Twittering her way from Mom-at-home to Global Presence
[Laura Fitton, Pistachio Consulting. Photo by David Sifry]
Laura Fitton, founder & CEO of Pistachio Consulting seems to be ubiquitous in social media these days. She's sits on best-attended panels at prestigious conferences and is surrounded by the most people when the talk ends. You see her name in traditional press being interviewed or in bylined content about social media. You see her in social media venues being asked her thoughts in just about everything.
Laura has been a communications professional for over 15 years now. Yet, if you have heard of her, I'm willing to bet it has been in the last year or so. And I'll double the bet that however you have heard of her, there is a direct line on the social graph that goes directly to Twitter where she is known simply as "Pistachio."
From this simple peer-to-peer, mobile web platform, Laura is among the most recognized names and sought after consultants in social media. She gets invited to speak worldwide and clients seem to be be lining up at the door. One of them, I learned after requesting this interview, is SAP, who sponsors this survey.
I met Laura for the first time back in December, but as I write this four months later, I realize that she has very quickly become and old friend. I do find it amazing at the speed of her ascent to prominence and so I began asking her how, after 15 years, she became such an overnight star.
1. Until Twitter came into vogue, most people I know had not heard of Laura Fitton. Nor had they heard of Pistachio Consulting. How did you spend most of your time before it was filled with sending & receiving little 140 character SMS messages?
Why would they? I lived under a rock.
Before I showed up in social media last spring I was under a rock called maternity. Though Pistachio Consulting launched in 2002, "maternity" more or less ran from July 2005-March 2007. I can't actually tell you much that happened in the world for that whole period. During that period, I had two complicated pregnancies, a preemie, a blood infection, a stroke, a pretty glitchy move from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts and a series of layoffs for my husband. So if it seems like I came out of nowhere, that's because I did. It was fun to see all this through new eyes, though.
That said, I've spent the better part of 15 years helping clients communicate ideas more effectively. Before that, I got to study science writing with [Carl] Sagan at Cornell. Just, wow. I LOVE to help brilliant technical people talk to the rest of us, and make complex ideas intuitive. I've published original research on Environmental Racism and on Soil Erosion. I've worked at startups and good-sized corporations, and I LOVE my Pistachio Consulting clients. Always, always my work has come back to extracting and refining ideas to make them more useful. I love the energy of big ideas.
Otherwise I've had an amazingly fortunate and eclectic personal and professional life. I've traveled. I've rock climbed pretty seriously, led an environmental activist group, hitchhiked around the British Isles, and lived in Moscow. I was a sailor and a cook. I raised a troubled teen niece when I was 27. I had a farm with horse, goats, sheep, chickens and fruit trees. I love trying new things and I love feeling excited and inspired. That's where I've always been and that's where I'm going. A lot's happened to me, so I've been able to let go of huge worries over whether or not to try something. Most of the time I get a decent idea, I'll go for it.
2. What drew you in to Twitter? What got you so engaged in it?
First, I don't spend as much time Twittering as folks think. I sneak it in as micro-breaks from other work or activities.
I'd seen Twitter, tried it, pooh-poohed it, like anyone does. But a blogger I respect posted he was Twittering. His Twitter page was filled with useful and productive things he was doing, meetings he was taking, etc. I thought, "having this around will inspire me to do more in my work life." It's the oldest advice in the book -- surround yourself with successful people.
Four days later I went to my first TweetUp, met some of the genuine rock stars of the Boston Social Media scene, and never looked back.
There's another part though. You've blogged about Twitterville Mayor Chris Brogan. He's extraordinary. I don't know how he cultivates his community, does his work, writes his blog and still stays sane. More than anyone, Chris made a point of reaching out and encouraging me on Twitter, blogging and all the stuff I was playing with. By now a TON of people have given me serious help, recognition, encouragement and praise--but Chris was months ahead. If this has worked out well for me, he deserves a lot of the credit. Without his help you would not know me.
3. You have posted nearly 10,000 times on Twitter in about a year. This has generated over 2500 followers. What has been the return on investment for you?
To be candid, Twitter sounds idiotic at first. It's true. But it's also true it's changed my life and career a bazillion ways. I've gone from homebound mom of two babies under two to solidly booked, traveling around the world and extraordinarily well-networked.
All my work now comes from people I know through Twitter. All of it. Not only do all my clients come from Twitter, by the time someone contacts me, they thoroughly understand how my mind works and have already decided I am the one for the project.
While the size of my Twitter network is crazy, the quality of it is what *really* blows my mind. I now routinely stumble across someone absolutely fascinating and brilliant who I had no idea was following me. My Twitter network includes some extraordinary and influential professionals including VCs, CEOs, CIOs, VPs; the executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm; the editor in chief of CIO Magazine, authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto and hundreds of other extraordinary people, many of whom I have never met face-to-face.
