Welcome to Publicyte!
Publicyte is Microsoft’s corporate blog where technology, entrepreneurial principles, and pop culture inform us about innovation in the public sector and civic progress.
Publicyte is published by the Microsoft Office of Civic Innovation in Washington, DC. Our goal is to provide inspiring opinion and commentary about how the entrepreneurial spirit of America is changing government, politics, education, health, and the not-for-profit space. We’re tech-savvy but our material is written for a general audience. We hope to inspire the next generation of American entrepreneurs, makers, thinkers, and creatives to leverage innovation to change our country for the better.
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Guest post by Andrea Genevieve Michnik the founder of BrandKit, a personal branding and career consulting agency for young professionals. She lives in Austin, TX by way of Washington, DC, where she worked for The George Washington University. You can follow her on Twitter at @AndreaGenevieve.
It's a common misconception that Gen Y is full of selfish, lost 20-somethings. But while we may not know exactly what we want to do with the rest of our lives, and occasionally claim to be suffering from a Quarter-Life Crisis, I think we appear "selfish" as a result of caring too much about too many issues rather than caring too little. We as Quarter-Lifers are a selfless generation and believe we can change the world more so than our parents or older mentors. Examples of this abound; observe young entrepreneurs like Brent Freeman of Roozt who are launching companies that do more than donate a percentage of sales to a single cause. New entrepreneurs are embracing civic engagement and are helping to change the world.
In 2008, a Wall Street Journal article noted the 21st-century growth in 20-somethings launching entrepreneurial ventures, and dubbed it The Next American Frontier. Young people are looking up to people like Blake Mycoskie of Tom’s Shoes as role models and creating socially responsibly ventures, a concept that didn’t get much attention before the economy crashed. Now that 20-somethings are feeling the pressure to find a career with meaning, some are putting their skills acquired in college to use and creating companies of their own, making a difference in the lives of others. Others are looking for job opportunities at corporations that practice social responsibility. Either way you look at it, social responsibility matters to Gen Y.
Social Responsibility: Fad or the Future?
If given the choice to attend a concert for $20 or attend a series of concerts for $100 with a portion of the funds benefiting a local non-profit organization, which would you choose? If you're like me and my friends,you're more likely choose the option that appears most socially beneficial; the choice that helps your community or gives something back to society.
But is this concept a fad? Or is the idea of social responsibility becoming the norm?
Social responsibility isn't something new,in fact, the term Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR has been a common business term since the late 1960’s. Through the practice of CSR, corporations are urged to develop marketing and public relations plans that encourage community building. Giving back to a cause or community makes businesses look trustworthy, which helps build and maintain a positive reputation. Practicing CSR tells consumers, "We're a great company and we care about society."
In this time of economic unrest, consumers hold a sense of shared responsibility to make the world a better place. Previously, companies would use CSR as a brand advantage or unique selling point against competition. Brands like American Apparel or The Body Shop established themselves as different and better because they cared. Now, the majority of large brands are competing for consumers in part through CSR because consumers are demanding more from the brands they do business with.
Making personal and corporate social responsibility sustainable
Gone are the days of short-term, one time, philanthropic gestures. More and more businesses are starting to look toward long-term integration of sustainable social solutions. Both new and old corporations are going back to the basics, determined to position themselves as an organization that has the public’s best interest in mind. Taking a look at social responsibility today we see then that it’s not a fad, but rather a shift.
In a January Harvard Business Review article, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer argue that shared value is transforming the future of business. They write, “Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success." Huge brands such as Microsoft, WalMart, and GE are paving the way, collaborating with non-profits and bringing business and society to the same level.
On the other side, new emerging businesses are also working to build socially conscious startups. The incubator Tech Ranch, based in Austin, TX has recently started to focus on social responsibility training for startups. Shennandoah Diaz, founder of Brass Knuckles Media, has carved a niche for herself in this space, working to help Tech Ranch startups leverage CSR and build 'giving back' into business plans from the start.
“Social responsibility isn’t a fad,” Diaz told me. “People are tired of unethical businesses and our recent economic woes highlight this. They want to buy from businesses who are conscious of their effect on the community and the economy and who value people, both as employees and as customers. People also want to do something that matters while making a good living. Social entrepreneurship gives them the best of both.”
When asked if businesses should consider it essential to include CSR into sustainability plans she added, "Profit is a short-sighted goal, but social consciousness gives an organization a long-term goal to strive for, as well as a worthy cause to inspire and attract employees and customers. It’s the basis for a vibrant culture and infuses purpose into every aspect of the business."
