Engagement is a foundation for developing durable customer relationships. On this episode, Chris Michel explains how to build successful communities to engage customers.

Chris manages Nautilus Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm he founded in 2008. Nautilus has made over 40 investments including Palantir, Doctor on Demand, Sparks, Goodreads, Castlight Health, 3D Robotics, RelateIQ, Blue Bottle, Ruby Ribbon, etc.

Chris is also an active board member and serves as a Director of Dale Carnegie, Kixeye, Tugboat Yards, and 3D Robotics. Previously he was a Director of Castlight Health (NYSE: CSLT), IDG, the USO, Alliance Health, etc.

In 1999, he founded Military.com, an online portal for service members, veterans and their families. Military.com was one of the first online social networks to reach scale in the United States. In 2006, Chris founded Affinity Labs, which runs a portfolio of online professional communities. Both companies were purchased by Monster Worldwide.

Chris serves on the oversight committee for the Division on Earth and Life Studies, one of six study divisions of the National Academies. He is also on the President's Circle of the National Academies. In addition, he's an advisor to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR).

He was also an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School during the 2010-2011 school year. Prior to his business career, Chris served as a Naval Flight Officer in the United States Navy. While on active duty, he flew as a Navigator, Tactical Coordinator and Mission Commander aboard the P-3C Orion aircraft. Following his operational tour, he worked in the Pentagon as Aide to the Chief of the Naval Reserve.

He earned his commission from the NROTC program at the University of Illinois, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was selected as the distinguished naval graduate. He also holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and an honorary Doctorate from Tiffin University. Michel was named a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute and serves as a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Customer Engagement and Community, with Christopher Michel, Investor and Entrepreneur

Michael Krigsman:

(00:00) Episode 159 with Christopher Michael, and we are looking at a selfie that Chris took literally at the edges of space, and Chris I can hear you but nobody else can hear you,  tell us how in the world did this come about, this wild selfie.

Christopher Michel:

(00:31)..I’ll take you up in a U2, and well, it was an opportunity I could pass up. A lot of people might know it from A Bridge of Spies, the movie that just came out. Francis Gary Powers, one of our most important surveillance assets still flying missions every day. So I went up to Davis–Monthan Air Force Base and you know, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Michael Krigsman:

(00:54) And so you were in the military and that is how you founded military dot com. So briefly tell us what was military dot com and what was the connection to community in military dot com?

Christopher Michel:   

(01:06) Okay, well so just a little bit of background, so I used to fly as a navigator in P3s out of college hunted soviet submarines; Russian submarines. Kind of on a lark I ended up at business school and I was always interested in technology and my first computer was 1979, a Sinclair ZX80, and after I finished business school I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur but I didn’t have the idea and I was drilling with VP65 in Point Mugu.

(01:33) In 1999 it hit me like a ton of bricks the internet would be a great way to connect and empower military people and the 24 million people it serves. So I quit my job and racked up credit card debt and started military dot com, which was one of the earliest social networks. It wasn’t the first but it was you know five years before Facebook. We didn’t even use the term social network back then, it was just a community. So that was the idea to enable and empower the military community, and it’s still around today, and I’m very proud, 17 years later.

Michael Krigsman:

(02:08) And then you started something called Affinity Labs and the common thread here was this notion of connection among people with still for marketers is very powerful today.

Christopher Michel:

(02:22) Yeah, so we can talk a lot more about the military dot com story which we did a little bit on the last show, but basically we raised a lot of money for the company and we learned a lot. I burned through all the cash. Got fired. Came back as the CEO and we made a lot of mistakes in the online community but we figured out some things and then it really started working. And I sold the company to Monster and I said to Monster you know, we really should do this for other communities other than just military people because it was really working for the military.

(02:52) It didn’t work out there so I left Monster and started a company called Affinity Labs, which was to take the lessons of Military dot com and roll it out to – well I only got to 10 before I sold the company again. But the idea was thousands of online communities, different verticals and different affinities. And lessons learned and those lessons proved to be true. Affinity was successful although we sold the company quickly it was working, but I still believe although that was 2008, I think the idea for Affinity Labs would be very powerful today and somebody else can go and do it.

Michael Krigsman:

(03:27) So what was the idea and what was some of the core lessons about building a community that you learned.

Christopher Michel:   

(03:34) Well I think there’s a number of things in play here, so one of them is what worked at Military dot com and we can talk about that, but the other was technology had evolved quite a bit since I started the company initially. We figured out a way to build communities very inexpensively on the internet. Well in a way, Facebook has done this a little bit, they’ve built community infrastructure, so anyone can build a page for their group or company of whatever. It takes two or three minutes to do that or five minutes or whatever it might be.

(04:03) Think of Affinity Labs as some hybrid model, so something that looka a lot like Military dot com, which is a very robust piece of software with community and content and services. Or imagine we figured out how to do that with its own brand and its own URL and its own website and its own management team. We figured out how to do one of those in three or four days. So instead of years and millions and millions or tens of millions of dollars like for military dot com we can now do it in days and thousands of dollars around real communities. And eventually the idea was that people could build their own communities. So it’s more than just group management. Its real community where people belong and you know lots of things.

Michael Krigsman:

(04:46) So how do you get people to coalesce because these days you hear so much marketers are talking about personalization and one-to-one personalization and customer engagement and at the end of the day it’s all around constructing some sense of community and that’s the challenge that marketers have. So what was the secrete you learned back in those early days.

Christopher Michel:   

(05:13) You know you sent me a question like how do we look at communities, so I take seven factors we used to look at and which communities to watch because we could launch them very quickly, but I’ll throw out an important distinction and that is I’m not a marketer right. I ran a community that I cared about, the military community and I did it for a purpose and mission and the company had a purpose and mission and that is to support people who served to get them access to the manifest. So right at the very front of this thing is authenticity, right. this is where companies have had real challenges because the marketing team says we need to build a community, you know or have a blog for our company and people don’t always love that because it feels a little bias and it feels a little less real.

