A few hours after Jack Dorsey learned he had been fired from his position as Twitter CEO, he reluctantly took a seat in the company’s conference room and waited for an explanation from his cofounder and frenemy Evan Williams. Williams had clashed repeatedly with Dorsey over how to run the company and eventually worked with two of Twitter’s top investors to effectively switch their roles, making Williams CEO and forcing Dorsey to become the chairman, with no real power.
“What the f*ck!” Dorsey said when Williams finally entered the conference room. Williams, reading from a script in his head, simply responded by saying, “I’m sorry. These things aren’t always easy.” Dorsey continued to protest that Williams was taking his company away, prompting another scripted response from Williams: “This isn’t your company. It’s done.”
That exchange, which comes from Hatching Twitter, a new book recounting the company’s history by New York Times reporter Nick Bilton, sums up the early days of Twitter and the brutal truth each of its founders had to accept: It was anything but easy, and in the end Twitter never really belonged to any one of them in particular.
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Twitter was arguably born on Feb. 27, 2006 in a conference room at Odeo, a struggling San Francisco podcasting startup. Odeo was the brainchild of Noah Glass, which was backed and run by Williams and home to a low-level engineer named Jack Dorsey. One night earlier that week, Dorsey drunkenly started telling Glass about an idea — or really the fragment of an idea — that he had mentioned (also drunkenly) in the past: a website for sharing status updates much in the way people did with away messages. Though he’d shrugged off the idea before, something clicked for Glass and he suddenly realized the potential of such a service to connect people. So on the second to last day of the month, Glass gathered Dorsey, Williams and Biz Stone — the four co-founders — into a conference room to talk about exploring a side project that would become Twitter.
In the months and years that followed this meeting, there would be much debating about who contributed what to Twitter’s creation, but Bilton does an admirable job unpacking these claims and showing that it was very much a group collaboration that laid the groundwork for the social network we know today.
“With this collaboration, it all started to come together,” Bilton writes. “Jack’s concept of people sharing their status updates; Ev’s and Biz’s suggestion to make sure updates flowed into a stream, similar to Blogger; Noah adding timestamps, coming up with the name, and verbalizing how to humanize status by ‘connecting’ people; and finally, friendships and the idea of sharing with groups that had percolated out of Odeo and all the people who had worked there.”
While that collaboration proved essential to Twitter’s conception, the clashing visions and egos of its founders risked tearing the company apart. Glass initially oversaw the project, but his erratic behavior and eagerness to control Twitter’s direction rubbed Dorsey and Williams the wrong way, and he was pushed out of the company and its history. He tried futilely to keep in touch with the founders who had been his friends, then tried unsuccessfully to escape Twitter and the blue bird logo that was popping up in stores across the West Coast.
Williams named Dorsey CEO, but his inexperience quickly became a problem: He got drunk and hospitalized during the first Twitter launch event, didn’t prioritize fixing Twitter’s many outages and made basic accounting errors in managing the business. He focused efforts on building a dedicated page for the 2008 elections even though there was a far more pressing issue: the social network still had no backup for its database. The two disagreed about the vision for the site — news (Williams) verses personal updates (Dorsey) — and over Dorsey’s tendency to leave work early and work on passion projects. Eventually Williams replaced Dorsey as CEO only to be pushed out himself by investors spurred on by Dorsey in a high-stakes game of musical chairs.
(Biz Stone is the only one who comes off well in the book, even noble at times, somehow balancing friendships with Dorsey and Williams and threatening to quit if Dorsey was fired outright.)
Yet throughout these transitions, there was one constant: Twitter kept growing. And soon enough everyone wanted a piece of it. Ashton Kutcher, sitting by the pool at his home with his then-wife Demi Moore tried to convince Stone and Williams to sell him equity in the company. P. Diddy did something similar. Even former Vice President Al Gore got Stone and Williams liquored up at his hotel room in order to try negotiating a partnership with his Current TV. Facebook and Yahoo each expressed interest in acquiring Twitter, then threatened to launch rival features to kill the service if it declined. Little did they know that nothing could kill Twitter, not even its founders.
Williams and Dorsey fought over whether Twitter should be about news or personal updates, but the Twitter community evolved to share both. Stone and Williams shrugged off the idea of using hashtags (“Hashtags are for nerds,” Stone said early on), but the community turned them into a key feature. The social network suffered outage after outage, but users flocked to it even more for all the extra press these outages gave the service. Just as they do now, users would take to Twitter to complain about any of Twitter’s service problems or changes, which may be the ultimate compliment to the service.
At the end of the book I was left with one thought: Look at how much Twitter was able to evolve and grow its user base, becoming a tech phenomenon, even with an inexperienced crew of hackers and a rotating cast of top execs. Imagine what the company can do now with some stability and decisive leadership. Twitter may still be struggling to grow into aprofitable company, but there’s no doubt reading this book that it has come a long way from the days when it was run by novice, feuding founders. On the eve of Twitter’s IPO, that should come as a relief to investors. Twitter’s transition to becoming a public company has gone much more smoothly than its transition to becoming a private company in the early days.
Anyone remotely interested in Twitter, its IPO or the technology world in general should pick up Bilton’s book. It is a cinematic description of four founders alternately motivated by friendship and egos and of the many shells that had to be cracked to hatch Twitter.