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Former Microsoft employee makes better living making YouTube videos

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Kevin Stratvert produces videos at his home in Seattle.

Tara Brown

When Microsoft updated its Teams communication app with a more sophisticated way to give PowerPoint presentations in January, the company published a 500-word blog post on the feature. People could read the blog post and try to figure out how to use it, or they could consult YouTube.

On the video service owned by arch-rival Google, a former Microsoft employee named Kevin Stratvert published a video on Presenter Mode to his more than 800,000 subscribers, garnering more than 180,000 views and hundreds of comments. Microsoft itself had not published a video on the topic.

“I’ve built a Microsoft audience,” Stratvert said in an interview with CNBC. “Microsoft content drives a lot more viewership than non-Microsoft content. I’ve done Gmail and a few others, but they haven’t done quite as well.”

That might have to do with the reach of Microsoft’s products. The company held 86% of the email and authoring market in 2020, according to technology research firm Gartner, with 1.2 billion Office users.

Not every one of those 1.2 billion knows how to do everything in Office, though, and people also need to keep up with the latest updates that Microsoft pumps out. Videos from Stratvert and his YouTube contemporaries are helping with that — and sometimes getting more eyeballs than Microsoft’s official videos.

Much better off

Stratvert arrived at Microsoft in 2006, the same year Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion. His first YouTube video showed footage from a drone flying over a town in New Jersey. Then Stratvert filmed videos of his travels in the Puget Sound and beyond. How-to videos and gadget-review videos followed.

In 2017 he posted his first Microsoft-related video, in which he toured treehouses on the company’s campus with his wife, Kerry Stratvert, a manager at the company. In the video description, he included a disclosure saying that he was a Microsoft employee.

Two months after the treehouse video, Stratvert was working on the small development team behind Office.com, a website that gives fast access to online versions of Excel spreadsheets and other Office documents. The site was not well known, especially compared with Office applications for PCs, so Stratvert and colleagues asked their peers in marketing if they could spread the word about Office.com. The marketers didn’t have enough resources to help, Stratvert said.

So Stratvert produced a video showing how people could use Office.com to get most features of Microsoft Office free of charge. It performed well, and his manager told him he had done a good job.

He went on to make videos about Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Teams, Windows and Word. Microsoft employees on other teams noticed and started asking him to make videos about their products. They saw how many people were watching and recognized that getting him to talk about their products could bring in new users, which in turn could mean more favorable employee reviews.

“It’s almost like teams appreciate that there’s this other outlet that’s kind of unofficial,” he said.

Then, in July 2020, months after the pandemic sent the Stratverts home, he gave up his position at Microsoft and began making five times as many videos as he was before. He no longer needed to include disclosures in videos that he was a Microsoft employee, and he could talk more freely about competing products such as Slack and Zoom.

YouTube users have hit the subscribe button. Today he has 85% more subscribers than the official Microsoft 365 YouTube channel focused on Teams and other Office applications, which he said has a team of 20 to 30 people producing content.

“Economically I’m much better off,” he said. His wife still works at Microsoft.

Promoting external creators

Historically, developing and maintaining products has been the core of Microsoft. Today nearly 50% of employees work in engineering. Marketing is a considerably smaller part of the business, and employees work on ads, materials for Microsoft’s website, events and other methods of promotion.

In the past few years, a group inside Microsoft began focusing more on YouTube.

“On YouTube specifically, we’re starting to explore the concept of what it looks like to do something native to YouTube,” Sonia Atchison, a market research lead who worked on the Microsoft Creators Program, said on a podcast last year.

People often turn to YouTube when they want to get a better understanding of Microsoft software, and while Microsoft has plenty of its own videos available on YouTube, they don’t always come up at the top of the site’s search results, Atchison said. Videos from outsiders can receive higher rankings.

Sometimes a video from a Microsoft employee might be there. The company does have employees with large audiences, including Mike Tholfsen, a 26-year company veteran whose videos show how teachers and students can use Teams and other applications.

Microsoft wanted more people like Tholfsen. The company formed a group to help people working on different products learn how to build sizable YouTube channels, said Jon Levesque, who posted YouTube videos as a senior platform evangelist at Microsoft before taking a job at DocuSign in March. There were issues at times. Some employees asked why they were concentrating on a service owned by a top competitor, and teams didn’t always agree with everything that employee-creators said in videos, Levesque said.