Gen Y Tastemakers Create Socially Conscious Startups
Doing good for society is a movement. In fact, it may be the defining movement for Gen Y. Here's a sampling of some of these young entrepreneurs who are changing the world through their entrepreneurship:
What do you think?
When you get down to it, social responsibility is not a fad. The concept of working for the best interest of the public will soon become the expected norm and examples from Austin, TX to New York, NY already point to this shift.
If you know someone who living through their quarterlife years and taking action to change the world, let me know! I might feature their story here on Publicyte.
Art credits: Marshall Astor, Dougal McGuire, darth87
Guest post byTara Grumm, the Online Marketing Manager for Corporate Citizenship at Microsoft, where she develops Web presence and digital strategy. You can follow her on Twitter at @tgrumm.
Every day, hundreds of nonprofit organizations are hard at work improving the educational process, facilitating research on important topics, and empowering citizens with skills critical to finding work or starting a business. This doesn't happen in isolation. When a nonprofit truly connects with its surrounding community, it becomes more effective. This in turn leads to thousands of incredible stories from every corner of the world – stories that help inspire even greater achievements.
One thing that Microsoft is doing to help these nonprofits succeed is leveraging our technology platforms to make it easier for them to tell their stories. With that goal in mind, our Corporate Citizenship team used Bing Maps to build what we're calling the Microsoft Local Impact Map (LIM). The LIM is a Web app that allows users to discover stories stories about how people and technology are having a real impact in the communities they care about most.
So far, we've collected over 1,400 stories from more than 100 countries on the LIM, and you can dynamically explore the Bing Maps platform to discover these projects arranged geospatially around the globe. You can also discover nonprofit projects by topic, which range from donating technology to nonprofits, to helping people get education and jobs.
The LIM also has a feature called Snapshots that empowers users to create a personalized tour of the map,and share that tour with others. Here's how it works: By clicking the camera icon at the top right of the site,snapshots of favorite stories can be taken. A unique URL is then created that can be shared with anyone. Clicking the URL allows people in a user's social network to see their snapshots.
Another feature unveils interesting regional statistics about the real impact Microsoft has on a given community related to a story a users selects. These statistics include how many people have been reached through technology skills programs, and the number of teachers trained through Microsoft's Partners in Learning program.
The LIM combines two of the things Microsoft does best: Leveraging our outstanding technology platform to demonstrate the real impact we're having on communities in an engaging, geo-intelligent way.
This week, President Obama took part in the first "Twitter Townhall" event, hosted in the East Room of the White House. I was on the scene to take it all in. The event led to widespread general coverage (see articles from Forbes and Bloomberg, for example) and what could be considered a public relations boon for the President and for Twitter.
The event was also controversial among elite commentators. Which is to say, the value of the engagement between President Obama and the American people via the Twitter social media platform was controversial. Two very intelligent and well-respected bloggers wrote pieces which together do a good job of summarizing the way people feel at two ends of the spectrum. The first, "AskObama Is a Meaningless Marketing Stunt," was written by Umair Haque of Harvard Business School. Haque takes a fairly hard line. In his own words,
It's marketing over substance, hype over reality, spin over reform — as usual... And I'd say using the very, very awesome Twitter to solicit "questions" from citizens in this environment is a little bit like earnestly running a focus group about the best color for your next pair of $2000 loafers — while your boardroom's on fire.
The second piece was written by public relations guru Shel Holtz and was titled,"Twitter townhall cynicism is misplaced," and while it is written generally, it is to some degree a rejoinder to Haque's piece above. Holtz posits that while more certainly can be done, the use of Twitter for this event was a step in the right direction and should not be shunned. He says,
In the many face-to-face town hall meetings held to date, only the lucky few who scored tickets and passed screenings were able to get into the auditorium where they had a shot at having a question answered. Turning to YouTube and Twitter simply opens the door to anybody who wants [to] query his or her leader. Shrugging that off as a stunt is like making fun of someone who uses a computer for word processing, which improves the process of typing. No, it’s not taking full advantage of the networked capability of a computer, but it’s a damned sight better than a typewriter for producing documents... Anything that expands access is fine by me.
Was the Twitter Townhall different than a typical townhall event?
Some have argued that the questions asked from "average people" through Twitter are "better" than the ones normally asked by the White House press corps, particularly because they were broader in topic matter; I think the value of the questions in a given press event is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly everyone asks the questions they ask for a reason. But I can say, as a person sitting in the room during the Twitter Townhall, I thought that while the topics were well thought out (and obvious - jobs, housing, the military...), the questions were extremely tame. Meaning: nothing surprising, nothing tricky, nothing offbeat, nothing counterculture.
