Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

Animated Book Summary

Twitter’s journey from start-up to social media giant

The social media giant Twitter had humble beginnings. It was formed by four co-founders: Ev, Noah, Jack and Biz.

Evan Williams was 25 when he moved to California during the tech boom in 1997. He worked for companies such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard and then moved to San Francisco, where he started a company with friends, building software to increase productivity in the workplace. One of the tools Ev built with a colleague was a web-based diary to keep track of work progress. When he released it to the world in 1999, he gave it the name “Blogger” with the aim of allowing anybody to create a web log or blog as its now called.

Blogger’s popularity steadily grew but the start-up Ev was part of split up, leaving him in charge of Blogger on his own. By 2002, he was making some money through donations and adverts. He had also hired some programmers, moved to a small office and blogger stored over 1 million people’s blogs. Ev was even starting to get written about in the tech press.

Ev’s neighbour Noah Glass was reading Fortune magazine one day and recognised Ev from a picture in a feature that was written about him. Noah introduced himself and they became close friends. Blogger headquarters had moved from their office into Ev’s apartment temporarily and Noah often popped round and helped out. One day Ev confided in Noah that Google was interested in buying out Blogger and in 2003 the deal went through. Ev had gone from being often broke to receiving tens of millions of dollars.

Blogger moved to Google’s campus but Ev didn’t enjoy it and soon sold all of his Google stock and left the company. He financed Noah’s audio blogging project, which allowed voice based blogs recorded from a phone, in exchange for becoming the CEO of a newly formed company. It would give Noah’s project a big name in Silicon Valley associated with it and Ev a chance to prove he was not a one hit wonder.

Noah and Ev’s new company was called “Odeo” and developed into an audio-podcasting business. One day Jack Dorsey, a computer programmer was working in a coffee shop near to Odeo’s offices and recognised Ev queuing to be served. Jack emailed his CV and was soon hired to work as a freelancer for Odeo. He proved to be an excellent programmer.

The fourth co-founder, Biz Stone was a Google employee. Biz wanted a job at Blogger and after some interviews and discussions with Ev, got a job there after the Google buyout, despite not having any programming experience. Ev was his direct boss but they built a strong friendship too. When Ev left Google in 2004, Biz didn’t enjoy working there without him and left to start work at Odeo in 2005 with Ev and Noah, sacrificing over $2 million in Google stock options in the process.

All four guys were now at Odeo, but the company was going nowhere. There were conflicts between Ev and Noah on nearly everything and not even the people that worked there used its podcasting service. The nail in the coffin came in June 2005 when Steve Jobs announced that Apple was adding podcasts to iTunes. Ev and Noah spoke about shutting down Odeo but also looked into reinventing it. Jack had the idea of a “status” concept based on another blogging service where people could write small status messages on their blog to tell people what they were doing. Jack thought this status update idea could be created as its own standalone website.

Noah thought the idea could connect people and make them feel less alone. Ev suggested stopping the audio part of Odeo and focusing on a messaging platform where friends can follow each other and Jack’s status idea fit well with this. Biz had a suggestion of utilising mobile phones to create the statuses and between them the outline for what was to become twitter (a name picked by Noah), was born.

The four of them soon set about developing twitter with a small team of colleagues. The site showed statuses in chronological order with a date stamp so people knew when they were posted. After a couple of weeks’ work Jack sent the first official Twitter update (11:50am, 21st March 2006: “just setting up my twttr”).

Before Twitter became successful, Odeo was at a point where Ev had to start laying people off. After a few months, Ev asked Noah to leave the company. Many people in the company were not happy working with him and Jack had given Ev a “him or me” ultimatum. Noah resigned two weeks later and left Odeo and Twitter for good, two companies he helped form.

Twitter was officially launched to the public at the Love Parade — a techno music festival in San Francisco — in September 2006. They handed out flyers in exchange for free shots of alcohol but the launch didn’t go as planned. Most of the flyers were lost over the course of the night and Jack who was leading the Twitter development, had one too many vodka and red bulls, fell over and had to go to hospital with a cut on his head. Overall they got under 100 new signups for Twitter.

They improved the service by making it simpler and more friendly for new users. When a small earthquake hit San Francisco, for the first time people tweeted about something bigger than the individual, bigger than themselves. It was a sign of things to come, when Twitter would be used as a news network as well as a social network, highlighting the speed at which information could be posted.

Twitter began to grow at a good pace. They put up some plasma screens at the 2007 South by Southwest technology conference in Texas, which showed people their live tweets along with their names and faces as well as information on how to sign up. The conference attendees loved it, including the investors and it got lots of attention on all the tech blogs on the web. Signups skyrocketed and Twitter won the prize for best start-up in the blog category. A few months after the conference, Twitter passed 100,000 signups.

