Six years ago when Twitter was just a side project by a podcasting startup called Odeo, there was one member of the early team that wasn’t American. In fact, he wasn’t even based in the U.S., and for two years worked remotely and unknown to the world from an apartment block in Hamburg, Germany.
This is the story of the almost forgotten founding member of Twitter’s earliest crew, a typically modest European, Twitter user number 12, who helped build one of the world’s biggest platforms, today worth as much as $10 billion.
And today he is poised to emerge with a new startup, which, once again, hints at global domination. In fact he describes his excitement about the startup as feeling “exactly like Twitter.”
Florian Weber (@csshsh) was, for a long time, very much in the background of the Twitter story. Although in February 2006, we joined Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey in presenting Dorsey’s “Twttr” idea to the company behind Odeo (headed up by Ev Williams and Biz Stone) we have heard little from the European who was at the centre of Twitter’s earliest development other than brief, passing, mentions.
A core member of the team which created Ruby On Rails, in 2006 Weber was just another programer fascinating by this emerging technology.
His story really begins as a Ruby on Rails developer. Back in 2004 there weren’t many people using RoR. At that stage he was one of the few experts. Eventually he made contact with David Heinemeier Hansson, original creator of the open source web application framework for the Ruby programming language. By chance the Odeo startup was looking for RoR developers and since there weren’t too many around, Hansson recommended the Florian to Ev Williams.
But in 2005 Weber wasn’t in San Francisco.
He was in Hamburg, Germany.
This didn’t matter to Odeo. They wanted to use Ruby on Rails and Weber was the guy they wanted.
So, in 2005, Weber set to working remotely from Hamburg, keeping Odeo’s San Francisco hours.
He worked on Odeo for a year, but he says, it gradually became clear the platform was going nowhere.
“Nobody in the company was using Odeo, and no-one was really that excited by podcasting,” he told me. Odeo seemed a non-starter. The combination of Apple launching easy podcasting from iTunes around the same time eventually sealed the fate of the small startup.
The company had to think fast, and broke up into small teams to hack together new ideas. Eventually Jack Dorsey – says Weber – came up with the idea of Twitter, something which has been widely reported since.
“The idea definitely came from Jack. But to be honest it’s one of those things where it’s a combination of many people talking about it, refining it. Jack had the initial spark and refined it with the two of us (Noah Glass). Noah came up with the name.”
Noah Glass has since emerged as Twitter’s original product lead, and briefly confirmed Weber’s early role.
Weber told me that the original, core team for Twitter consisted of Dorsey, Glass, Stone and himself. Williams was around, but more on the sidelines and busier with Odeo, says Weber.
So what was it like to work at Twitter in the early days?
The first 2 years worked really well he says. “It was about 4/5 people. That worked,” says Weber. Every few weeks he would fly out to San Francisco for meetings with the team. Some of those were captured on Flickr at the time:
But as Twitter grew, there were problems for Weber.
“If the team grows to like 15 and you’re the only one not there then it’s quite bad being the only one not in the office.”
But did he have any idea how big Twitter would eventually get?
“People felt right from the start that we were on to something. Everyone in the office used it,” he says.
But it was early days for the concept, especially in Europe.
“At the same time I had a hard time getting people in Germany to use it. People who called themselves tech experts would say its pointless and bullshit and it’ll never get anywhere. So it took a while. People were always critical before they used it. You had a really hard time explaining it. Then after they used it they actually got it.”
The early days of Twitter saw is experiment with a free SMS deal in the UK, which certainly accelerated its growth amongst geeks. Ironically, SMS use in Europe had been widespread and mainstream when Twitter tried it out but Weber admits the SMS deals were insanely complicated: “It was quite odd coming from Europe that when Twitter said we would do SMS it was like this big new thing to them even though it was old hat to me, coming from Germany. I was really surprised that people in the US didn’t realise how old SMS was. I’d had SMS for seven years or so before that.”
Indeed, he recalls someone crazy phone provider in Italy realising they could make money via Twitter use because users there were paying over the odds to receive the SMS.
But working at Twitter in the early days was no picnic.