(05:54) And so the real challenge and this was the challenge at Affinity, we were going to build a bunch of communities where I wasn’t necessarily a member of that community. So we had to build authenticity right at the beginning.

Michael Krigsman:

(06:08) Okay, so therefore the question is how do you build authenticity if that’s the key.

Christopher Michel:

(06:13) So I can talk about that but maybe I’ll just step back a little bit and say, how do you think about launching communities. So maybe there’s like two groups of people, maybe there’s many groups, but two groups of ideas in the community. One might be, I’m part of a community or company, and I want to launch a community and, hey, Affinity Labs sounds like a good business, maybe I want to go and try and replicate that business. So I’ll tell you how we launching the community. So dot com which was working right, and we said which are the next ones we want to watch, and we actually created a little formula where we would look at the size of the Affinity group you know, and then we would look at like the Affinity score and that was kind of a variety of factors, like how strong is the valance bonds right. So is America a community? Well, America is kind of a community and we feel some sense of loyalty and connections to people. But it is so large and so many diverse segments and the need are so different it’s very difficult, so the affinity score would be quite low.

(07:12) Maybe your family would be a high affinity score a lot of things in common, you might have unique needs, but the size is quite small so we have to find that balance. Then we would look for is there a sense of unique needs, so we started with career affinities or job affinities because people need to get jobs in their vertical right. So if you’re a nurse, nursing education for example and nursing jobs are a big thing right, so imagine LinkedIn for nurses. Right, so if there are unique needs in the community like the military has very unique needs, there’s special benefit programs that are complicated. So they are unique needs that matter.

(07:49) See what is already there, so you know, the beauty of Twitter today is – actually, the beauty of Twitter today is you can see where people seem to have similar interests, where verticals are there. I met a guy at one of the career colleges and he said he would start a career college based on what he saw in magazine racks; this is like 10 years ago. So he saw lots of magazines around, I think he saw a lot of them around like cooking, so he created Cordon Bleu, interesting idea. See what’s there. Is there activity there already, that maybe an opportunity.

(08:!8) I just have a couple more. The other successful modality was find a community manager to lead that community. A subject matter expert, someone who cares like for example our first community at Affinity Labs was police Link. We found a guy who basically ran one of the largest police communities,so that was very helpful. So then we’d come up with brand and pre-populate the site and then roll out monetization and then we would start marketing then so.

(08:47) I think all of those things matter but if you’re the person that says I have  to do it for my company, you might you know, it’s a little easier finding the group because you know what it is but it’s probably a lot harder to find sufficient entertainment or utility to get people engaged.

Michael Krigsman:

(09:02) Yeah and I think that’s the big question. You can identify a community of people but there may be other online communities that serve that group.

Christopher Michel:   

(09:12) Yes that’s true.

Michael Krigsman:

(09:12) And so how do you create sufficient value to encourage those people to actually participate in a meaningful way.

Christopher Michel:

(09:21) That’s a good question. Well I think you’re onto something really important, so one of the things that we talked about earlier was what mistakes people make, and this isn’t just true for Affinity Labs or Military dot com or any online community, it’s true for a lot of businesses but probably especially digital businesses, and that is you either have to be in the consumer space you have to have high utility or bigger entertaining. If you are not either of those things or some combination of them people have no time. It’s like if the offer is just sort of good, people don’t care.

(09:52) I would say LinkedIn is not entertaining but LinkedIn has high utility, or they hope it has high utility. They’re trying to do things where they’re engaging more. You see the feed and people are trying to do stuff where they can endorse people, but I think it’s actually not going that well for them. I think people are finding that they are being bothered by some content that’s not relevant to them.

(10:13) So in our case we try to do some of both. So entertainment for example at military dot com, we have a shock and awe video section, where people can upload videos or photos from the field. So we broke the news of Saddam Hussain being captured. I didn’t break it, it wasn’t ABC News, it wasn’t CNN. It was one of our members who was part of the capture team, who uploaded a photo.

(10:36) People tuned in for that kind of content, it was super interesting, the discussion was interesting to people. Humor is interesting to people. But the thing that got military dot come and Affinity Labs in sights was we were high utility. If you wanted to use your G.I bill or VA loan or whatever, you would come to us right.

(10:55) There was a third piece in that and that was community. We built the first sort of alumni infrastructure for all the military units like 101st Airborne or you could go there and find people you served with. So connecting with old buddies was important. Today that’s less relevant because Facebook does that pretty well. But you know, if you’re at Chlorox and you think you’re going to build a community of people who use you know Chlorox products good luck. I think that’s going to be difficult.

(11:23) Interestingly is CXO community, CXOTalk a community I don’t know, it’s certainly utility. It’s certainly some entertainment, but do those people feel affinity for each other? I don’t know.

Michael Krigsman:

(11:35) It’s an interesting question and I’m interested in what people on Twitter think about that, CXOTalk as a community. It certainly serves – is there a distinction between community and affinity, because CXOTalk for example serves a group that has a certain common interests. is there affinity or community among those people, I guess that’s a separate question.

Christopher Michel:   

(12:07) You know there are natural affinities and then there were built affinities. So a natural affinity could be you know women and tech, or University of Illinois alumni or paternity alumni group. So that is basically taking an analog group and creating a digital manifestation for it. Then there are communities that can be built up over time. Those things are usually higher utility in things right, like CPA to biz was an online community for accountants, and they have tools for people to give content.

