Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power,
Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton 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. 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.