Twitter has millions tweeting in public communication service

Twitter has millions tweeting in public communication service

By Jon Swartz, USA TODAY
2009 May 25

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s tea time at Twitter. While
that may evoke images of courtly discussion over Earl Grey and finger
sandwiches, it’s quite another thing at Silicon Valley’s new "it"
company.

twitterfellows.jpg
Twitter’s founders, from left, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams.

The idea is that any employee can step in front of the 43-person
start-up and offer a no-holds-barred weekly critique on a Friday
afternoon. Co-founders Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone often
watch from the back, taking mental notes. Some employees recite poems;
others make wacky slide presentations. The point is to express what the
company means to them.

In another tradition, Alison Sudol, a musician with more than 500,000
followers on Twitter, this month spoke at headquarters, part of a
monthly ritual in which artists and academics drop by to impart wisdom
and entertain.

Both events underscore the bottom-up culture fostered by Twitter’s
unassuming co-founders, who have become reluctant media stars. "Tech
founders get a little too much emphasis," CEO Evan Williams says. "So
many people here contribute to our success."


Today, it seems everyone wants a piece of Twitter. There have been
rumors of takeover overtures from Google, Facebook and Apple. Twitter,
like Google, has become a verb (though the proper term is "tweet").
Twitter’s co-founders have had a profound impact on how millions of
people communicate. Yet, despite appearances on Oprah,The View and The
Colbert Report,  many refer to them as simply The Twitter Guys.

"They’ve created a new way for people to communicate publicly and
instantaneously," says Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist who is on the
company’s six-member board and an investor.

The trio, all in their 30s, are college dropouts with a modest track
record of success. Each helped start a company before Twitter. Dorsey
invented the service out of his deep fascination with taxi dispatches
and city grids. Williams began reading business books for fun as a
teenager. Stone wrote two books on blogging, and is Twitter’s de facto
public relations department.

They’re sitting on a potential gold mine. The 3-year-old firm raised
$35 million in February alone — $55 million to date — and was recently
valued at about $100 million.

To be sure, behind the feel-good vibes, meteoric growth and nationwide
fixation, Twitter’s founders face issues of user retention, outages and
persistent questions about monetization. Such are the challenges for a
highflying start-up trying to live up to its considerable hype in the
worst economy in more than 70 years.

Yet, industry leaders such as Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh are convinced Twitter is up to the task.

"All three (Twitter founders) have the belief that Twitter can change
the world and the passion to make it actually happen," says Hsieh, a
Web sales guru and fan of Twitter.

 

The brain trust

The weight of all of the lofty expectations
rests squarely on the slight shoulders of Williams, 37, who oversees
daily operations. The Clarks, Neb., native succeeded Dorsey as chief
executive in October. He has successfully navigated a start-up before.
As co-founder of Blogger, one of the first applications for creating
and managing blogs, he helped sell it to Google for an undisclosed
amount in 2003.

Following Blogger’s sale, Williams was not long
for Google. He eventually hooked up with a friend, Noah Glass, to start
Odeo, at the time a podcasting company. It was there that the Twitter
concept was born.

"Ev is the total package," says Chris Sacca, one
of Twitter’s first investors and an adviser. "He reminds me so much of
(Sacca’s former Google bosses and co-founders) Sergey (Brin) and Larry
(Page). They understand products and how they can fit in the future."

The son of a now-retired farmer, Williams showed
a predilection for commerce as a teenager. He read business books on
real estate, marketing and publishing. "I realized I could buy books
and learn something that people spent years learning about," says
Williams, who dropped out of the University of Nebraska just as the Web
was becoming a phenomenon, in 1994.

While Williams bears the operational brunt of
running Twitter, the tireless Stone is the marketing hub. On a typical
day, he fields 100 media requests.

"Ev is the technology builder, and Biz is the
evocative and communicative one," says Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn,
the popular business-networking service.

Their partnership was born of a close working
relationship and friendship built after starting out as business
competitors. In 2000, Stone co-founded Xanga.com, a website that hosts
blogs and social-networking profiles. It "looked a lot like MySpace
before MySpace," he says. Its rival was Williams’ Blogger.

After Google bought Blogger, Williams asked
Stone to join Google to help reboot Blogger with a new design and
features. "I didn’t really know Evan then," Stone says. "We were just
familiar with each others’ work. There was a mutual admiration."

By 2005, they left Google for Odeo. Stone’s
timing could have been better — he gave up his Google stock options
because he wasn’t there long enough to be vested — but Odeo was where
Twitter was born.

"Twitter is so many things: a messaging service;
a customer-service tool to reach customers, as proven by Zappos,
Comcast and others; real-time search; and microblogging," says Stone,
35.

The least visible co-founder, Dorsey, 32, is
rarely around the office and already onto his Next Big Thing. But the
St. Louis native is the mastermind behind the notepad sketch in 2000
that led to Twitter. "My whole philosophy is making tech more
accessible and human," Dorsey says.

When an image of the sketch was uploaded on the
Internet in 2006, Dorsey wrote: "I had an idea to make a more ‘live’
LiveJournal. Real-time, up-to-date, from the road. Akin to updating
your AIM status from wherever you are, and sharing it. …We’re calling
it twttr."

"Jack’s original vision was staggering for its potential, as well as its simplicity," Sacca says.

These days, Dorsey is chairman of the company’s
board of directors and a strategic adviser, but is devoting his
energies to a top-secret start-up. He won’t say much about the new
venture — only that it involves tech and communications, and that it
may make its debut this summer.

In many ways, the boyish-looking Dorsey best
captures the spirit and look of Twitter. He bears a forearm-length
tattoo that he says represents an F-sharp, an integral symbol from
mathematics, and a human clavicle — the only bone, he says, with "free
range of motion."

"I’m a very low-level programmer," Dorsey says,
chuckling. "This idea of a short, inconsequential burst of activity
(Twitter) turned out pretty well."

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