My heart is pounding as I race to Khyber Pass Pub. I’m 10 minutes late for my date with Rob.
I feel slightly panicked, wondering many of the typical things one does when rushing to a first hangout with someone they met online: Is he as nice as he seems through messaging? Will we run out of things to talk about? Will it be awkward?
See, Rob and I met on Instagram. It’s how he meets a lot of people.
Rob Lawless, or just Rob, runs a project informally known by its Instagram account name, @robs10kfriends, where he chronicles his effort to meet 10,000 strangers for one hour each — just to chat — and he wants to do it in the next 10 years.
When I first scrolled through the dozens of pictures he’d posted with his arm slung around other strangers, I thought, “Huh, I could be one of them.” And the night of our meeting, that’s exactly what I am — date No. 91 on his feed. (“The year I was born!” I exclaim when he tells me my number. “Me, too!” Rob says, because this was obviously fate.)
View this post on Instagram
He’s an outgoing guy. That’s part of the reason he works in outbound sales at Center City analytics company RJMetrics, where his job requires him to get people on the phone for 30 minutes so he can try to convince them to buy his company’s products.
In a way, he says, he’s trying to recreate his college experience. The 2013 Penn State grad was involved in a lot of clubs. He was in a fraternity. He was a tour guide. He misses seeing people he knew everywhere and saying hi to them.
“Going from a college town to a city, I lost that,” says Rob, who moved to Northern Liberties last June. “So I was like, ‘I’m just going to meet everyone, and that way I’ll be able to say hi to them on the street.’”
Reminder: 10,000 people = 10,000 hours, at least. After our 5:30 p.m. date, he was meeting someone (No. 92) at Independence Mall. Earlier in the day he met MilkCrate founder Morgan Berman (No. 90) at Cheu Noodle Bar. He tries to see three people per day like this: one for lunch, two after work. Dude knows how to triple book and get away with it. It’s how he might actually be able to make it to 10,000 by his 35th birthday.
He’ll hit 100 on Tuesday, June 21 — one percent of his goal.
At the start of the project last fall, Rob reached out to people on his own. But by now, word has spread and @robs10kfriends has gotten some media coverage, including a Philadelphia Citizen article that Rob calls “the tipping point” because since it was published, people have been reaching out to him to participate first.
And because he’s in sales, he keeps track of who’s an “inbound lead” and “outbound lead” in a Google spreadsheet.
“If I ever do get a blog up and running, that could potentially be something cool to work with, that data,” he says. “How I got to people from other people, just different types of visualizations.”
Rob says his career has influenced the project in a more human way, too. If sales is “basically a game of persistence and numbers,” @robs10kfriends is its antithesis.
“This is kind of my revolt against that, in a way,” he says. “I can email someone and get rejected every day to not spend 30 minutes [on the phone] with me, but then I’ll leave work and spend an hour with someone with no agenda at all, who reached out to me. It kind of balances the rejection of sales.”
The attention he’s been getting has been nice, Rob says, but he’s trying to keep the project grounded.
“It makes it easier to do it, but I’m trying my hardest to make sure that it’s about this” — he motions to the space between us — “where we spend an hour together, and who knows where the connection will go. The way I think about it is, while Instagram is the public-facing piece of it, to me, it’s moreso our photo and the recap of our meeting. So, 20 years from now, when we run into each other …”
And if that weren’t charming enough, Rob tells me that there is one person in Philly he’d especially like to meet: street artist Kid Hazo. I comment that not many people know his true identity.
“I don’t know who he is, either,” Rob says. “But I would wear a mask too, if it makes it easier. You don’t have to show me your face, we can just talk.”