(12:41) So could you build a community? I think you could build a community but it would be not as straightforward, right, because what are the unique needs for that group. Could it be a discussion board where people could discuss things? Yes potentially.

(12:54) I mean here’s another element, do they want to talk to each other or do they just want to receive content, right. Is CNN a community, well it’s not really a community. They are people who consume the content. Is Twitter a community, I don’t know you know, not really.

Michael Krigsman:

(13:08) Although there are certainly pockets of Twitter that people interact on a regular basis.

Christopher Michel:

(13:15) You’re right. There are valance bonds between people. That’s a very interesting idea which is what’s actually going on on Twitter. If you could graph it you’d probably see that there are individuals that are parts of little communities that communicate with each other.

Michael Krigsman:

(13:34) Yeah Twitter as one person I know describes it, Twitter is you can either use it a mile wide and a millimeter deep, or very narrow or very very deep and I guess it’s when you go dee you actually start to have a sense of community or camaraderie or affinity develop among the participants.

Christopher Michel:   

(13:56) Yeah well you know Twitter is trying to figure it out for themselves.

Michael Krigsman:

(14:00) This is interesting, so you started military dot, what was the year you started it?

Christopher Michel:   

(14:06) 1999

Michael Krigsman:

(14:08) And this problem, this question of affinity groups and communities remains absolutely as relevant today even though the technology has changed. We have a question related to this from Arsalan Khan on Twitter, and he’s coming back to this issue of how would you go about creating and engaging communities for enterprise business solutions, what kind of ideas would you use blogs, how would you go about that? It’s a practical question.

Christopher Michel:   

(14:38) Yeah it’s a practical question. Well first of all I would say that is a hard problem and you know, maybe this is a question for you guys who has done it successfully and why have they done it. You know you didn’t ask me about my communities that I launched and failed, and there are a number that didn’t work. With enterprise solutions, it’s tricky. What do those people have in common, what is it that they need? What is it that they want to talk about? Is sharing Gilbert cartoons. Is it that they want software, is it that they want revues, is it they want white papers, is it they want jobs? You know, does it make your job easier? Do they want to talk to each other? I mean these are the questions that I would ask. But I can’t think off the top of my head about you know, does Slack software help a community of people that are into Slack. Maybe, maybe the people who implement it. Maybe people want to get the most features out of it.

(15:34) You know cameras or Nikon have it easier because you have people there about the passion of the community, and there’s like gear that people like to talk about. So from an enterprise point of view it’s a tough problem. I mean what I would say at a board for an enterprise company is that companies should be careful about investing too much, or they should at least be skeptical that they can actually build these communities effectively. Right, so they should test for a while to see that it’s working before they pour too much money into it.

Michael Krigsman:

(16:03) So essentially the community building test, what some people have said is, and you eluded to this earlier is that it doesn’t make sense to start or very hard let me say to build a community from scratch and I guess that would fall into the category of creating artificial affinity that you mentioned earlier as opposed to looking to where natural affinities that exist. But it seems that any place where there are natural affinities that exist if it’s in the commercial market chances are somebody is already trying. Somebody is trying to do it.

Christopher Michel:   

(16:38) Let’s go back to what I said earlier. So let’s apply the Chis Michael Product Manager test. Is there high utility around the community or is the content highly entertaining. If it is not either of those things you have an up hill battle. So you can apply that to anything right.

Michael Krigsman:

(16:56) Absolutely, I mean one of the things we have been focused on recently at CXOTalk is creating videos that have real practical value. Think you go onto YouTube and you want to learn about lenses, how does a particular lens function or take it apart. I say that because you’re of course a photographer and there may not be any entertainment value but very high utility value.

Christopher Michel:   

(17:22) You’ve nailed YouTube. So the CM task applies to almost all internet products. YouTube to me seems to be either (a) highly entertaining content of people signing songs, doing dances, you know, squirrel suit jumping, or (b) things that teach you things like how to fix your sink or how to do math or you know, whatever it might be, how to play a certain song on the piano or a camera review right. So it’s either utility or entertainment; everything else is kind of wasting people’s time.

Michael Krigsman:

(17:56) So the implications if you are a brand, if you’re a company, you’re a marketer, you don’t see yourself as a marketer. You see yourself as somebody – well, how do you see yourself. You’re not a marketer so how do you see yourself in that way.

Christopher Michel:   

(18:15)  As a photographer I don’t know.

Michael Krigsman:

Well certainly when you were with Military dot com you were part of that affinity froup, that military…

Christopher Michel:

(18:25) Yeah so I guess I saw the internet as a kind of tool, but the mission was well beyond the internet. The mission was to make the lives of military people, veterans, and their families better. And we used a variety of tools and the internet enabled a lot of those.           

(18:41) So this is back to the authenticity, you know if we wanted to as a case study you could pick any product or any brand and we could noodle through is there anything here. What we might find are the ones where there isn’t high entertainment or high utility, and we have to carve something out that is interesting for people that doesn’t sound like it’s wasting their time, it isn’t just PR.

(19:02) You know, part of it might be that we’re listening to people about what can make our products better. That’s a way to engage people right. If you’re really listening – I heard Apple is now going to start to do twitter customer support. They weren’t doing that for a long time. They had no engagement.

(19:17) I think it’s a good idea, I think brands that listen, you know I tweeted something at United Airlines a message right back from those guys, you know, it was the only time I had a positive United Airline experience and it was about my photos. I took a photo from outside the window and they said you know, our birds love when you take photos and I thought that was really clever and nice.

Michael Krigsman:

(19:38) Just speaking of United I have sometimes tried to take photos and they had a flight attendant very clearly told me that that’s not allowed. I guess you have to hit it a good one.

Christopher Michel:

(19:52)  I shot out the window.          