One could certainly make the point that many such surprising/tricky/offbeat/counterculture citizen-generated Twitter questions would have been inappropriate for the President or the venue. But if that's the case, and a priori such questions would not be used, what's the point of using Twitter to generate a diverse set of crowdsourced questions in the first place? (And why is a sense of humor seemingly banned from such proceedings?)
When you think about how a mainstream, mass media organization goes about hosting a townhall or debate event, it's no different from what happened for the Twitter Townhall event. They read what elites are writing in major publications. They read conversations online, on blogs and on Twitter and other places to get a sense of the average audience member and the larger conversation. They get private feedback from their friends and colleagues. Then, they edit and curate questions into a group of 5 or 10 or 20 or however many they need. They are diverse. They are sure not to offend. And they are relatively straightforward with the occasional mild "gotcha" question.
Twitter behaved like a mainstream media organization
Twitter branded the townhall event with their name. Their staff and business partners helped curate the questions. Their chairman hosted the event with the President. Jack Dorsey and Twitter may have as well been David Gregory and NBC hosting the townhall last week, and I'm not sure the "Twitter Townhall" would have been fundamentally different if the latter were the case.
That isn't to say that the event was worthless, or that Twitter isn't an incredibly valuable tool, or that Dorsey didn't do a good job (in fact, I thought Dorsey did an outstanding job as host), or that the President did anything wrong. It is to say, however, that it was surprising how very much like a mainstream, mass media organization Twitter behaved, and how much the audience and the blogosphere have simply accepted it as fact that what many people think of as a consumer-oriented, startup social network from San Francisco was producing a political / government press event. I think that is noteworthy in itself. Not good, not bad, just interesting.
One commenter on Haque's blog post, Bonifer, made a similar point succinctly: "The intention may have been good. It doesn't matter... It was the same old mass media game played with new media tools... To use a primitive analogy, it doesn't matter how many new fire-making tools we invent if we keep putting fire to the same old uses." I think this is somewhat accurate, though my interpretation is not quite as negative.
Haque, at the top of his post, called this "digital dumbification." I call it digital distraction, meaning, many people in the audience were distracted by the shiny digital tool involved (i.e., Twitter) to notice how very average the content of Twitter Townhall was. Holtz makes a nice argument that rather than Twitter doing something that was previously impossible in this case, it rather improved an existing process. I suppose that's true, but along the spectrum measuring how "improved" the Twitter Townhall was versus other "regular" townhalls, I think the progress was definitely real but relatively small because of the way the technology was applied in this particular case. That's hard to quantify, but it would also be hard to find someone who thought the content of the Twitter Townhall was a radical departure from the norm, no matter how much they enjoyed watching it.
The media business is becoming social (again)
People used to refer to Twitter as a startup company, a tech company, and a social media company. And they still do. And they still are. But I believe that's thinking a little too small at this point. As I tweeted during the event, "I think this #askobama Twitter Townhall hosted by @jack is the strongest evidence that Twitter is a media company." And by media company, I mean a professional news and content organization. Tech pundits used to debate whether Twitter was a mainstream social media platform or not. At this point, I think it's fair to say that Twitter has gone mainstream... but as mainstream media infrastructure. That's why every news anchor and TV drama begs you to engage them on Twitter, and it's why so many government agencies consider it the most important new media tool for public affairs - it's become necessary.
Last week on Bloomberg TV, morning co-host Dominic Chu commented that among the "media moguls" at the annual Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, ID, it was becoming harder and harder to tell the media people from the tech people. News Corp. owned the social network MySpace until recently. Microsoft will allow you to stream live TV through your Xbox beginning this upcoming holiday season. AOL, the original dial-up Internet company, now owns Engadget, TechCrunch, Huffington Post, and other news organizations.
There's an interesting trend of "tech company media creep" in the political and government arena, in which tech company products are being used as engagement platforms on a playing field traditionally controlled by mainstream media. Whether it's President Obama early on embracing Google Moderator and YouTube to engage the public, Rep. John Boehner leveraging Microsoft's Townhall platform for America Speaking Out, the recent presidential townhall and livestream from Facebook headquarters, or the latest Twitter Townhall, more and more mainstream media is being left out of the game in some fundamental ways. As it turns out, tech companies can do a lot of things media companies can do, and a lot of things traditional media companies cannot do (or don't realize they should do).
