrid that we think is going to be the right way that we're still testing our hypothesis.

Shantel: That's really exciting. Congratulations on all of the cities and the huge growth there.

Darrah: Thank you.

Shantel: Of course. I would love to talk about your day-to-day. Being a natural connector, how do you, is there a tool that you keep track of your contacts and your personal network? How do you stay organized in that sense?


Darrah: There's a lot that I do, and frankly, if anyone's listening who is a technologist and wants to help me design the right personal CRM, let's do it because I don't think that it exists. While there's a lot of things that I piecemeal together, I think for someone who's truly invested in the cultivation and development of their network and their relationships, I don't think that there's a really good tool for that. What I do is a lot of piecemealing. I use my iContacts to store sort of as a CRM, just the history of conversations with people and their contact information. I use Google Calendar for all of my calendaring, and then I'll do something, for example, that I call reconnect files where I will color code them different than everything else, and they'll rotate on a monthly basis of people with whom I want to stay in regular touch with. If there's someone I really want to stand out, they'll have their own file, and it'll have notes in there and everything like a CRM would, and it'll pop up once a month. In those cases, it'll just help keep on top of mind for me, so I might shoot them a text, give them a phone call, send them an email and maybe send them something that made me think of that. A lot of times, it's not as regular as once a month, or I'll think about them throughout the month and mail them a book that I think is great or wish them happy birthday or happy work anniversary or any number of other things, but it helps keeps them top of mind. Then for people that I want to keep in touch with but maybe not at that regularly, I'll have a file that I'll call reconnect, and with it, it'll have 10 to 15 names with a short note on them. I'll look at that on a daily basis and see who's in here that I haven't talked with in a while and might have a good reason to reach out just to say hey or check in or follow up on something they had going on and see how that's progressing for them and just keep that relationship alive. Then pairing that with all the different social media opportunities that exist, I think, is so critical where I'm following people that I really have a friendship with to various degrees on Instagram, and I'm connecting with people that I enjoy and live, in particular, in other cities on Facebook because when I go, I'll type in my friends who live in San Francisco and that'll pull up 60 people. Then I'll decide who do I want to connect with when I'm out there. It's a quick way for me to remember who lives somewhere, and then naturally, LinkedIn, which I consider the CRM system that other people update for you. Then you know when someone's having a work anniversary, when they've changed jobs, when they've had some big milestone, when they've published an article or been mentioned on the news, when it's their birthday. Any of these things are going to be a really good incentive for you to reach out to them that doesn't take a lot of work on your part to keep track of. I think those are great, and one of the ways that I keep it easy to connect with them in these places is by having, I use Gmail and Google Chrome for everything. I have all my emails forward in so I can use a lot of the extensions. One of my favorite extensions is FullContact, which has its own CRM system where you can tag people based on industry or keywords or locations or whatever you want, but I don't use it for that. I use it simply as this side bar in my email that allows me to connect instantly as long as their email's associated with any of their social media to, usually their LinkedIn, where I can send them a LinkedIn invitation straight from my email inbox and keep connected with them on LinkedIn that way rather than going and searching separately and taking the extra step. I like that. I also like that it'll show me, lets say you and I are emailing, and we've never met, it'll show me your picture that's associated with your social media, where you're based, your title, and then these live buttons to connect with you in those places, which is really nice because it gives you this quick digest of who that person is and let you do a little research on them. Those are just some of the ways that I manage my network, but one of the biggest keys is to be finding ways to stay top of mind with them, and they for me. If it's having conversations or shooting text messages or hosting dinner parties or having events where I can invite them to come or sending them introductions or opportunities. It's just always adding value to my network and those are just some of the tools that help me keep up with them.

Shantel: First, I see a new technology component at some point in your future and perhaps another business, or SaaS model, and I'm glad that you shared that FullContact. I'm excited to look into that. Have you heard of Charlie?

Darrah: Yeah, I love Charlie. I use it before, I don't know if your listeners are familiar, but Charlie App's a great tool to use for people when you're having a meeting or a phone call with them, and it does a quick scrape of the Internet on them to tell you here's the things you follow in common, here's their recent Tweets, here's a bit about their company, here's some times that their company or they have been in the news. It gives you some really easy talking points and research. I'll typically pair that information with going through their LinkedIn profile and just quickly referring back to the information we've emailed about because I think it's so important and shows a level of respect when you go in prepared and know a bit about them and can find these moments of kinship really quickly.

Shantel: Absolutely. I'm glad you mentioned the birthdays and anniversaries. It seems like you're very thoughtful about the touches when you reach out to people, it's not like, "Hey, what's new? Let's grab coffee," it's intentional. It's like, "Hey, I would love to talk to you about XYZ. Happy birthday," or something. I think that that's such an important element in connecting that you've absolutely mastered and is a true gift to you that keeps you top of mind for people as well because they know that you care.