All of these brilliant and accomplished people--all of them trace back to things that happened on or because of Twitter. Connecting to so many smart people - online and off - via Twitter has been like hitting a big cool oasis in a lifelong desert. I love nothing more than hearing people's ideas and passion. That fires me up and keeps me going.
It sounds corny as Hell, but I feel so much less alone in the world because of Twitter, probably because I'm not. When I ask my Twitter community for help or advice, there is always someone there willing to be helpful and kind. But even more, because I grew up feeling like a freak, I'm finally making meaningful connections with people I respect, who've had similar experiences and challenges. And we all get so much stronger and better for it.
If trends continue, my professional future will be heavily seated in helping businesses, professionals, trade associations, etc. understand how to quickly and profitably adapt to these evolving media. It's the work I've always done, helping ideas spread and be effective, but the explosion of ways to do that well is terribly exciting.
4. What other social media tools do you use? Do you interconnect them with Twitter?
Twitter for me ends up being a platform where I aggregate together a bunch of other tools and media streams and platforms. Think of Twitter as the empty framework. You can put almost anything into it.
I blog, and I use a bunch of multimedia platforms to send out little snippets of life. Sometimes these are business related, more often they are just personal. It's experimental, and it's definitely become its own thing, outside of any efforts to put myself across as a businessperson or consciously promote my consulting business.
When I use video and audio applications like Seesmic, Qik, Utterz, YouTube, Blip.tv, TwitterGram, even some of my Flickr, I tend to channel stuff I like through my Twitter feed. That means you don't have to spend time schlepping around the social mediosphere. Just follow my Twitter and a link will show up there.
Seesmic and now Qik have profoundly changed my life. I never played with video before. My videos are just awful. No production values, often quite silly contents. But again, they are totally changing how I (and others) think about this stuff that is coming down the pike. Qik helped me help my dad to get to his mom's deathbed on time, and a journalist from the LA Times wrote about why that's significant.
I have a brainchild right now I call MediaCasting . I want to know, if we take this arsenal of "lifecasting" tools, and we applied them to the really BIG events, how could they convey the experience to a wider audience? How could be incorporate remote participation? How could we connect onsite and remote participants to one another? How can doing all of this make us better at solving big problems? I'm very excited about this!
5. Can you give me an interesting or inspirational story of something that happened to you or someone else because of Twitter?
I have to pick just one? Twitter's the city with 1,000,000 stories. There are the two in my Twitter Village post. In the last month I know of three Twitter marriage proposals and there are quite a few "met & fell in love" stories.
My luck's been extreme and erratic in the last few years, both good and bad. The way folks from Twitter have reached out to help and support me has been incredible. When my car was robbed this week I had dozens and dozens of messages of support, assistance, advice, commiseration. And even more helpful praise for how I was trying to handle it. Which helped me handle it even more calmly and optimistically. I swear Twitter's making me a better person, in that way. Positive reinforcement of my attempts to be decent.
6. Twitter has been useful to you as an individual, but how do you think larger companies can use Twitter? What do you think of companies using Twitter as brand extensions?
Twitter can be a great vehicle for a brand extension if you are willing to produce feeds of cool, useful things. And by useful, I mean useful to others, not to yourself. In any environment where everyone is publishing and everyone subscribes to feeds that add to their lives, the self-serving will flounder and the useful will flourish. So as brand extension, you need to work to not be rejected as a spammer.
Twitter can be used so many different ways to accomplish so many different things. Here are just a few internal uses I see:
- Team build--not just by cooperating but with actual relationships. Twitter has the "water cooler" effect, but with genuine knowing and collegiality
- Collaborate on projects & share ideas: have brains to pick/bounce ideas off
- Flatten the org chart to create feedback and mentoring
- Pass along information and articles in real time
- Summarize core ideas
- Coordinate travel and conferences
- Simplify communications
- Fast sharing of ideas, news and information
- Provide extensive personal and professional support
- Research, sourcing & purchasing advice
- To leave social media in the marketing/publicity layer is a HUGE mistake -- akin to saying email is only a marketing tool.
7. You posted a blog in which you created the concept of the "Twitter Village." Can you explain what that means? Why should business care?
Getting to know people on Twitter is surprisingly natural and incidental. I started calling it "my village" It's my village not a village because each has our own unique community. Nobody sees the same Twitter because everyone is listening to and being listened to by a different group.