Jack had made several important decisions in Twitter’s development such as limiting all tweets to 140 characters or less and Ev asked him to be the CEO. Ev wanted an active role himself but was also involved in other projects. Jack accepted the role.

In June 2007, Twitter had grown to almost 250,000 active users. Yahoo! wanted to acquire the company despite no revenue or business model as yet. Yahoo! offered $12 million which was way below what Ev, Jack and Biz would sell for, so they decided to raise venture capital to expand and grow.

Twitter users introduced the use of two characters naturally. The @ symbol was used, followed by someone’s username to reference someone in a tweet. The # symbol was used to create “hashtags” — a way to organise and group tweets.

Twitter kept growing at such a pace that it often couldn’t cope. The site was still built on what was originally a two-week prototype and high demand was causing site outages. As celebrities joined, they brought more followers and signups with them, exacerbating the problem. Some of the celebrities even visited the office on occasion.

More investment money came in, including some from Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, but the relationship between Jack as CEO and Ev as Chairman was deteriorating and Biz was often caught in the middle. Many people at Twitter (and some investors) thought that Jack was not up to the job of CEO due to the site outages and mounting financial costs with no revenue. Add to this the fact that even in 2008 there was no backup of the database, meaning all tweets and users could be lost and Jack was soon fired as CEO, being replaced by Ev.

Facebook were interested in buying Twitter at this point. Roughly a year and a half after the Yahoo! offer of $12 million, Ev and Biz had a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg where they estimated Twitter was now worth $500 million but ultimately decided they wanted to remain an independent company.

By February 2009, Twitter had about 30 fulltime employees and active users were increasing by 900% per year. Even the site outages were being reduced, but zero revenue meant that monetisation was becoming a top priority. In March, Ev and Biz met with Al Gore to discuss how his TV network could show tweets in real-time. He also proposed a merger of Twitter and his TV network. Other celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Sean “Puffy” Combs had also tried to acquire Twitter. Ev politely declined all three offers.

In April, Ev appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to help Oprah send her first tweet and gain yet more exposure for Twitter. Jack, who was still technically working for the company but did not do any development and had no real power, went to Iraq. He travelled with a delegation of influential tech stars from Google, Twitter, YouTube and others to speak to people such as the Iraqi President about how to use technology to rebuild the country.

Twitter’s exposure had reached all corners of the globe. After claims of a rigged presidential election in Iran, supporters of the opposition candidates voiced their disapproval on twitter and used it to coordinate protests on the streets across the country. Officials from the White House, 10 Downing Street and the Kremlin were now monitoring Twitter as well as security agencies such as the CIA and the FBI to get better information about the potential Iranian revolution. Scheduled maintenance which would take Twitter offline temporarily was postponed for fear of possibly making a difference to what happens in the country.

Facebook again offered to buy Twitter but despite a deal potentially making him a billionaire, it was not about the money for Ev and he declined once more. Twitter was still growing and in 2009, 35 million tweets were sent per day. After another round of funding it was valued at $1 billion, still with less than 100 members of staff.

In December 2009, Twitter made some revenue for the very first time. It struck a deal to display tweets on search engines. It received $15 million from Google and $10 million from Microsoft. They also began experimenting with advertising as a form of income.

By this point with Twitter’s enormous growth, what were small problems as a start-up had developed into large problems. Ev was focused on completely redesigning Twitter and was neglecting some of his responsibilities as CEO. He was also very slow at making decisions, frustrating colleagues. The board voted to remove Ev as CEO. On 4th October 2010, Ev announced to the company that he was stepping down as CEO and taking a role as head of product. He got straight to work on new features for Twitter, but they were largely ignored by the board, as was he. He soon realised he had effectively been fired without being escorted from the office.

In March 2011, Twitter had 450 employees and they welcomed a returning colleague. Jack had re-joined the company as the Executive Chairman. At near enough the same time, Ev emailed colleagues to tell them he was leaving his day-to-day role at Twitter. Biz followed him out the door shortly after in June.

Twitter carried on increasing in size and significance. In 2012 they had 600 employees and a $10 billion valuation. It was making $1 million a day in advertising income from sponsored tweets. Jack interviewed President Obama from the White House and it was streamed live on the web and Twitter. In 2015, Jack took over to once again become CEO of the company.

Three of the four original founders have left the company, working on other projects and chasing other aspirations, but the popularity of the Twitter they helped build lives on. Prominent figures ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Pope regularly use the service, even astronauts in the International Space Station use this important communication tool to speak with millions of people back on planet Earth.