The Story of How Twitter was Founded

Nick Bilton pens a fascinating piece in The New York Times on the origins of Twitter and the roles Jack Dorsey, Evan WIlliams, and Noah Glass played from the company’s creation to becoming one of the top social media sites in the world.

On Jack Dorsey’s luck in discovering Ev Williams in a coffee shop:

In 2005, Jack Dorsey was a 29-year-old New York University dropout who sometimes wore a T-shirt with his phone number on the front and a nose ring. After a three-month stint writing code for an Alcatraz boat-tour outfit, he was living in a tiny San Francisco apartment. He had recently been turned down for a job at Camper, the shoe store.

His luck changed one morning as he was sitting at Caffe Centro off South Park. As Dorsey looked up from his laptop, punk rock blaring through his earphones, he noticed a man about his age. Evan Williams, then 33, was a minor celebrity on the San Francisco tech scene. A few years earlier, he sold the Web-diary service he co-founded, Blogger, a word he popularized, to Google for several million dollars. Now Williams was using some of his Blogger money to finance a new company, Odeo, that made podcasts. Odeo was co-founded by his neighbor and friend, Noah Glass. Its dingy loft headquarters happened to be located around the corner, a block from South Park. Williams had stopped in and ordered a coffee.

He sent a resume, got hired immediately, and the rest, as they say, is history. The idea for Twitter came a bit later, after the company Dorsey was working for, Odeo, became obsolete when Apple unveiled podcasts on iTunes:

One night in late February 2006, around 2 a.m., Dorsey sat in Glass’s parked car as rain poured down on the windshield. The two were sobering up after a night of drinking vodka and Red Bull, but the conversation, as usual, was about Odeo. Dorsey blurted out that he was planning his exit strategy. “I’m going to quit tech and become a fashion designer,” Glass recalls him saying. He also wanted to sail around the world. Glass pushed back: He couldn’t really want to leave the business entirely, could he? “Tell me what else you’re interested in,” he said. Dorsey mentioned a Web site that people could use to share their current status — the music they were listening to or where they were. Dorsey envisioned that people would use it to broadcast the simplest details about themselves — like “going to park,” “in bed” and so forth.

On how the name Twitter was born:

Soon, the question of a name came up. Williams jokingly suggested calling the project “Friendstalker,” which was ruled out as too creepy. Glass became obsessive, flipping through a physical dictionary, almost word by word, looking for the right name. One late afternoon, alone in his apartment, he reached over to his cellphone and turned it to silent, which caused it to vibrate. He quickly considered the name “Vibrate,” which he nixed, but it led him to the word “twitch.” He dismissed that too, but he continued through the “Tw” section of the dictionary: twist, twit, twitch, twitcher, twitchy . . . and then, there it was. He read the definition aloud. “The light chirping sound made by certain birds.” This is it, he thought. “Agitation or excitement; flutter.” Twitter.

One of Twitter’s early problems was the question of who was leading the company? Williams or Dorsey?

Dorsey raced home to try to figure out a plan for his resignation, but the Twitter board instead offered him a three-month window to fix the site and its issues. Not much changed, however, even as text bills mounted, and the site continued to crash. Before the three months were up, Dorsey recalled, Sabet and Wilson took him to a breakfast at the Clift hotel and told him that they were replacing him as C.E.O. with Williams. Dorsey sat before a bowl of uneaten yogurt and granola as he was offered stock, a $200,000 severance and a face-saving role as the company’s “silent” chairman. No one in the industry had to know that he was fired. (Investors would not want to be seen as pitting one founder against another anyway.) But Dorsey had no voting rights at the company. He was, essentially, out.

On Ev Williams ignoring the advice that it’s bad to hire your friends in a start-up:

He [Williams] saw his success as the result of a lot of hard work and also a fair bit of luck, and he wanted to give the people he knew the opportunity to be a part of it. He hired his sister, to stock the kitchens at Twitter; his wife, Sara, was hired to design the new offices; and he employed numerous friends from Google. Among them was Dick Costolo, who had recently sold his start-up for $100 million. After they bumped into each other at a party in 2009, Williams asked him to be Twitter’s chief operating officer. On his first day, Costolo, a former improv comedian, thumbed his first tweet: “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow,” he wrote. “Task #1: undermine CEO, consolidate power.”

In the end, this is a familiar story in Silicon Valley:

In Silicon Valley, most companies have their own Twitter story: a co-founder, always a friend, and often the person with the big idea behind the company, who is pushed out by another, hungrier co-founder. 

Twitter is my favorite social network, so I highly recommended reading this piece in entirety.

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