Michael Krigsman:

(19:56) Okay, in a moment let’s look at some of your photos which are just extraordinary. You have these two different parts of your life, one as an entrepreneur and the other as a photographer. But any last final pieces of advice, maybe talk about this notion of authenticity because it seems like it’s central to the whole thing about building a community and getting a community engaged.

Christopher Michel:

(20:24)  Well you know when we think about authenticity I’m going to bring it all the way down to who’s touching the customers. So let’s say the CEO is authentic and they said well we really want a blog or we want a community for whatever it might be for Cannon cameras.

(20:42) You know, who you have running the community is the person that has to be authentic. You know, it probably has to start at the top          , but it’s the person that’s there and if you’ve hired someone for $70,000 a year and they’re just going through the motions, it isn’t going to work even if you’ve got high affinity.

(20:58) We saw at Affinity Labs, we saw that there was huge variability in the quality of the community based on who was leading the community. This was nothing new, but you know I guess the point is you just can’t like you know write a check and hope it happens. So who you find and making sure they really are passionate and engage.

(21:19) I mean think about your show. Who the host of the show is matters a lot right. If you just go and I’m just going to hire somebody to do it, it probably doesn’t work. They might show up every day but. So I would get to that and then ask yourselves the tough questions, am I being for real, am I helping people, and do they like it. If it’s not true then you’re optimizing. I mean we could take the twitter streams of a lot of brands and think they’re not doing themselves any favors.

Michael Krigsman:

(21:45) Am I helping, am I serving this to the utility, both the utility and the entertainment quality that you mentioned a second ago.

Christopher Michel:   

(21:54) You know are you real. Like part of being real is acknowledging you’re not perfect. You know I think that’s one of the big ideas in brands where people go, you know what, we can do one better and we will be better. It’s like when Apple tells me everyone loves their Apple watch, I think Apple is not telling the truth right. That’s inauthentic PR that is damaging them. I want to hear from them, you know what? The watch is really for early adopters. We’re going to do a lot better, and we’re learning a lot.

Michael Krigsman:

(22:24) So authenticity has a lot to do with being honest and acknowledging your flaws.

Christopher Michel:   

(22:33) Yeah.

Michael Krigsman:

(22:34) That’s pretty simple concept and yet it seems to be very…

Christopher Michel:   

(22:41) Well it’s also true with people. You know you see a lot of people that are working very hard to put on a kind of front and not be vulnerable. But vulnerability is one of the most powerful things that humans can show. When you’re vulnerable you talk about your mistakes. People like it and they appreciate and they connect with you. And where you don’t do that people don’t feel connected and they don’t feel that you’re honest and they don’t want to support you.

(23:07) And people who know how to do that effectively really have better lives when they’re being much more effective. I didn’t always do that in my early days at Military dot com. I was a very young CEO and I felt like I had to put a show on and it didn’t work. People didn’t trust me as much and I learned over the years that being real and authentic, and connecting with people and really caring about them really lead to a community of culture and trust.

Michael Krigsman:

(23:31) So when a brand actually cares, a brand is comprised of we think about a brand as being this abstraction. But a brand, especially when it’s interacting with its customers is a group of individuals and so if that group of individuals demonstrates that they care, acknowledges when there’s a screw up of a problem with the brand. But then at the same time the brand has to have policies that give the people working there the flexibility to do that. 

Christopher Michel:   

(24:02) You’re totally right. That’s actually probably one of the biggest issues and this is where it gets hard and you don’t delegate your PR to a lot of people you’re basically going to get the corporate line all the time. Like you’re never going to see a politician say anything, you know or politicians on a Twitter team say anything that doesn’t sound incredibly positive, right. You have to have competence and authority to be able to communicate the truth.

(24:28) I mean I guess some organizations you know, they delegate that a little bit because they have the right people but it’s hard. This is where I would argue for the value or the principle being involved in communications right, unlike Steve Jobs, saying here’s the truth. He didn’t always do that but one thing we knew about Steve was you know whatever quality bar we had, he had an even higher bar and that was part of his genius.

Michael Krigsman:

(24:52) Well he was obviously a rare person because he was able to get the deep sense of the culture and then create product that address those needs, even if we in the masses didn’t know we had those problems.

Christopher Michel:   

(25:08) Yeah it reminds me of a funny video I once saw at a conference and Bill Gates was there and this was near the end of his term as the CEO of Microsoft, but he made a kind of funny video, and you can probably find that on YouTube. It was an Napoleon Dynamite video, where he’s in a dream and wakes up and he and Napoleon Dynamite and they have to go to Napoleons job, and he’s typing in the Microsoft activation card, Bill is typing the Microsoft activation card for a piece of software and couldn’t every get it right. Remember how long, it was like a 40 digit you know and he was like, I can’t enter this. You know I loved that and I think people started to see Bill as a real person. And the company acknowledged that they do some silly things. I don’t know; worked for me.

Michael Krigsman:

(25:50) These are the lesson you learned and I suppose you kind of learnt the hard way because you were figuring it out at the time and there weren’t many examples when you started Military dot com.

Christopher Michel:   

(26:01) Yes, well that was the beauty of Affinity Labs. It was like we figured out the business model and then we scaled it with affinity.

Michael Krigsman:

(26:09) So, speaking about business models tell us about your photography, your photographs are so great. So tell us about why you take photos, what’s on your mind, what’s the common theme

Christopher Michel:   

(26:27) I started Nautilus Ventures after Affinity Labs but instead of doing another company as the CEO I really thought about what it is I really wanted to do in the world, and that’s creating art and having incredible experiences and photography is my e-ticket to the world. So I have gotten to go to a lot of places; to the edge of space, to deep in the sea, to both poles, to the jungles of Papua New Guinea and I’m just back from Congo. I’ve gotten to go to a lot of places and see a lot of things, and meet a lot of people and learned every single day because of my camera and my interest in telling stories.