Darrah: Thank you, and I think that that's so critical. I look at everything not as a what can I get, but what I can I give. This general equation that I explain to people, if you're not giving twice as much into relationships as you're taking, then you're doing something wrong. Finding these points where it's easy and it matters to someone who have noting, like all of my clients are on an annual rotation of their birthday in my calendar, and I could even do it better by putting their anniversary of working with us and reaching out to them or any number of other things that are natural touch points or ... If someone tells me they have some really big thing coming up in their life, I'm going to put it in my calendar and follow and say, "Hey, how did that go?" or if they're having ... If someone lost a family member, I'll send them flowers. If they had big company exit, I'm going to send them something. There's these moments that are important to let people know that you care, but I also think it's important to reach out in the times that are not just those big moments where you don't get lost in the crowd and that it doesn't just seem like it's this ritual for you, that it's real and it's authentic, which is another reason why following people on social media is so helpful because people are sharing these windows, and it's easy for you to follow up and say, "Hey, that's really interesting. I'd love to talk to you more about that," or "How cool that that happened," or whatever the thing might be.

Shantel: I noticed you've been doing something on Instagram, sharing values through some stories and some videos of how to utilize your, or not utilize your network, but build stronger relationships. I think that's just another example of how you're always wanting to give, and it resonates with people, so kudos-

Darrah: Thank you.

Shantel: ... to you.

Darrah: Thank you.

Shantel: You touched earlier on about how you felt in Equitable Payments, you weren't challenged anymore, it became a routine, and you weren't outside of your comfort zone. I'd love to talk about what right now currently in your life is pushing you outside of your comfort zone.

Darrah: Definitely a drive to be teaching more, and that's scary because what I've done to date while every single part of it has scared me as it's gone on and has forced me, embedded me up against insecurities and just new things, which is scary in and of itself, I felt, recently, that this next incarnation for me will be about teaching and sharing more deeply about what I think I have to share with people that can help them, which really is about relationship building and networking. Through the course of my career, I've been lucky to be given platforms through Entrepreneur and Thrive Global, and now, Forbes to write about entrepreneurship and relationship building done right. It's really given me an opportunity to see how much it's helped people and allow me to recognize that people really are looking for this type of knowledge. I've, now, partnered up with someone who's considered to be, USA TODAY called him the number one most connected millennial in the world, and he's a bestselling author. We both look at the world very similarly in this way of value-centric connection, so we're going to be starting something together. We just started where we're going to take just one or two clients and help coach them on how to build a world-class network in record time and give them all the strategies that we have through a one-day intensive, about nine hours, with some accountability and follow up after, and just really dive deeply into what their goals are, but not only help them get there, but look at it through a lens, too, of lifestyle design and making sure that their goals in the way that we help them get to it are compatible with their values and what they want their life to look like. We're excited to do that, but it's, to your question, scary because it's new. While I know I have the skills to share, any time you do something new, it's scary, and I'm someone, as you've touched on, who cares so deeply about giving value into the world that I want to make sure that we are giving them 10X the value of what they invest. That's really important and a little bit unnerving all at once.

Shantel: Well, I'm sure it will be great. Where can people find more information on that coaching, or is it very select right now?

Darrah: Yeah, so it's select. I'd say the best way is just to reach out to me directly, and yeah. I, happy to share my email. We can do it through Network Under 40 would be the easiest. It's just Darrah, D-A-R-R-A-H @networkunder40.com. If it's something people are interested in, then we'll be selectively sharing more details.

Shantel: Great. Well, last question for you, Darrah. Is there one pice of advice or one quote that really resonated with you or someone that you really want to share, kind of an experience share, something that, what is the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Darrah: There's so much good advice that it's tough for me to pick one, but I will say, for me, the thing that I've learned the most that sounds so trite but has been the most important is just self-belief and the eradication of self-doubt, that every time I have slipped up, it's because I doubted my own instincts and I've veered off that course, or every time I've taken longer on something that I needed to or made things more complicated, it's because I wasn't believing in myself. I've simply just come to to recognize that no one's going to believe in me more than I believe in myself and that my instinct and intuition is really a critical GPS system to follow and that I need to undoubtedly trust it. Again, it sounds so trite, so cliché, so basic, but I would challenge your listeners to consider those moments where they let other thoughts or doubt or little voices or other people's opinion is creep in and push them off of that course and to challenge to them to really center back into what their intuition tells them and to believe in themself in that process.

Shantel: I love that. Thank you for sharing. Well, thank you so much for being on the Imagine More Podcast and sharing your story. I really appreciate all your time.

Darrah: Thank you for having me. So nice to be here.

Shantel: Of course.