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.

On Crowdfunding in Start-Ups

Yesterday, federal legislation went into effect to allow small start-ups to ask for equity investments publicly, such as through social media sites or elsewhere on the Internet, without having to register the shares for public trading. Business owners will now be able to raise any amount, though only, at this point, from accredited investors—those individuals deemed wealthy and sophisticated enough to understand and withstand (tremendous) risk (basically, if you make $200,000 in income per year or have more than $1 million in assets, excluding your primary residence).

I was thinking about this for some time, but I’m glad I read Felix Salmon’s piece “The Idiocy of Crowds” about this latest news. Basically, he thinks it’s a terrible, terrible idea and an easy way to part with your money:

Today’s a big, exciting day for anybody who has found it simply too difficult, to date, to throw their money away on idiotic gambles. Are you bored with Las Vegas? Have you become disillusioned with lottery tickets? Do micro caps leave you lukewarm? Does the very idea of a 3X ETF fill you with nothing but ennui? Well in that case today you must rejoice, because the ban on general solicitation has been abolished, and the web is now being overrun with companies like Crowdfunder and RockThePost and CircleUp which offer a whole new world of opportunity when it comes to separating fools from their money. You can even lose your money ethically, now, if that’s your particular bag. The highest-profile such platform is probably AngelList: as of today, founders like Paul Carr (alongside, according to Dan Primack, over 1,000 others) are out there tweeting at the world in an attempt to drum up new investors.

It is conceivable that over time, these equity crowdfunding platforms will learn from their inevitable mistakes, and the few which survive will learn how to be something other than a hole in which to pour millions of dollars…

I thought the email that Felix received from an anonymous angel investor was particularly wise:

These guys are building their business on the notion/dream that somehow the internet can disintermediate social and relationship capital. I’d argue that this is precisely what the internet can not do: if you’re going to invest in a startup, you’d better know the founders, and you’d better know something that most people do not know. Information asymmetry is the only way to lower the risk profile on such crazy risky investments.

Disclosure: I am staying on the sidelines; I just thought the news was interesting.

Cofounder of Prismatic on Leaving Academia

Aria Haghighi, co-founder of the app Prismatic, discusses his decision to leave academia in this blog post. Aria holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UC Berkeley and a BS in Mathematics, and his area of focus was Natural Language Programming. It’s an interesting thought process:

At some point while at MIT, I decided to leave and do a startup because I felt my work as an academic wasn’t going to have the impact I wanted it to have. I went into academic CS in order to design NLP models which would become the basis of mainstream consumer products. I left because that path from research to product rarely works, and when it does it’s because a company is built with research at its core (think Google). This wasn’t a sudden realization, but one I had stewed on after observing academia and industry for years.

During grad school, I did a lot of consulting for ‘data startups’ (before ‘big data’ was a thing) and consistently ran into the same story: smart founders, usually not technical, have some idea that involves NLP or ML and they come to me to just ‘hammer out a model’ for them as a contractor. I would spend a few hours trying to get concrete about the problem they want to solve and then explain why the NLP they want is incredibly hard and charitably years away from being feasible; even then they’d need a team of good NLP people to make it happen, not me explaining ML to their engineers on the board a few hours a week. Useable fine-grained sentiment analysis is not going to be solved as a side project.

And his thoughts on making this tough decision:

Nearly two years later, after a lot of learning about industry and making real products, I can confidently say that I’m happy I left academia. Prismatic is a pretty tight realization of how I would’ve wanted NLP and ML to work in a startup and manifest in product. The relationship is symbiotic: the machine learning and technology is informing possibilities for the product, and conversely product needs are yielding interesting research. Various pieces of the machine learning (like the topics in a topic model) are first-class product elements. Many of the more ambitious NLP ideas I thought about during grad school will become first-class aspects of the product over the next few years.


Paul Graham on Good vs. Bad Start-up Ideas

This is a wise essay from Paul Graham on why many start-ups fail while others succeed. The difference is that the founders who build a start-up to solve their own problems versus what they think people need:

Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn’t merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them.

At YC we call these “made-up” or “sitcom” startup ideas. Imagine one of the characters on a TV show was starting a startup. The writers would have to invent something for it to do. But coming up with good startup ideas is hard. It’s not something you can do for the asking. So (unless they got amazingly lucky) the writers would come up with an idea that sounded plausible, but was actually bad.

For example, a social network for pet owners. It doesn’t sound obviously mistaken. Millions of people have pets. Often they care a lot about their pets and spend a lot of money on them. Surely many of these people would like a site where they could talk to other pet owners. Not all of them perhaps, but if just 2 or 3 percent were regular visitors, you could have millions of users. You could serve them targeted offers, and maybe charge for premium features.

The danger of an idea like this is that when you run it by your friends with pets, they don’t say “I would never use this.” They say “Yeah, maybe I could see using something like that.” Even when the startup launches, it will sound plausible to a lot of people. They don’t want to use it themselves, at least not right now, but they could imagine other people wanting it. Sum that reaction across the entire population, and you have zero users.

You should read the whole post here.