The news cycle will quickly forget the fiasco of Tony Robbins in Moscow, but it is important to take what lessons we can from such fails to improve cross-cultural understanding. And for those who plan to do business in Russia, this sad event is a treasure trove of how NOT to do business in the Motherland.
If you don’t know who Tony Robbins is, that’s perfectly ok. But a quick snapshot is that he is billed as being the #1 Life Coach in the World and the most expensive business consultant in the world.
If you check out his upcoming events, you will see statements such as this:
“4 days with Tony in London will help you to break through your fears and limitations, to reconnect with your inner power, to awaken your hidden energy in your body, and to set global fearless goals for decades!”
Tony Robbins has coached the likes of Bill Clinton and Oprah. I have watched a few of his performances and listened to some podcast interviews.
And to be clear, I do think that there is some usefulness to motivational speakers, but I don’t know of any motivational speakers that I will pay $440 (the minimum price for one day at Olimpiisky Stadium in Moscow with Tony) to listen to for a day.
With that, I never had a second thought, I had no plans to go watch Tony.
It seems that I made the right choice as, judging by the internet, the event was a disaster. Here are my thoughts on what went wrong, why, and what could have been done differently. Some of these points will be as obvious as some of Tony’s “Disappointment destroys you!”, for that I apologize in advance, but I think when opening a business in Russia, we often overlook the most obvious.
Choose Your Russian Business Partners Wisely
Regardless of your opinion on Tony Robbins, he is a professional, and he runs high-end professional events around the world. Unfortunately, those he partnered with in Russia proved incapable of running a large-scale event, let alone an event with tickets that ran up to $7300 per person.
This is really too bad, because Russia is more than capable of managing large-scale events. The World Cup as an obvious example, went off recently without a hitch, and the two matches that I attended (including the final) were absolutely flawless.
Russians Don’t Like Standing In Line
Perhaps your view of Russia is one long bread line. If so, that stereotype is more than antiquated. There are still lines in Russia but even after all these years it’s not like anyone has become used to them, particularly at an upscale event.
In the case of Tony Robbins in Moscow, folks were left standing in line for more than an hour, waiting for translation headsets. And according to Russia Beyond, many of those headsets didn’t even have batteries, so they were left scrambling to local stores to buy some before the event started.
And most attendees, like Twitter user Dmitry Glazunov, took to social media to complain about the chaos.
Punctuality Matters In Russia
In the book that I recently wrote in Russian for Russians on “how to do business with foreigners”, I discuss in length the need for punctuality. This is because punctuality is not Russia’s most distinguishing trait.
At the same time, if you have come to Russia on business, you had better be on time. This is particularly if you are focused on the type of clients who will pay thousands of dollars to listen to you for a couple of hours.
Tony’s Moscow show started 3 hours late (!). That would have been absolutely okay if there had been fighter jets flying around inside the covered stadium with champagne flowing from the rafters. But there weren’t, and I think, most importantly, this made the crowd feel played.
Russians Love Authority
So, why did Russians pack out the stadium in what was Tony’s largest one-day crowd, paying more than folks in the West pay for a similar event with Mr. Robbins?
One Facebook friend “Dmitry” wrote after the event that he had gone to “learn more about business seminar styles, since he was running business seminars himself, and that he had wanted to show his girlfriend a great day out, full of emotion”. And he felt that in these regards he had been successful.
The point that Russians love authority is something that I have written about concerning negotiations in Russia. But if you are #1 in the world, at practically anything, you will draw a crowd in Russia. The marketing campaign for Tony Robbins in Russia was very smartly focused on the points that he is #1. Russians love authority.
And some of my Russian friends seemed to enjoy casually mention that they were going to see Tony Robbins even months before the event. This also was a display of authority. Or at least disposable income.
If you are planning to market a product or service in Russia, remember that authority matters, but also as we learn in this almost fable-like experience with Tony Robbins, so does execution.
