Mar 15, 2020
Today we’re going to celebrate the explosion and soap-opera-esque management of Twitter. As with many things, it started with an idea. Some people get one idea. Some of these Twitter founders got multiple ideas, which is one of the more impressive parts of this story. And the story of Twitter goes back to 1999. Evan Williams created a tool that gave “push-button publishing for the people.”
That tool was called blogger.com and ignited a fire in people publishing articles about whatever they were thinking or feeling or working on or doing. Today, we just call it blogging. The service jumped in use and Evan sold the company to Google, where he worked for a bit and then left in 2004 in search of a new opportunity. Seeing the rise of podcasting, Williams founded another company called Odeo, to build a tool for podcasters. They worked away at that, being joined by Noah Glass, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, Crystal Taylor, Florian Weber, Blaine Cook, Ray McClure, Rim Roberts, Rabble, Dom, @Jeremy and others. And some investors of course. Apple added podcasts to iTunes and they knew they had to pivot. They’d had these full day sessions brainstorming new ideas. Evan was thinking more and more about this whole incubator kind of thing. Noah was going through a divorce and one night he and Jack Dorsey were going through some ideas for new pivots or companies. Jack had just been turned on to text messaging and mentioned this one idea about sharing texts to groups. The company was young and full of raver kids at the time and the thought was you could share where you are and what you were doing. Noah thought you could share your feelings as well. Since it was through text, you had a maximum 140 characters. It started as a side project. Jack and Florian Webber built a prototype. It slowly grew into a real product. They sold the remaining assets of Odeo and Twitter and was finally spun off into its own company in 2007. Noah was the first CEO. But he was ousted in 2007 when Jack Dorsey took over. They grew slowly during the year but jumped into the limelight at South By Southwest, taking home the Web Award. I joined Twitter in October of 2007. To be honest, I didn’t really get it yet. But they started to grow. And rapidly. They were becoming a news source. People were tweeting to their friends. They added the @ symbol to mention people in posts. They added the ability to retweet, or repost a tweet from someone else. And of course hashtags. Servers crashed all the time. The developers worked on anything they wanted. And after a time, the board of Twitter, which primarily consisted of investors, got tired of the company not being run well and outside Jack in 2008, letting Evan run the company. And I do like to think of the history of Twitter in stages. Noah was the incubator. He and Jack worked hard and provided a vision. Noah came up with the name, Jack helped code the site and keep it on track. Once Noah was gone they were a cool hacker collective that went into hyper growth. There wasn’t a ton of structure and the company reflected the way people used the service, a bit chaotic. But with Evan in, the hyper growth accelerated. Twitter added lists in 2009, allowing you to see updates from people you weren’t following. They were still growing fast. By 2010 there were 50 million tweets a day. Months later there were 65 million. And Jack Dorsey, while no longer at Twitter, was the media darling face of Twitter. He would found Square that year. And Square would make a dent in the multi-verse by allowing pretty much anyone to take a credit card using their phone, pretty much any time. That would indirectly lead to coffee shops, yoga studios, and any number of kinds of businesses popping up all over the world. They bought an app called Tweetie which became the Twitter app many of us use today. But servers could still crash. There was still no revenue. So Evan brought in Dick Costolo, founder of feedburner, to become the Chief Operating Officer. Dick would be named CEO. Dorsey, fuming ever since his ousting, had been behind the switch. This is where Twitter kinda’ grew up. Under Dick the site got stable finally. The users continued to grow. They started to make money. Lots of money. By 2011 they added URL shortening using the t.co domain because many of us would use a URL shortening service to conserve characters. Twitter would continue to grow and go public in 2013. By then, they’d had offers to buy equity from musicians, actors, sports stars, and even former Vice Presidents. And Twitter would continue to grow. Jack Dorsey would lead Square to an IPO in 2015. Obama would send his first tweet that same year. Shortly afterwards, Dick stepped down as the CEO of Twitter and Jack came back. Grand plans work out I suppose. Usually people don’t get back together after the breakup. But Jack did. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. While Obama had used Twitter, Trump took it to a whole new level, announcing public policy there sometimes before other politicians knew. And this is where Twitter just gets silly. Hundreds of millions of people log on and argue. Not my thing. I mostly just post links to these episodes these days. Jack Dorsey is now the CEO of both Square and Twitter. He catches flack for it every now and then - but it’s mostly working. He co-founded two great companies and he likely doesn’t want to risk losing control of either. Evan Williams founded Medium in 2012, another blogging service. Blogging, micro-blogging, then back to blogging. He has had three great companies he co-founded. And continues helping startups. Biz Stone, often the heart of twitter would found Jelly, which was sold to Pinterest. The fourth co-founder, Noah Glass, took some time away from startups. His part in the founding of Twitter was often under-estimated. But today, he’s the CEO of olo.com and serves on the board of a number of non-profits. The post-PC era, the social media era, the instant everything era. Twitter symbolizes all of it, kicked off when Jack sent the first message on March 21, 2006, 9:50 p.m. It read, "just setting up my twttr.". From a rag-tag group of kids who went to clubs to a multi-billion dollar social media behemoth, they also show the growth stages of network effect companies. The incubation period led by a passionate Noah. The release and rise period full of doing everything it takes and people working 20 hour days symbolized by the Jack part 1. The meteoric rise and beginnings of getting their ducks in order tenure of Evan. The growing up phase where they got profitable and stable with Dick. And then the Steve Jobs-esque reinvention of Jack and his return, slowing growth and reducing risk. The founders all felt like Twitter was theirs. And it was. A lot of founders think they’re going to change the world. And some actually do. And for the effort they put into putting a dent in the universe, we thank them. And you dear listeners, we think you too, for giving us the opportunity to share these stories of betrayal and shame and rebirth. We are so lucky to have you. Have a great day!