(27:03) So it is not about the photo’s really it’s mostly about the experience. And really I hope for everyone else out there to think about photography in that way because I think it can be a big part of a lot of people’s lives in a way that’s very additive. And you know the net result is you’re creating art. You’re creating art that may matter and especially when you do portraiture, when I take your photograph and I give you that picture, it’s valuable to day, to you and your family, but it’s only going to get more and more valuable over time. So it’s a kind of alchemy and you know to me maybe it’s a kind of legacy.

Michael Krigsman:

(27:40) Okay, let’s look at some photos, how that. okay, so I hope everybody can see obviously that is the top of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. How does one get to the top of the  Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to take a photo. Was it scary?

Christopher Michel:   

(29:08) …great engineers, builders and designers.

Michael Krigsman:

(29:13) And you had to hold onto the camera so it didn’t fall? Okay, so pretty tightly. So let’s look at the next one, so where was this and what’s the story of this. It looks kind of the archetypical dessert island in the middle of the Pacific.

Christopher Michel:   

(30:08)…On his G500 Gulfstream and we flew from Teterboro New Jersey to our first stop which was the outer Marshall Islands at a place called Majuro and this is one of the little island groups as we went by to go deep sea fishing so it was a really cool experience. Although I will say this is the kind of place that I remember from Gilligan’s Island that I always wanted to live on. But in practical terms you might not actually want to live on the islands.

Michael Krigsman:

(30:38) Well it certainly is beautiful and we have coming up, what is this?

(30:54) Well this is another one of clouds and it’s clearly the water with layers of clouds.

Christopher Michel:

(30:59) Yeah, so this is the opposite side of the world, so this is I just recently came back from an outside magazine shoot at the North Pole and I left Murmansk in the only surface vessel that’s capable of reaching the North Pole which is the 50 years of victory nuclear Russian icebreaker and we were passing through Franz Josef Land on the way to the Pole and you know, this is like 8i degrees North and you see lenticular clouds there and a very beautiful place.

Michael Krigsman:

(31:33) Pretty wild, you have a lot of cameras, does the camera matter?

Christopher Michel:

(31:48) Well I’ve an unusual answer. I would say no and yes. So no it doesn’t matter in the sense that I’ve seen incredible iPhone pictures. Some people say the best camera is the one you have with you. I’ve seen point and shoots do amazing amazing work, but what people often notice is unusual pictures and these are either wide-angled pictures or animal photographs, or night photography and a lot of those require specialized equipment. I’m looking right now at a church photograph from Iceland that was taken with a wide-angled camera. Or probably a wide-angled lens, it’s probably a 16mm lens on a Nikon.

(32:31) So I guess it matters in that way. I oftentimes shoot vary narrow depth of field portrait photos and those require very special lens; a 50mm F.95 lens. So what you often find is that people with good cameras carry them around a lot more. And people that carry their camera with them take a lot of photographs produce good work. People who do not do that do not get the picture. Sometimes they’re lucky.

(32:59) And I’ll say there’s one other cost to all of you out there that think your iPhone pictures are great. They maybe great but oftentimes because they’re so cheap, meaning you can take them anytime and you just keep them on your phone, I think they have a real risk of being lost over time. And they don’t get synced and they don’t get saved, and they don’t get printed and they don’t get post-processed. So I’m a big fan of being very intentional about your photos.

(33:20) This was taken with the Leica, I think it was the 50mm F .95 at Ocean Beach. So you can see the very narrow depth of field in the picture. So this one is Sarah is in focus and everything behind her at sunset is blurred.

Michael Krigsman:

(33:37) So at the end of the day it’s not about the equipment, but you may need special equipment, special camera lens in order to take certain types of photos.

Christopher Michel:

(33:46) Yes, so I guess I would say it’s primarily about the intentionality of taking photos. So if you have that intentionality and you’re committed to doing it you will get good photos and it doesn’t matter what equipment you use. Some equipment’s better than others and some equipment if you’re going to go to Africa and you’re using a point and shoot it isn’t going to work. You might say well you get a couple of good pictures, but if the animals are far away it will be difficult.

(34:11) This photo that I’m looking at is one of my favorite places on earth, it’s Torres del Paine National Park in Chili Patagonia.

Michael Krigsman:

(34:21) Pretty amazing. Now are penguins as friendly and as cute as they look.

Christopher Michel:

(34:34)  In a word yes. I love penguins. I’ve taken a lot of photos and this is probably one of my most famous photos. It was on the front page of National Geographic’s website a year ago. This was taken on my trip to the South Pole in a place called Gould Bay and I had to work hard for this photo. I was lying down at this kind of opening on the ice and the penguins are quite happy, they march; we’ve all seen marching penguins. They march 70 miles back and forth. Well if there’s a lead opening up in the ice they can get food. So I was very very close to this penguin, shot with a wide-angled lens, so I was like two feet away or a foot away and he was quite surprised to see me or she was quite surprised.

(35:20) And you know when I approached this colony for the first time five penguins came right up to me and just circled me about two feet away and were just fascinated. On my last day with these penguins, two of the penguins walked two miles with me back to camp. Just followed me all the way, and when I stopped they’d stop and where I went they would go. They’re curious interested people and don’t have a lot of land predators so maybe only the leopard seal, so they are interested and they are so cute.

Michael Krigsman:

(35:48) And you said they’re curious interested people, did they feel like people to you?

Christopher Michel:   

(35:54) The fact that I said that is a kind of morphication of these of these creatures but that’s why we love them because they’re kind of ridiculous, sweet, cute looking humans. I mean the waddle around; they’re birds but they don’t act like normal birds. They act like curious little creatures.