For me, it was such a cool way to connect loosely and then go on to "bump into" people "around town." The everyday banal, random contact you have with people in physical proximity is what Twitter makes possible. Leisa Reichelt calls it "Ambient Intimacy," Tara Hunt talks about "accelerated serendipity." And Twitter is generally thought of as a "presence" application.
When I told Dan Brickln about my Village, he made a beautiful connection to the Little Prince chapter on "Taming the Fox." How to know and connect (and ultimately, love) someone you need oblique, gradual, natural approaches
Businesses should care because something like Twitter could save them a hell of a lot of money internally, and because networking is a fundamental key to business success. Tools like Twitter turn the time, space and attention constraints of face-to-face networking and turn them on their heads.
Right now they're spending a lot of money on software, training, programs and consultants to try to force what the Twitter village can naturally cultivate. So that's why business should care.
We have always known that networking, connecting, mentoring and collaborating better are extremely valuable for business. You miss out -- massively -- when you dismiss this stuff as new-fangled and faddish. Look beyond the surface to see what is universal and enduring. Give things a chance. Find the people in your organization who are drawn to it, and give them a little space and encouragement to discover and play.
Twitter can be hard to explain. Another way to explain it is that Twitter is a water cooler mashed up with an editorial desk. It's intelligent colleagues around the clock. It's unstructured "facetime" with some of the smartest folks that you don't quite know yet. It's lots of things to lots of people. I built a wiki to capture some of these.
8. What strategic tips do you have for businesses trying to get involved in Twitter?
Tip #1. Listen more than you speak. You've been jumping rope all these years, thinking You controlled the flow. Well, this is double-Dutch. You've got to look, listen and learn before you jump in. That said, jump in, screw up, apologize, learn, and give it another go.
Tip #2 Get over the revelation that this belongs in the "sales/marketing/publicity layer. Social media belongs everywhere -- in your collaboration, communication, training and everyday toolsets. Split the tops and let it bake right in.
Tip #3. Get over expertise and fiefdoms. Be porous. Seek out social media Wunderkinds (of any age) because aptitude, authenticity and enthusiasm trounce authority in this world. Much is experimental. Be willing to try and fail and adjust and try better. Also, be willing to spend time listening to what the Zeigeist --and I do mean the whole web in addition to any specific communities you want to enter--is saying.
I think heavy skepticism about Twitter and other new stuff is healthy. I think effective use of social media requires an effective workflow, including tools to manage what you are reading, like RSS readers, etc. BUT...
Fundamentally, the value of all social networking is not substantively different from the value of reading and writing articles, building business relationships, networking, old-fashioned networking and surrounding yourself with successful people. I'd encourage smart business people. Don't get hung up on the tools, and try to keep an open mind to results and success stories that just might be disparate from your own experiences.
Tip #4. There's so much worry about employees "wasting time." Don't. Your employees who are going to waste company time already do so with coffee, chatting, smoke breaks, email, web browsing, lack of discipline, etc. The question is whether you have a handle on motivating, managing and rewarding your employees for producing results. If someone is not producing, they don't need a social network to get worse about not producing.
Tip #5. Hire smart people, give them conditions to succeed, and get out of their way. Until you fine-tune your use of Twitter and connect with a critical mass of brilliant people it does run the risk of eating time. But, ROI can be extraordinary. And, lots of other things in business (terrible PowerPoint comes to mind) eat time if managed poorly.
9. In your Twitter bio, you say you get "really excited and kinda geeky about where all this leads." So, where do you think this all leads? How does the world look because of social media 2,5 or 20 years out?
Within 4 years I see a light weight, versatile social network becoming as pervasive as email. I hope that individuals in drastically different cultures will enjoy direct access, gate-jumping connections, and banal everyday contact with one another. I hope that because I see it leading to better conversations, better problem-solving and wider understanding of the greatest challenges we're facing.
I would love - LOVE - to work on projects that use social media tools to chip away at the world's big problems. I am amazed and fascinated by the ability we have now to extend experiences and direct human acquaintance over vast chasms of space and time and culture. That is what I am trying to figure out with www.mediacasters.tv . There are commercial applications, but I am more interested in creating valuable progress that helps humans.
10. Additional comments?
You won't be shocked to hear I enlisted my Twitterati in helping answer these questions. Some of the stuff that they mentioned liking:
- My advice to make tweets relevant to your followers; make it something that's of interest to them (i.e., think of the audience)
- When I Tweet interesting events and good sessions, or asking Twitter for good ideas to share in a speech or on a panel
- Although MediaCasters.tv was sorta primitive and highly experimental, they loved how it was "so indicative of what will come." (@nazgul)
- How I casually use Qik to say "hey, come join me" with random stuff in my life: outings, kids, strange events... Because it shows "how the tech community can be used to truly create a shared social experience" (@nazgul)