Russians Value Substance Over Feelings
Ok, this is a theory. But since I am running business seminars myself, I began to watch more closely what Russian business trainers do. I was surprised and impressed at the volume of information they would produce in a very short amount of time during their training sessions.
Compare this to what I have seen with Western business trainers, and the motivational/informational ratio in the West seems to shift away from the informational side.
This Russian Tony Robbins meme says “Close your eyes. See how everything immediately became dark?”
I don’t have a strong opinion on this one way or another, since both sides have value. I question the ability of the audience to absorb all of the facts of a Russian business trainer, and I also question the value of a motivational performance. In my case, if I don’t want to work, I just need to remember that I have a family.
I saw an evening TV talk show where one of the guests said that the only difference between Billy Graham coming to Moscow in the early ’90’s and Tony Robbins in 2018 was the cost of admission. I do not share this sentiment, but I understand the point, and it might be worth considering by Western church organizations who wish to reach out to Russia.
In the case of Tony Robbins, I suspect that the Russian attendees expected more hard material for their money, particularly since the hype didn’t measure to the level of the entry fee. This point is proven by Russian Esquire reporting that one attendee has now taken the event organizers to court claiming that Tony Robbins simply repeated phrases and made everyone clap for four hours.
Instagram user @art.coaching asks is Tony Robbins a genius or a scam artist and then proceeds to give a much more balanced view of the Tony Robbins event than most of the Russian internet. She says she didn’t have to pay full price, wait in lines in the heat, and says she didn’t receive new information, but was reminded of important points that are easy to forget.
Fool Me Once Shame On You, Fool Me Twice Shame On Me
I heard that Tony Robbins is planning to visit Moscow again. I think it will be very difficult for him. In any case, the prices will be much lower, and the crowds much smaller.
The main reason for this, in my humble opinion, is that going to watch Tony Robbins a week ago in Russia was a sign of success, and today it is a sign of mind-feebleness.
As a matter of fact, the word I saw most used for the event in Russian cyberspace was лохотрон, which when translated into English means something like “automated idiot machine”.
Anyone who goes to a Tony Robbins event again in Russia will do so in disguise and in the dark of night. Because in Russia, what others think about you matters.
I think it is a sign of envy to those who have more money, but immediately following the fiasco, the Russia internet was jam-packed with taunting of those who had gone to watch Tony Robbins. If everything had started on time, if the event had been run in a way to match the price tag, then following events would be a slam dunk for the organizers. Now, I believe, it would be a tremendous waste of resources.
Moscow Might Have Higher Standards Than You
Perhaps if Mr. Robbins had run this event in another city in the world, it would have gone great. The folks would have reacted “with understanding” to the lines and the tardiness. They would have gone home and told all their friends about their life-changing experience instead of their tails between their legs, like what happened in Moscow.
The mega-city of Moscow is incredibly difficult to impress. It even seemed to take it a couple weeks to even be won over by the World Cup this summer.
So, if you come to Moscow for business, you had better come with your A-Game. Moscow is much more than the stereotypes you have perhaps unwittingly accrued over the years.
I don’t fault Tony Robbins for any of this, and I think it will only be a blip on the screen of his worldwide brand in business. I would expect he is disappointed with this even if “Disappointment destroys you!”, and perhaps has also reached the conclusion that he should have partnered with different folks for the event management.
Perhaps Mr. Robbins will even be able to use this experience to improve his work around the world.
And I don’t fault my friends who went to watch Tony Robbins. That’s their personal decision, and I wouldn’t want to be judged for the different ways that I choose to spend my money.
For my Russian friends who have enjoyed making fun of those who participated, get a life. Small people discuss people.
But I do hope that for those foreigners who want to do business in Russia, that we can learn from the mistakes of others. And avoid becoming part of a лохотрон or even worse becoming the automated idiot machine ourselves. Because if you become the лохотрон your business in Russia is done.