The boy who seems to know it all
A social media guru, and just 13
CAMBRIDGE — Lane Sutton is tweeting from the second row of a social media conference at the Microsoft campus here in Kendall Square. He’s armed with an iPad and iPhone, and a consulting pitch he can deliver in a smooth minute.
Oh, yeah, and his mom’s sitting beside him. Sutton is 13.
“We live in exponential times,’’ he types in a Twitter post, quoting from the slide presentation. He adds, “The Internet is a place to meet, learn, act, react, and transact.’’
People are paying attention to this eighth-grader from Framingham, with his mop of dark, wavy hair and glasses. A budding entrepreneur and self-described geek (better than nerd, he says) Sutton runs www.KidCriticUSA.com, where he reviews restaurants, movies, gadgets, and books.
Hollywood A-lister Tom Cruise and more than 2,500 others follow him on Twitter; executives make time for him (like the head of online retailer Zappos); and his customer service gripe to Steve Jobs reaped a response from an assistant to the Apple chief executive.
Sutton wasn’t just tweeting from the social media conference, he was a speaker at the sold-out event, called PodCamp and held at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development (NERD) Center. If his business pursuits are something of a mystery to his classmates at school, at events like this one, people get him.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, why is there a kid here?’ ’’ Sutton says. “They know me.’’
During a break, Sutton gets shout-outs from Twitter fans and people who have heard him speak before. He swaps business cards, kept in a silver monogrammed case, with people two to four times his age, and chats about building a client base. Sutton and a 25-year-old friend lead a discussion on privacy in the age of networking portals like Facebook and Foursquare.
Before signing onto an online service, Sutton says he digs deep into the fine print, where these firms disclose their sometimes controversial rules on using customer information. After the talk, he’s bombarded with questions, mainly about how to keep personal data safe on the Internet.
“Because of his energy and his age, he offers a fresh perspective on social media,’’ Christopher Lynn, director of sales and marketing at the Colonnade Boston Hotel in the Back Bay, said in an interview. He started following Sutton on Twitter after meeting him at a conference last month. “He interacts with his followers and he creates conversations. Not everyone does that,’’ Lynn said.
Even among the Internet-connected, gadget-toting youth of his generation, Sutton is unusual. This is a boy who skipped baseball the day his first Mac laptop arrived in the mail, when he was barely 8. He reads newspapers , and subscribes to magazines such as Fortune and Inc. He received a mention on Forbes.com as a young entrepreneur, and he throws around business terms such as ROI (return on investment), like he means it.
“I’m working to help small businesses and companies create their online web presence, and build their brand and following to create ROI,’’ Sutton explains. And he positions his age as an advantage: “Social media is growing and I’m growing up with it.’’
At school, he’s low-key about his website and consulting work. One friend, Maya Rabinovitz, a ninth-grader, said, “It’s not like he says, ‘Oh, I’ve done this and this and this.’ . . . He’s just Lane.’’
Most boys Sutton’s age are more interested in Internet gaming than networking, said Amanda Lenhart, who studies teens and social networking for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Only 5 percent of 12- and 13-year-olds use Twitter, according to Pew research. Standing out helps, Lenhart said: “The brand of a 13-year-old advice-giver is an unusual one.’’
Indeed, Sutton is all about building his brand. And he’s not shy about it.
Sutton recently hobnobbed and ate pizza with about 200 grown-ups at an invitation-only book signing for Tony Hsieh, the chief executive who built up retailer Zappos.com. He heard about the book through PodCamp cofounder Chris Brogan and messaged Hsieh’s public relations team, asking to attend. They said yes.
On the day of the event, Hsieh made his way through a waterfront loft space, offering a handshake here, a smile there, as he prepared to sign copies of his bestseller, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.’’ His handler paused in front of Sutton and turned to Hsieh.
“Tony, this is Lane,’’ she said. “You’re going to get five minutes with him.’’
Hsieh, 36, asked Sutton what he thought of the book (which Sutton had read). He was amazed that this boy in a blue polo shirt knew Brogan, who also consults for Fortune 500 companies such as PepsiCo and General Motors. Hsieh said Sutton “definitely has the entrepreneurial spirit.’’
That streak goes way back, according to Sutton’s mom, Sheri, and dad, Craig, who escort their only child to meetings the way most parents attend soccer games. In kindergarten, he charged relatives for a small newpaper he created. Later, he offered hotel-type services to his parents and grandparents — housekeeping and in-room touches such as chocolates and flowers left at the bedside.
“I don’t know what I was thinking at that age, but I wanted to get a head start on my career,’’ Sutton said.
“I was always fascinated that people were making money doing what they love.’’
Sutton hasn’t made a ton of money yet — he doesn’t want to disclose how much publicly — but it’s not bad for a teenager. He has a handful of paying clients, who seek his help with blogs and social media. He has one paying advertiser on his website, enough to cover its costs, he said. And new opportunities seem to find him, like leading a class for customers at the Apple store on Boylston Street, as he recently did.
Why Sutton? He’s been on a computer since he was 5, and Facebook and Twitter are second nature to him. And he has a kind of innate sense, he believes, of how online networking can help a business or brand, in part from his own experience.
At school, there’s no tweeting, so Sutton can focus on algebra and history, and his work on the school’s online magazine. In his free time, he likes to read nonfiction and ride his bike, he said. But mostly he likes to work.
“Right when I’m out of school, I get on my phone, checking e-mails, voice mail,’’ Sutton said. Once home, he’ll do his schoolwork, and then return calls and talk to clients, sometimes until 9 p.m.
“Homework and dinner definitely come first,’’ Sutton said. But later, “I tweet under the covers after I get into bed, for maybe a half hour at most.’’
Sutton’s parents joke that he is a modern day Alex P. Keaton, the conservative, business-savvy student played by Michael J. Fox on “Family Ties,’’ a 1980s TV sitcom. (The reference is lost on Sutton, born in 1997.) To Sheri Sutton, her son’s growing public persona is like a tornado. “People buzz about him,’’ she said.
One such person is David Gerzof, founder of local marketing firm BIGfish Communications. He recently met Sutton at Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain, at a social media gathering. In no time, Gerzof invited him to teach a session of his social media and marketing class at Emerson College.
Sutton arrived to the class wearing French cuffs — with mom in tow. Gerzof said his students learned a lesson they didn’t expect that day. As one, Abbey Niezgoda, noted in a blog post: “Yes, I admit it — on my first day of senior year, I was schooled in social media by a 13-year-old.’’
Erin Ailworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.