Michael Krigsman:

(36:14) Extraordinary, so this one.

Christopher Michel:   

(36:16) So this is actually related to the previous photograph, so to go to the South Pole is tricky unless you’re going with the government. So there’s a company called A&I that takes people down there, so this is an IL76 Russian military aircraft, designed for landing on the tundra and I used it to fly from Punta Arenas to Union Glazier icecap; a tent cap. And it’s just landed on the ice; there’s no runway there just a blue ice runway, and we’re going to disembark here and go to our tents and I’m going to get in some Kenn Borek twin otters to fly to the penguins on the South Pole.

Michael Krigsman:

(36:56) So you mentioned earlier that when you were at the North Pole that you were on I think you said a Russian icebreaker, and this is a Russian plane that’s designed for landing on ice. Is there something about the Russians that they’re really into this type of exploration or is it just coincidence?

Christopher Michel:   

(37:13) Well I don’t know this but it appears to me is the Russians will sell access to things. So the Russian nuclear icebreaker is a working icebreaker. You know its run by Atomflot which is sort of associated with the Russian government. As we know Soyuz will sell you a seat on a mission to space. The US government does not do that. You cannot buy your way aboard a US Navy warship. So I think there is a little something about their equipment being available and oftentimes it takes military like equipment to go to these extreme places.

Michael Krigsman:

(37:50) Okay, for our next photo which is coming up, obviously a very different kind of place from the cold to what I imagine is pretty darn warm. Zebras.

Christopher Michel:   

(38:04) Yeah zebras. This is in Kenya, the Maasai Mara, the lands of the Maasai and it was just a beautiful late afternoon and these three zebra were just walking. You can see the lone tree in the distance. And I really like it, the sort of color and contrast here and the camaraderie; the three musketeers.

Michael Krigsman:

(38:29) I also like the way that you kind of over exposed it a little bit it just gives it a beautiful feeling

Christopher Michel:   

(38:39) Its kind of ethereal. It almost seems not quite real.

Michael Krigsman:

(38:44) Now I imagine that you were pretty up close with this gorilla or maybe you were using a telephoto lens, but I imagine the gorilla experience is a little bit different from the penguin experience.

Christopher Michel:   

(38:56) So I just took this photo. This was taken about four weeks ago, and I was on assignment with the American refugee committee, the IOD dot org, shooting hospitals and water facilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which as you probably know is a very dicey place, and it was quite remarkable and interesting, and scary and wonderful experience.

(39:21) One of those days I left kind of that work and went hiking in the jungle with a guide and we went to see the Lowland Eastern gorillas which are the largest in the world. So it was about a two hour hike and it was me and a friend and these three guides with machetes cutting their way through the jungle and we got right up to this guy. So I would say we’re six-seven feet from him and we got closer because he came right up close to us.

Michael Krigsman:

(39:54) And we have another photo of a gorilla which is so interesting because it looks like he’s looking directly at you.

Christopher Michel:   

(40:13) So this is the baby. So the baby is a little further. The baby’s maybe 15 feet and I can’t tell you if it’s a he or a she but she’s prey cute.

Michael Krigsman:

(40:24) And speaking of pretty cute, some of these portraits are just so breathtakingly lovely, like I just love this one. I’m not sure if it’s a boy or a girl with a pot over his or her head.

Christopher Michel:

(40:45) Nobody listening would know this, but you just pick these photos from like a big set of photos so you know I’m pleased that you picked this one. So you know there’s like 20 years of photographs. Interestingly enough you’ve been picking photographs of recent trips which makes me feel like I’ve been doing better work so thank you. This was just taken and taken interestingly enough coming back from the gorillas, so you picked it randomly as we were coming back through this little village it started raining. Actually start raining when we were with the gorillas and so we were caught in a downpour with all my camera equipment. And as we were coming back I saw this little kid using a it looks like a pan or something as a kind of umbrella.

Michael Krigsman:

(41:34) Just cute beyond cut and when you take photos of kid or take photos of adult portraits how do you go about doing it., because a lot of people will be shy to go and ask and obviously you’re not doing it behind these people’s backs. They’re looking right at you very close.

Christopher Michel:   

(41:51) Yeah so you know you can put photos into a couple of categories. So one photo category would be people know that I’m taking a photo of them right, so in these two shots people know that I’m taking their photo they don’t know. So this is like general street photography or landscape or whatever it might be where if there is humans in the photo that they don’t know the the photo is being taken.

(42:14) And there’s a place for both but I shoot a lot of very narrow sort of depth of field photography, which means the focus has to be really perfect and up close to the subject. So in those cases I go up to people, they see the camera I smile at them and if they don’t want their photo taken they’re often communicating that they don’t want their photo taken. But sometimes you don’t know what they’re thinking and I take the photo and I show them the photo. So in this case this boy knows because he’s seen some of the photos that I’ve taken of them and he wants to get his photo taken more. So that experience is very common where there’s some in trepidation, they see their photo they get into it and they’re really into it and want more photos.

Michael Krigsman:

(42:52) And so there’s a communication that even that’s it’s not verbal there’s a communication that’s taking place between you and the person that you’re photographing.

Christopher Michel:   

(43:01) Absolutely, so do these people know that they are getting their photo taken? I don’t know that they do. They probably will know shortly because I think they turned around, but I just thought it was a really cute moment.

Michael Krigsman:

(43:13) It’s a totally cute photo.

Christopher Michel:   

(43:15) Again this is a Congo photo. This was taken in one of the villages in DRC.

Michael Krigsman:

(43:25) And now we have somebody that is older in maybe India or you tell us, where was this one taken.

