Creation, Myths and Twitter

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

Great article by Nick Bilton on the creation myth (and true story) behind Twitter. To see that luck plays an unimaginably huge role in life you just need to look carefully at the story behind any successful company or entrepreneur.

NYTimes: … 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.

… Whatever his reasons, Dorsey had recently met with Williams and threatened to quit if Glass wasn’t let go. And for Williams, the decision was easy. Dorsey had become the lead engineer on Twitter, and Glass’s personal problems were affecting his judgment. (For a while, portions of the company existed entirely on Glass’s I.B.M. laptop.) After conferring with the Odeo board, around 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 26, 2006, Williams asked Glass to join him for a walk to South Park. Sitting on a green bench, Williams gave his old friend an ultimatum: six months’ severance and six months’ vesting of his Odeo stock, or he would be publicly fired. Williams said the decision was his alone.

… Williams and Dorsey started meeting for weekly dinners to discuss the problems, but one night Dorsey became defensive. “Do you want to be C.E.O.?” he said abruptly. Williams tried to evade the question, but eventually replied: “Yes, I want to be C.E.O. I have experience running a company, and that’s what Twitter needs right now.” … 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.

… Access to the tech blogosphere and press can help percolate a fledgling start-up into a multibillion-dollar business. But this access often relies on having a narrative — being an entrepreneur with just the right creation story. … After he was stripped of his power at Twitter, Dorsey went on a media campaign to promote the idea that he and Williams had switched roles. He also began telling a more elaborate story about the founding of Twitter. In dozens of interviews, Dorsey completely erased Glass from any involvement in the genesis of the company. He changed his biography on Twitter to “inventor”; before long, he started to exclude Williams and Stone too.

… Without Williams and Stone influencing its development with the lessons they learned from Blogger, it still would not have taken off. Making it a company required Williams’s money, then Wilson, Sabet and Fenton’s and dozens of other investors, not to mention Costolo, who turned it into viable business, and 2,000 employees who helped shape it into one of the biggest social networks on the planet. Such is the case with every company in Silicon Valley, though you never hear it in their creation myth. Dorsey will make $400 million to $500 million when Twitter goes public. Glass stands to make about as much as Dorsey’s secretary at Square. …

This is from a 2009 post Me and Twitter. I had met Williams at Foo Camp, probably in 2007. In the 2009 post I didn’t mention that most of the conversation was about Odeo, Williams’ podcasting startup from which Twitter sprang as an almost accidental creation. His description to me of how the Twitter idea originated was a bit different than what Bilton reports.

I met Twitter founder Evan Williams a few years ago, before Twitter was anywhere near a big thing. He told me about Blogger, which he sold to Google, and then the inevitable “So what are you working on now?” question came up.

He described Twitter to me, and two thoughts entered my mind. The first shows I am old, or out of touch, or have no feel for Web 2.0 consumer startups: “Who would use that?” I said to myself.

The second thought, which I actually verbalized, turns out to be a good question (still unanswered) and shows I may have VC potential: “How are you going to monetize that?” :-)

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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