“It was quite brutal to be honest. Most of the time I’d work into the night from Hamburg, he says.
In February 2007 he left Twitter. But why? Eventually the long hours had taken their toll.
“After 2 years, when friends are asking you out to dinner and you can’t go – it’s hard” says Weber. “I was burnt out. I didn’t want to move to the US, it was complicated with Visa issues and I couldn’t get a normal Visa. There was no easy way to move and spending more time working late a night was not a great prospect.”
He took time off for a few months and then started working on other projects.
Nor are several other so-called ‘histories’ of Twitter.
But he refuses to be drawn on any potential avenue for controversy. “To be honest… look I’m not getting involved in that kind of drama!” he laughs.
Does he feel he’s been forgotten in Twitter’s history? Does he feel he didn’t get enough credit?
“I’m surprised how people try to make some scandal that we weren’t mentioned in the story.” He notes that he has been mentioned in passing in a couple of articles in the past (such as this one in 2009).
But perhaps more importantly Jack Dorsey has “sent a few tweets out saying the same thing” (@Jack has 1.6 million followers).
Indeed, Dorsey confirmed it recently with this Instagram image of the two together at Twitter’s office titled “This is Florian (@csshsh) & me at the @twitter office! Florian was the first Twitter engineer.”
And it’s worth saying that Weber says he doesn’t require the limelight. Besides, he says, his name is perhaps better remembered by the engineers at Twitter. There are various places where “Weber” is used in the code powering Twitter’s engine, even to this day. This was made even more apparent to Weber when he recently visited Twitter with Dorsey for a trip down memory lane.
“They still use Rails in some parts, and at a recent all hands meeting it was funny to see 500 developers recognise my name!”
He was at Twitter’s latest office on April 13, at an had an all hands meeting. “I went to the old Odeo office – and then saw the new Twitter office and the difference is like night and day!”
So, in terms of the early Twitter crew of Dorsey, Glass, Stone and Williams who does he get on with these days?
“I haven’t talked with Noah in a long time. He seems to be hard to get hold of. I met with Ray McClure – he was a good friend. But Noah kinda dropped off the face of the earth.”
He keeps in contact “now and then” with Dorsey, but “he’s a busy guy.”
Evan and Biz?
“I haven’t talked to them in a long time. They weren’t at the Twitter office recently when I was there, around 6pm.”
So he doesn’t have any contact with them. Are they friends? “They were work mates, but I spent more free time with other people there.”
I guess one question that is worth asking of the European connection of Twitter – did he retain a stake after he left?
The answer comes back: “No comment.”
But, I ask, will he be happy if Twitter exits or IPOs? “I am happy already! No comment!” he laughs again.
But what is his opinion on what’s happened to Twitter since 2007? It’s quite a different animal, he says.
“I think it’s amazing. Some say they don’t have enough features. But to be honest I don’t think much is missing.”
Could anything be improved though?
“The whole conversation part of it is not perfect. But at the same time that was never really considered the whole purpose of Twitter. It’s not a bulletin board.”
Aside from his opinions about where Twitter went after he left, Weber certainly took his experience and ran with it. After leaving he went back to working European time-zone hours at European LinkedIn competitor Xing and the European City guide startup Unlike.net
And lately Weber been spotted in the company of Felix Petersen, former founder and CEO of Plazes (acquired by Nokia), one of the pioneering start-ups in the context and location based services area. He has been rumoured to be working on a new startup judging by his recent tweets.
Guess who with?
Well, put it this way, Weber appears in this Instagram image of the two together.
So it’s interesting how the modest European engineer is emerging as the man behind some of tech’s most influential entrepreneurs.
But despite my pressing, Weber confirms he’s working on something new, but not who with. Read into that what you will.
He is, however, excited. Very, excited.
“It’s very crazy because it feels exactly like Twitter. We built a prototype in two weeks. Same with this startup. We’re actually using the product. You feel like you’re on to something.”
Weber would tell me nothing about the startup, other than it would have a mobile component. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait longer for the detail.
But at least now history can record Weber’s role in Twitter’s birth – the (almost) forgotten European who helped create one of the world’s greatest Internet startups.