A recent commentary in The Economist called "Coming full circle" describes the history of news as an inherently social medium, from Romans chatting in public marketplaces to people passing copies of printed materials to each other in the 1500s. The article infers from a number of different lines of reasoning that we are in the middle of a 'fall' in mass communications, that journalism and media as we know it today is a 200-year anomaly, and that due certainly in part to online social networks a new era of social news is upon us whether people completely realize it or not. And that this is okay.
Frankly, I'm a little surprised to not see more jealousy from the mainstream media over the Twitter Townhall. The reason Jack Dorsey was hosting the event and not (say) David Gregory is because, simply, Jack owns the platform that powered the event. Any organization could have in principle executed the event; only one organization is associated with owning the social platform that made it possible. In the future, will traditionally technology companies continue to dominate the "social" part of media, or will traditional media companies begin to build engaging new social tech platforms for themselves? As Twitter has shown mainstream media, a tech company can generate original content, provide you with communications infrastructure, and directly compete with you all at once.
Blake Hall first got our attention when he spoke at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, DC a while back. Since then, he's been making waves with his startup, hiring people, raising financing, and doing public good. Editor-in-Chief Mark Drapeau caught up with Blake over cocktails in Georgetown to talk about what's happening with Troopswap ("Because a life of service should have its perks") and what to expect in the future. His unique approach to entrepreneurship due largely to his time serving in the U.S. Army really shines through in this conversation.
Troopswap.com is the first military only e-commerce platform. At the moment, we partner with merchants to provide great deals for veterans, service members, and their families. Our business model is similar to LivingSocial with a few important distinctions. First, we limit eligibility to veterans, service members, and immediate family. Second,we only employ military spouses. Third,we donate 10% of our profits to the Wounded Warrior Project. Our mission is to reward a life of service. We have designed our business model and our operations so that every touch point creates value for the military community.
Where did the original idea come from, and how did you arrive at where you are today?
TroopSwap started with a phone call to my co-founder, Matthew Thompson, while we were both classmates at Harvard Business School. Matt and I were both Army Rangers so we understood the lifestyle and were familiar with the social and financial challenges of military life. Originally, we planned on launching a military only classified site along the lines of Craigslist, but we needed massive distribution to make that idea work. We pivoted into the deals space and that has proved to be a winning move for us.
Can you tell us a little about your personal background, and how you came to be an entrepreneur?
I’m a third generation soldier, and because of that I’ve seen the community from a number of different angles; as a dependent growing up on bases around the world; as a soldier; and, finally, as a veteran. I led a scout platoon that hunted high value targets in Iraq back in 2006 – 2007 when things were pretty crazy. That leadership experience instilled lessons that have been highly valuable as an entrepreneur. While in Iraq, my platoon performed a mind-boggling spectrum of missions: from night-time raids on Al-Qaida suicide coordinators, to “days off” where we escorted provincial reconstruction teams to rebuild and refinance local businesses, to important meetings with local sheiks and civic leaders. The only constant was that nothing went to plan -- ever.
The most valuable lesson the military taught me was to plan to fail. Expecting to fail is so empowering. At TroopSwap, whenever something goes wrong, we have plans B, C, and D ready to go. And embracing failure as key learning moments – something to be treasured rather than feared – helps me instill a culture within which our team members are willing to take calculated risks. My battalion commander convinced me to apply to Harvard Business School, and there are some seriously smart people there, but the core leadership lessons I learned came from my military service.
Give us some basic numbers - how many users, what kind of capital invested, how much revenue? What are your short-term goals?
Our initial seed funding was $120k from a small group of investors that included David Tisch, the Managing Director of TechStars NYC. Dave introduced me to Kelly Perdew, former Army Ranger, CEO of FastPointGames.com, and the winner of season 2 of NBC’s The Apprentice. [Editor's note: Mark is a big fan of Kelly, too.] Kelly is a seriously smart dude and he practically became a co-founder after I first spoke with him. He is part of a group of angels called “First Wave,” who are military veterans turned successful businessmen who share a common mission of finding and funding veteran entrepreneurs. Thanks to Kelly’s leadership we raised $585k on our first close of this round from investors that include Paige Craig, former Marine and Founder/CEO of Betterworks.com, Frank Monestere, former Green Beret and President/COO of LegalZoom.com, and others here in DC. Our second close is soon and it looks like we’ll settle around $1 million and bring on some more top-notch tech leaders like Andy Dunn, the CEO of Bonobos.com.