Christopher Michel:   

(43::31) This is in Rajasthan and one of my favorite things to do is just go with my camera into little villages, and I’m just wandering the streets and I see this woman sitting inside of her home and I go up to the doorway and wave, and smile and she smiles and she’s okay with having her photo taken so I just take the picture. I step into her home and take the photograph and then show her the photo, and she’d probably be surprised that we’re taking about her right now on the internet.

Michael Krigsman:

(44:01) And this one is another woman and yet obviously a completely different environment and I thought the contrast between the two is pretty extraordinary.

Christopher Michel:   

(44:10) This is pretty unusual so I don’t do this very often. This is a photoshoot. So this was styles, we had a set person work on it and we had a creative person come up with the idea and it was taken in my living room.

Michael Krigsman:

(44:29) Another one that is completely different environment, maybe Viet Nam or Cambodia or Thailand, so tell us about this one.

Christopher Michel:   

(44:42) Yeah I love this photograph. So this was taken in Yangon on Myanmar, and I just arrived so this is the old Rangoon. And I’m walking through the old city and it’s raining and it’s like midnight and I was there with a friend of mine, and she’s like let’s go back it’s so late. And I’m like no this in incredible. And what I love about this photograph, not just the lighting but it’s the juxtapositions. There’s old Myanmar, old Burma, you know these people cooking and selling food on the street and then in the background you can see a BMW. And this is what I’m seeing all over the world is this old and new are meeting right in the cities, and we know who’s going to win sadly there.

Michael Krigsman:

(45:25) Yes and here we come back to the most outrageous selfie in the world, you up at the edge of space and you spoke about that briefly earlier, but we also have some kind of behind the scenes looks, behind the scene photos. For example these look like two fighter pilots I suppose.

       

Christopher Michel:   

(45:58) I was there for a week doing training, maybe five days doing training and one of the things during training was take photographs of U2 pilots and these were two guys flying in the U2, just come back from a flight and I call it the hero shot. Captain Toll is the guy on the left and it’s a General on the right and they’re standing in front of a U2 at base operations.

(46:30) So one of my favorite things about my U2 experience is it’s really a kind of an Apollo space experience; it’s the same kind of people, it’s the same spacesuits. They have me on barker lounger; you have to like eat low residue food, you eat and drink stuff through a tube and you can kind of see me drinking kind of a Gatorade as they’re preparing me for launch.

Michael Krigsman:

(46:51) And something tells me that this next one that it looks like you’re in a lazy boy recliner, something tells me that there’s something else going on here than relaxing watching TV.

Christopher Michel:

(47:02) Yeah, so there are only a few places in the world like this. You know it’s probably like Cape Canaveral at here. I’ve been to Russia and seen where the Soyuz launch and it’s not quite like this but may be similar. So it’s a multi-hour process to get ready. It’s very exhausting. It’s hot in the spacesuit.

(47:22) So basically what you see is this is a kind of dressing chair and they dress me. I’m now sealed up. I’ve out gassed all of my nitrogen. You have to do a thing when you’re breathing oxygen on a treadmill. They have me hooked up to a coolant air system. So I would suffocate if I was not hooked into an air coolant system, and so that’s kind of like what’s going on there.

I see another photo there taken and this is me walking down the street seeing a VW bus.

Michael Krigsman:

(47:51) And the thing is with your portraits, the common thread that I see is there is this warmth. I mean you look at and they’re very very very good natured photos. I think oftentimes you see photos that people take and they’re in expression and the photo is the expression of who that person is if it’s art, and these are so good natured, all of your photos.

Christopher Michel:

(48:14) Yeah I mean part of it is people re reflecting. So I’m smiling and I just think this is a delightful moment. And you know when your smiling it’s a delightful moment and this guy is like he knows he’s cool and he’s driving around in an awesome VW bus with a canoe, and we have a kind of moment where we both acknowledge each other. And I never spoke to him. He doesn’t know anything about this photo other than he knows that some guy took his picture. Do you know who this is?

Michael Krigsman:

(48:43) Well of course Om Malik.

Christopher Michel:   

(48:45) Yes it’s Om a good friend of mine. I’ve taken many many many photos of this famous writer and capitalists and friends.

Michael Krigsman:

(48:54) There’s a question from Constance Woods on Twitter. Do you have opinions or thoughts on Periscope, livestreaming video apps and that kind of thing.

Christopher Michel:   

(49:05) Well it’s interesting, Meerkat and Periscope I don’t use it and every time I try to watch one of those things I’ve always missed it. I’m not you know following real-time on Twitter. so I don’t know if that much people are into it I guess.

(49:23) I like asynchronous content consumption a little bit more unless there’s breaking news. You know there’s lots of other services if you mean like Instagram, those things are pretty cool. Photos on Twitter are pretty cool especially when there’s something going on in the world and you want the content. You know I was sadly around during an explosion of a balloon that blew up right near me in Luxor Egypt, killing 20 people. I tweeted it with a photo and it got global quickly. And you know that’s the exciting thing about that technology is you know we no longer turn to the news to see what’s happening in the world because some citizen or journalist is covering it.

Michael Krigsman:

(50:08) So this next one.

Christopher Michel:   

(50:10) So this was me walking in the Mission in san Francisco and I see these people walking and they’re dressed a bit unusual but maybe not for San Francisco, a bit steampunk and they were going to a wedding. And there’s a picture and I don’t know if you have it but is kind of a robust woman and her fiancé that’s part of the wedding party that’s the other shot in this set.

Michael Krigsman:

(50:37) I did see it, it was pretty interesting, and so another one, a gentleman with handlebar moustache.

Christopher Michel:

(50:46) I’m glad you picked this. I didn’t know you were going to pick this. So this photo has an interesting story. So I was at Bluebottle where I spend a lot of time and so I see this guy, so you know I’m a portrait photographer and when I see interesting people I feel compelled to take their photograph, even although it’s difficult. And I said to him do you mind if I take your picture and he said no. and you can see he’s delighted and we have this great shoot. This photo was taken I don’t know, seven years ago.

