Experience: the tailor to any saggy startup suit

There are good writers, great writers, and talented writers; then there are excellent communicators whose medium for connecting to the world happens to be writing.

These last folks, if you can find them, are invaluable to the forward movement of any individual action, company change, or global shift. They can articulate things in a way that leaves the rest of us speechless, or in my case, feeling like I should perhaps go back to Creative Writing 101.

Doug Crets is one of these [what I would call] communication intuitives. And yes, I just made up that term. But the point is, I’ve known this guy since he started at Microsoft BizSpark (provides valuable resources to promising startups at no charge) a little over a year ago at a Startup Weekend event. He wrote this post (#BikiniGate) and after reading it I thought: this is the kind of communicator I want to be. Storytelling, insight, reflection, and connecting the dots with a hint of humor.

microsoft bizsparkIn one year what he has done at Microsoft is nothing shy of magical. Within the confines of a massive, moving beast of an organization he has put BizSpark on the map and launched a live chat show, Startuplandia, where he interviews some of today’s leading thinkers, entrepreneurs, and founders. He provides the all-important human element to these otherwise monotonous tech stories. He fights for the little guy but can spar with the big guys.

Doug sat down with me last week to talk about the future of PR and super connectors, governments and their lack of inspiration, what makes for a great story, why startups fail, and a variety of other things. Anyone in the throes of creating something, anything – a company, a piece of art, a shift in thinking – can learn from his words and take to heart his unique approach to communicating thoughts and ideas.

To whet your palate, here are a few “gems” from his interview:

“If you take the experience out of a story, all you have is whining, or blather. Experience is the tailor to any saggy suit.”

“You know, people cling to media like they cling to flotsam in the ocean.”

“Government often uses [that] sentiment to feed the egos and the agendas of a powerful few.”

“London would not be London if you did not discover something that nobody told you about.”

I digress.

Rebekah Iliff: What is your definition of PR?

Doug Crets: I think what’s happened is that marketing and PR have been pushed into a new realm of customer communication and interaction.

PR is what I believe community managers and social media people are doing on the web and in mobile from big to small brands. PR responsibilities are still largely managed by PR companies or teams, but it feels to me that in many cases, those duties are locked into a behavior that comes from an older way of managing media sentiment. Today’s PR is more like curating. And discovering. It’s bringing people into your brand to help you mold and shape a voice for the brand and its community.

Brands are communities now, so PR means to me that you are helping the community govern itself and discover its values, so that it can act on them. And the more you empower those people to do that, the more they love the brand.

RI: What do you think BizSpark does right in terms of PR?

DC: What do we NOT do right? I mean, we’re amazing. All kidding aside, we are extremely responsive on social media channels and our team works very well, globally, to develop these relationships at scale. We are not only chatty, but we are inclusive, responsive when we can be, and curious. We function like a series of listening nodes, and we communicate well internally, so that we are as aware as we can be of the needs and moves of the community. We assist, as well as promote our members.

Microsoft BizSpark is really about founder stories and developer stories. That’s why we have the live chat show, Startuplandia, based in Silicon Valley. And that’s why we will soon be scaling that up to one based in Chicago, New York City, and the Middle East. In addition, we have blogs, and social feeds that cover as many sections and as many languages as we can. It’s very robust.

RI: As a journalist-at-heart, full-time rabble-rouser, content creator and conversation starter, how do you think technology has changed the media landscape?

DC: It’s made what happens every day at the airport, in the bathroom, in a restaurant, or in the taxi just as potentially visible – and potentially important or explosive — as the news and information that many people waited eight hours to see or experience on linear channels.

As information has become pervasive, it’s created this great opportunity to find the voices we didn’t know were important, and to understand the people behind the salient media that comes out of our filters. I see it very much as a collaborative effort, and an opportunity to define exactly what it is that brands do in PR, marketing, and community development.

You know, people cling to media like they cling to flotsam in the ocean. They need it. As a communicator, or PR person, or connector, you need to help them. You need to be able to throw them the information they need to make choices. And take from them the information you need to be a better helper.

RI: Will we even need PR firms in 5 years? If so, what will they look like?