The effort didn’t get far, and Microsoft began promoting videos from non-employees instead, with the establishment of the Microsoft Creators Program. The company started including outsiders’ videos in its video playlists, and it offered to use their videos for customer support. That led to some additional video views, said Jason Sele, whose YouTube channel goes by the name Sele Training. In late June, Microsoft announced plans to put the program on pause.

Among the dozens of people who joined the Creators Program, the most popular is Leila Gharani, a software instructor in Vienna, with over 900,000 subscribers. After picking up skills in Excel and other software on the job, Gharani began teaching classes in person and online. She made her YouTube debut in 2016, with the hope of enhancing her filming skills.

The channel took off, and that brought in money, plus it drew more students to her premium courses, which her company, XelPlus, continues to offer. With the company growing, her husband left his position as a chief financial officer to join her. They brought on an editor and a writer, too.

Many of Gharani’s YouTube videos detail parts of Excel. That doesn’t mean she completely ignores the competition. One of her more popular videos in 2020 was called “Google Sheets BEATS Excel with THESE 10 Features!”

Like Stratvert, Gharani has heard from Microsoft employees. After she posted a video on the Whiteboard app, a program manager said the team loved her video and offered to show her updates that were coming soon. The program manager didn’t tell her to make a video but instead wanted to see if she thought the enhancements would be video-worthy, Gharani said.

She said users might ascribe greater authority to YouTube creators who work at Microsoft, unlike her.

“People appreciate that they’re at Microsoft,” she said. “‘They must know what they’re saying. They’re not going to say it if it’s not true. That authority thing does come with it. But not a lot.”

Jason Sele makes YouTube videos from a high-tech RV.

Jason Sele

It hasn’t stopped Gharani from growing into a major entity. She boasts more subscribers than almost all of Microsoft’s YouTube accounts. The Xbox channel remains a top attraction, with over 4 million subscribers.

Sele would love the type of YouTube success that Gharani and Stratvert have had. Videos of his that contain tips and tricks on Excel and other applications have received more than 1 million views, but he’s not an on-camera star. Sele, who makes videos from his RV after 25 years of exposure to Microsoft products as a director of information technology, narrates while giving all the visual attention to the video feed from his computer. He said he spends time carefully writing and editing scripts before hitting record. The YouTube money is enough to live on, he said.

He said he isn’t worried about competing with Microsoft. “They’ll crank out all this training, but it really isn’t training you can just hand to your employees,” he said. “It’s either too high-level or low-level.”

Entertainment

While YouTube has no shortage of software walk-throughs, YouTube is more than just a destination for careful learning. It’s a venue for entertainment. Gharani gets that.

“It’s more passive, they don’t have to really concentrate,” she said of people who watch her videos. “They can let themselves also think about other things and come back and just watch and still get something out of it. You can’t get that out of writing.”

She strives to keep her YouTube videos moving along at a fast pace. She doesn’t want the videos to be too boring. Otherwise she won’t have many people watching.

“It’s not necessary that they actually learn something, but they just see the potential that they could learn something, or they feel like they’ve learned something,” she said. Her online courses have a different purpose. There’s no background music, they’re slower, and there’s less of her talking on camera.

The thumbnail images for her videos on YouTube always show her face, and her channel uses her full name, rather than some jumble of words such as OfficeIsSuperGreat, which helps her work stand out in search results.

The same can be said about Stratvert’s channel.

But his videos can be longer. Some run well past 20 or 30 minutes. He keeps them from becoming tedious by talking about how he uses software inside his made-up corporation, the Kevin Cookie Company. In one video about holding webinars in Teams, Kerry Stratvert made an appearance, posing as a Kevin Cookie Company employee who wanted to air her concerns. As the person running the meeting, he turned off her microphone and camera, demonstrating what webinar hosts can do in that situation in real life.

For years she had called Stratvert’s YouTube channel a hobby and pointed out that he hadn’t recouped the investment in production equipment. She didn’t think he could ever go full time. Then, last year, he did.

“It’s done extremely well,” he said. “My wife looks at that — ‘Oh, man, working at home, cranking out a video a day, maybe I should do this, too. Maybe I should pull together videos.’ Same with her sister, too.”

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