(51:16) Two years ago, somebody was looking at this photo and they say, do you know who that is? And I’ll ask you Michael, do you know who that is?

Michael Krigsman:

(51:25) You know I saw you put it on Facebook or something, but I forget his name but a major bicycle builder.

Christopher Michel:

(51:32) Yeah, so it turns out its Garry Fisher, who is one of the founders of mountain biking, but that’s the interesting thing about taking photographs is that you don’t always know who you’re taking photos of. Sometimes it’s a celebrity and you wouldn’t even know. Infact I’ve had that experience when taking photographs of people and they’ve turned out to be as you can see here well-known people. But I’m the last person that would recognize celebrities. 

(51:56) This guy, I don’t know anything about him, he’s just a compatriot as one of my many compatriot portraits.

Michael Krigsman:

(52:03) So when you come across people that are interesting looking, you stop and ask can I take your photo or how.

Christopher Michel:

(52:10) Well I think it’s quite likely that he doesn’t know that I’ve taken his photo

Michael Krigsman:

(52:13) In that case.

Christopher Michel:

(52:14) I don’t know that he doesn’t. This was taken a long time ago. Do you know who this is?

Michael Krigsman:

(52:20) Stan Charnofsky.

Christopher Michel:   

(52:21) Well done. So this is my good friend Stan, who is one of the driving forces behind Facebook messenger and probably the best engineer, growth hacker in technology and one of my closest and dearest friends.

Michael Krigsman:

(52:37) And of course we all know who this is, but tell us the story of how you got in position to take a photo of the Dalai Lama.

Christopher Michel:

(52:51) So remember I said that photography is the e-ticket ride. You know, you take a lot of pictures and people know you as a photographer and maybe trust you, and a guy who runs the Dalai Lama center for ethics at MIT is a monk, Tenzin. Tenzin asked me, he said Chris, you know his holiness is coming to MIT for three days would you be his holiness’s photographer. And I got to do that, so I spent three days intimately connected to the Dalai Lama and it was a very very interesting experience.

Michael Krigsman:

(53:31) What are your strongest memories or sensations about that experience in being so close to the Dalia Lama for several days.

Christopher Michel:

(53:41) Well I’d say that there’s two categories and one is I’ve always been a fan of his holiness, but sometimes you’re a little worried about meeting super celebrities because maybe they’ll disappoint you, you know if you have such a high set of expectations, like a movie or anything else and maybe he would turn out to be not as authentic and not as nice. Some super celebrities are like that right, they don’t have time for people.

(54:03) And it turned out that that was unfounded worry. I observed him off the record all the time. I saw him in places where no other one is near him, and he is as gentle and as kind, and is interesting, and is thoughtful and treats everyone from the housecleaner to Sting in the same way and I saw all all of that and he is really a wonderful person. the other category is you know I’m kind of Buddhist and I’m kind of Buddhist because my experience with the Dalia Lama and it isn’t because I’m particularly religious but it’s that he espouses Buddhism as a secular ethics as an approach or technology for living your life and being happier. And you know there’s a reason he spends a lot of time with his disciples because he really couples science, and theology and philosophy in a way that I find very compelling.

           

Michael Krigsman:

(54:57) And this final photo I just thought was kind of a cute photo of the Dalai Lama wearing an MIT hat.

Christopher Michel:   

(55:06) Well you know he’s a funny guy and you know humor is a big part of everything that he does. He meets leaders, he touches them, he tickles them, he laughs, and he’s having a good time. You know, to me there is something really to be learned here, which is you could be famous and be well-known and be involved in serious things. And he’s involved in incredibly serious things. Look at all the things happening in Tibet. Many people look up to him, but he’s still having fun, he’s still smiling, he has joy in his life and it’s a lesson for me and for many of us.

Michael Krigsman:

(55:39) Well speaking of interesting experiences, this has certainly been an very interesting experience from me, and we’ve had a lot of people watching and so I just want to say thank you Chris for taking the time today.

Christopher Michel:   

(55:54)  It’s my pleasure. It’s an honor to be here.

Michael Krigsman:

(55:57) We have been speaking with Christopher Michel, who is an entrepreneur, investor, and he’s a photographer. And you know, those are attributes, and mostly he’s just a really good guy. A really nice guy, and you have been watching episode number 159 of CXOTalk. Chris, thanks again for taking the time today for speaking with us.

Christopher Michel:   

(56:25) Thank you.

Michael Krigsman:

(56:27) Next week we are going to be talking with Aneel Bhusri, who is the CEO of Workday a hot company these days so please come back next Friday and again thank you to Chris Michel and especially thank you to everybody who joined us today. Take care everybody, bye bye.

Companies mentioned in today’s show

Affinity Labs                            www.affinitylabs.com

Apple:                                      www.apple.com

Clorox                                      www.clorox.com

Dalai Lama Center for Ethics http://thecenter.mit.edu/

Facebook                                 www.facebook.com  

Instagram                                www.instagram.com

LinkedIn                                   www.linkedin.com

Militery.com                           www.military.com

Monster                                  www.monster.com

National Geographic               www.nationalgeographic.com

Nautilus Ventures                   www.nautilusventures.com

Slack                                        https://slack.com

Twitter                                    www.twitter.com

 

Christopher Michel:

                                    www.christophermichel.com

                                    https://about.me/cmichel

                                    https://angel.co/cmichel

Twitter                        https://twitter.com/chrismichel

LinkedIn                       www.linkedin.com/in/michelchristopher

YouTube                      www.youtube.com/user/cmichel1