Startup School: Ev Williams And Biz Stone Admit Even Twitter Thought Twitter Was Stupid At First


Ev Williams and Biz Stone have just taken the stage at Startup School, where they’ll be taking many questions form the audience. You can submit questions by tweeting a question like this “@poll _________” (where the blank is your question). I’ll be liveblogging the session.

Q: What was the original motivation behind Twitter?
Biz: We should start with Odeo. We were working at Odeo, we weren’t as passionate about the podcasting service as we should have been. We weren’t using it, and that was a problem. Twitter got started because Ev gave us some freedom to think along different lines.

Biz: We (Jack Dorsey and Stone) did a thing where we had two weeks to build something and demo. Build it, try it out over the weekend. If it sticks we may keep working on it. I was ripping out carpeting during a heat wave and then my phone vibrated in my pocket, and it was Ev. And it said he was sipping pinot noir. I realized I was totally engaged in this product. So we decided we should keep working on it. At the beginning it was “okay this seems compelling”. Early on someone said “twitter is fun but it isn’t useful”. Ev said “Neither is ice cream”. So what if it’s just fun? SXSW 2007 was a huge watershed moment for us, first time we saw real potential in the tool. Saw people tweeting about a good session to go to.

Q: How long did the first version take to build?
Biz: It looked a lot like a simple sketch Jack had done. A box for updating, there wasn’t even a question at the time.
Ev: I think it said “what’s your status.” It was very focused on SMS as well. The whole idea was about SMS, that’s why it was 140 characters. But there was one concept that was completely different — because it was status, it didn’t repeat them based on time, it showed them like a buddy list. The first version had the ugliest logo of all time.
Biz: First version was kind of janky but cute, but then we got clever. We learned, “Don’t get clever”. Unless it’s T-shirts, then it’s ok.
Q: When you first launched this, did you realize how big it would be?
Biz: Yeah, we knew Barack Obama was going to use it.
Ev: I knew I was going to be on Oprah in two years.

Q: What about scaling, was that a problem? We tell startups if you have that problem you’re lucky…
Ev: It was a serious problem, but I wouldn’t change that advice. Our problem wasn’t that it blew up and was impossible to scale, but there were some bad choices made. One of our biggest lessons time after time was to focus. Do fewer things. We were doing all kinds of things (Twitter via IM, AIM) when the core thing didn’t work. Got to the point where we started pulling stuff in, which is more painful, because there’s a segment of users that really likes it. We weren’t very organized internally with our engineers. Lots of smart guys pulling off amazing feats, but they were small team and making it up as we went.
Biz: Even with ten people we made an assumption that we all knew what everyone was working on, but that was a wrong move. You still need to make an effort to communicate.

Q: How did you estimate the size of the market?
Ev: We didn’t. There are different ways to approach startups. One thing I admired about Google is we said “this thing is huge, and we’re going to kick ass at it”. It’s the CS approach to business. The other approach is “this might be a thing if we pull this off”. I ran into this when we were at Google with Blogger. People asked how big is the market for blogging? I said “I don’t know”, but if we make it awesome lots of people would do it. With Twitter there is no market, other than we knew it was cool.
Biz: If anything we sort of thought it a waste of time, some of our engineers thought it was a waste of time, “If you add video to it maybe I’d work on it”.

Q: Any advice you got early on that you didn’t take that you wish you had?
Biz: I remember Ev going home one weekend and coming back with this genius plan for Odeo,, asked me to read it. It was this whole plan for how we could make it a successful business. I thought wow this is genius, but then again so is podcasting. Then slept on it. Do we want to be kings of podcasting? We were constantly gut checking.

Q: What advice to you have for anyone developing projects on Twitter?
Biz: Keeping going let us know when you need help
Ev: We want to keep expanding the platform, helping the ecosystem. A lot of the value for twitter comes from third party devs. We’re bolstering our platform team (both engineering and dev support side).

Q: I know when you got started people questioned what you were doing. What did people misunderstand?
Biz: Fun, trivial, someone called it the ‘Seinfeld’ of the internet.
Ev: Both of us went through a similar experience with blogging. There’s a similar pattern with what happened with blogging. Blogging was more a movement than one company. I went for years defending blogging. People were asking why are you filling the web with all of this crap?

: Do you see yourselves going public?
Ev: It’s a possibility. Our goal is to change the world, and we’re going to build the best company we can to realize that goal, reach Twitter’s potential. At some point going public may make the most sense. We’re nowhere near thinking of that. At one time I might have said “that’s ridiculous”, but I don’t say that any more. We can be more creative than IPO or being acquired.

Q: How important was API to your success?
Biz: Huge. Really early on this contractor was working from Germany, didn’t want to pay SMS from Germany. Said I want to write something that lets me do it from IM. So we were like, why not make an API (in Rails is one line of code). Some stuff happened. Twitterific guys made cool Mac app. Desktop app for Twitter was cool. Previously if you posted from web it said “via” web or “via sms”. We did “posted via twitterific”. That was the beginning. Now tens of thousands of different apps.

Q: Geolocation.
Ev: We are building geolocation into Twitter. We’ve had fledgling support on profile. And you can search by location we determine in fuzzy way. Location is huge. Reason we’re excited about geolocation, we don’t know how it will change our business. We’re releasing location in the API, eventually in our interface.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

21 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

22 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android