Early adoption has been strong. On May 23, we launched in one market: Hampton Roads, VA. Since that day, we’ve had 4,166 military users join and we generated a little over $23k in revenue during our first month of operations. Our short term goals are to build the best product we can and to focus on working out our business process issues while we can manage them in one market.
Are you a for-profit or non-profit and why?
Customers paying money is the most powerful indicator that you are creating value. No artificial mechanism or contracting process or grant can adequately substitute for the will of the consumer. Provided you have a transparent business model, which we do, then adapting to optimize profits creates a win-win relationship for the company and for consumers. Fundamentally, it’s important to me as an entrepreneur that the core team maintains control over the direction of the product rather than to be dependent on institutions or individuals who might alter our mission. Non-profits play a powerful role supporting the military community, but ultimately they are dependent on third parties for funding and not independently sustainable, but as we grow and donate 10% of our profits to the Wounded Warrior Project, I’m excited to see the impact that we will have in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors.
That's interesting. You also mentioned a terrific model where you hire a lot of military spouses... Tell us more about that.
Even as a third generation soldier, it shocked me to discover that the most underserved entity in the military community is the military spouse. Active duty families move once every three years, so military spouses have an incredibly difficult time crafting out their own career paths. They often move to communities where they have few friends or family. And, these days, their spouse leaves regularly for 12 month deployments. The unit support groups set up for military spouse have a sort of faux hierarchy that mimics the chain of command -- i.e. the squadron commander's wife runs the military spouse group, and, though it varies from unit to unit, there is a weird mixing of personal and professional networks that most of us try to avoid if possible.
The sum effect is an incredibly lonely lifestyle. The University of Maryland found a 42% wage gap between military spouses and their civilian counterparts, even though on average military spouses are more qualified. Considering that, for example, women are driving about two thirds of GroupOn’s growth, it was a no-brainer for us to exclusively hire military spouses in the markets where we are active.
What do you think about the role of entrepreneurs in doing "public service" like this which compliments government, but that perhaps the government shouldn't explicitly do? How might this specifically relate to military members and their families?
This community is underserved because so many initiatives are well intentioned, and the military is so insular that it often appears efforts are being made to positively affect quality of life while nothing really changes at the grassroots level. Government is growing increasingly aware of its limitations and public/private partnerships are becoming more and more common because government recognizes that 99.9% of the innovation comes from the private sector.
We were just inducted as a national partner into the Military Spouse Employment Partnership at the United States Chamber of Commerce. [Editor's note: Microsoft is also a newly-inducted partner to the MSEP.] The biggest differentiator for us is our human capital – we have a brilliant team. Most of us came from the government but we left because our autonomy and initiative was stifled in the bureaucracy. There is no way had I stayed in the military that I would have been given the freedom to both speak my mind openly and to meet with the senior level officials I meet with now; I love the government but government employees don’t stay up working until 3 AM in the morning like our team does (ask my girlfriend).
Have any specific people in or parts of the military been helpful in getting this launched, or in getting the word out?
Lieutenant Colonel Jason Dempsey, a White House Fellow in the First Lady’s Office, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Gordon have been extremely helpful facilitators for us to gain access to the vetting process for certain national level programs. DOD cannot specifically endorse a private sector company but they can expedite legal reviews to expand our access, or promote certain events that we run for the military community. In that sense, we are lucky that government is growing more integrated, inclusive of the private sector, and open. Things never seem to move at the speed we would like, but, in historical context we are moving at lightspeed.
Where would you like to see Troopswap in a year or two? I would like to see it making a difference in the way that Matt and I hoped when we started out on this path: creating value with our offerings, employing hundreds of military spouses, and tangibly affecting the lives of Wounded Warriors who fell through the cracks of the VA. That would be the achievement of a lifetime for Matt and me. We’ve both been through a lot but this is the toughest thing we’ve ever done.
What could tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley or San Francisco learn from your approach to building TroopSwap, and your somewhat unique niche of customers/audience?
My high school English teacher, Dr. Terence Freeman, taught me how to write. I still don’t know why an Ivy League Ph.D. ended up teaching composition at Lawton High School, a public school in southwest Oklahoma, but it changed my life. He always used to tell us, “write what you know.” I could never lead deep technological change because I don’t know that stuff; someone smart or better connected in that space would beat me. But I know this community as well as anyone, it’s underserved, and I was able to find wonderful teammates who are smart where I’m dumb. I’m writing what I know.