DC: Not sure. You will always need people on your team, or in a firm, that help you make sure your message gets to the right people. But I am not sure this will be a PR function, or the work of super connectors who live in a different kind of media space than decision makers in a company or an organization.

A super connector knows who to go to for information, help, or influence. And that changes in terms of context. That’s not something that a PR firm usually does in a nimble way.

I say that only because in my experience with startups, it’s not just “getting press” that people are looking for. They are usually trying to build, shift, acquire resources or make decisions. That’s not really a PR function, but PR has the exposure to information that would help in that decision. I think we are seeing a hybridization of that mindset, moving away from function only, to something like idea generation and assistance. More companies – not just startups – will need to operate in a fluid way, and adjust on the fly.

RI: What excites you most about working with startups?

DC: That something starts as an idea born out of confusion, frustration, or crises and can be formulated into a business model over time with the cooperation of a massive group of people. I love that someone’s trouble point can be hope and assistance for many people.

Where else in the world does that happen? Government doesn’t really inspire that kind of cooperation and interaction. Government often uses that sentiment to feed the egos and the agendas of a powerful few. Certainly school doesn’t. School is often a locked down notion of learning that feeds an administrative system, rather than the future of its constituency.

In the startup world, everyone is moving along on different tracks, but towards the same goal, and working for and with someone actually inspires hope, help and reward for many people. For me it’s free will along a non-deterministic path, and that’s risky, fun and interesting.

RI: What are some of the most common mistakes you see startups make?

DC: The ones who fail, I think, have failed partly because they didn’t talk soon enough to the market they thought they wanted to reach in order to figure out if they were really solving a problem, or if they were just inventing something.

It’s not listening well, or actively.

RI: Who are some of the most interesting people you’ve interviewed on Startuplandia?

DC: Yu-Kai Chou was a good interview guest. I liked his focus and his passion for game mechanics and how they helped people. I also think he’s working on a new way to be a consultancy, and that was interesting. I really liked talking to Paul Berry, partner in Lerer Ventures, and CEO of RebelMouse. He’s passionate and he knows what he’s talking about.

RI: What makes for a great story? What do you look for?

DC: Experience.

If you take the experience out of a story, all you have is whining, or blather. Experience is the tailor to any saggy suit.

RI: How do you measure the success of your efforts around social, content creation, and events?

DC: I have metrics!

RI: That’s a little specific don’t you think? Well, fine, I’m not going to get into this with you right now. We will save this for another interview!

DC: Agreed, it’s another topic…you just tried to go there.

RI: Favorite hidden San Francisco gem? London? Shanghai? Or is it Hong Kong?

DC: My house in Eureka Valley is not only my favorite hidden gem; it’s my real refuge from the world and work. It’s this impossibly immaculate and “cute” two story Victorian that you can’t even find on a map if you were to Bing the address.

RI: Nice work with the subtle Microsoft plug. That was genius.

DC: What? Everyone Bings. Well, anyway, you can’t see it from the road at all. The path to the house is hidden behind a gate and behind a big apartment complex; so it’s really, truly secret. It has a garden, too, and sits behind rows and rows of rose bushes, red maples and a fence. It was like the most spectacular accident to find this. I have an office filled with books about aircraft, physics, history, biographies and vampire fiction, and I can just sit there, looking out the window or reading and it’s amazingly calm.

London has so many. They are best left where they are, out of sight. In fact, London would not be London if you did not discover something that nobody told you about. That’s what makes that city real.

I also love the London Tube Stations.

Hong Kong. You mean Hong Kong, city of my second birth. There is never the same Hong Kong twice.

BizSpark Doug CretsAbout Doug Crets

Microsoft BizSpark Social Strategist and Startup Advisor

On a daily basis Doug manages the social media strategy for a Microsoft division that works exclusively with startups. He works with internal partners in product groups like Windows 8, Windows Azure, Windows Phone and others to create an integrated marketing channel from startups to Microsoft and back.

Doug’s work with Microsoft entails curating great content, showcasing the work of startups, and managing the way developer evangelists in Microsoft use social media to engage with their audiences.

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Follow Doug on Twitter: @DouglasCrets

Follow BizSpark on Twitter: @BizSpark

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