I spent the weekend reading New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton’s captivating Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal (2013.) This tome exposes the dark side of Twitter’s tense founding and the relationships amongst the company’s four founders, Evan Williams (@Ev,) Jack Dorsey (@Jack,) Biz Stone (@Biz,) and Noah Glass (@Noah.)
Personal ambitions unleashed a barrage of backstabbing
This motley crew of four San Francisco transplants chanced upon one another when trying to make it in Silicon Valley and became close friends. They started Twitter in 2006 as a side project at Odeo, an ailing podcasting business bankrolled by Evan Williams. With an appealing—albeit frenzied—startup idealism and naïvete, they forged ahead with the notion of a platform that offered everybody an equal voice in 140 characters.
However, when Twitter (a social media giant with over 206 million daily active users worldwide) began to gain traction as a status-sharing service, tensions quickly emerged between the co-founders. The four founders came to blows over just what Twitter was supposed to be and for the right to be recognized as having conceived it.
Lesson #1 from Twitter’s founding: Never mix business and friendship
The Twitter team’s infighting almost tore the microblogging company apart on more than one occasion in its early days. There was even acrimony over who got to sit by First Lady Michelle Obama at a Time 100 Most Influential People soiree.
Noah Glass, the “forgotten founder,” championed it initially and conceived Twitter’s name. Awkwardly, he was booted out before the startup even incorporated. He was left empty-handed from the contraption he had built and fought for when it was still an idea.
Biz Stone, the tactician and go-between, threatened to quit out of disgust with the infighting.
Hatching Twitter is particularly sympathetic to Evan Williams. He bankrolled Twitter as a fork of Odeo. He pivoted Twitter as a means for talking about what is happening in the world. Williams goaded it to prominence simultaneously as he tried in vain to keep Dorsey’s egotism in check.
Lesson #2 from Twitter’s Founding: Self-sabotage can undermine your hard work
For Jack Dorsey, Twitter was always about telling other people what you were doing and making them feel less alone. Williams chose Dorsey as CEO when Twitter formally became its own company. However, their relationship quickly soured. Dorsey failed to address Twitter’s early technical flaws, even as he took plenty of time to pursue hobbies outside of work. Twitter’s venture investors and Williams ultimately overthrew Dorsey.
Dorsey got bitter and launched another startup called Square (it’s now a thriving digital payments company.) Exploiting the public confusion about his role as Twitter’s chairman (albeit without a vote on the board,) Dorsey went on a media blitz to promote himself as Twitter’s sole inventor and the platform’s real brain.
Author Bilton makes Twitter’s founders seem so inept that one marvels at how the company got anywhere. But even as Dorsey and Williams squabbled, Twitter’s users set in motion a cultural phenomenon through retweets, @replies, and #hashtags. These three precepts gave Twitter its unique depth, scope, and versatility.
Later on, Williams got the boot in a coup d’etat orchestrated by a guileful Dorsey. He returned as Twitter’s executive chairman alongside a new chief executive. Dick Costolo, a former professional comic, made Twitter a revenue-earning business and steered it to an IPO.
Lesson #3 from Twitter’s Founding: Distribute credit—There’s plenty to go around
Interpersonal conflicts are the black ice of startups. Individual styles and priorities that are at odds with other founders can cause much drama in entrepreneurship. At the startup companies that I’ve been involved in, rifts have often forced co-founders to press mediators into their service and learn how to embrace conflict and establish boundaries.
When things are going well at any startup, everyone’s too busy to have much to disagree about. When the startup hits the skids, disputes pop up even where you’d least expect them. Some 65% of startups are suspected of failing because of interpersonal tensions within the founding team.
Hatching Twitter excels in shining a light not just on the founders’ conflicting personalities but how their individual dispositions affected what Twitter became:
Jack had the germ of the idea, of people sharing their status … Without Noah’s vision of a service that could connect people who felt alone, and a name that people would remember, Twitter would never exist. It was Ev who insisted on making Twitter about ‘what’s happening .’.. and without Biz’s ethical stance … Twitter would be a very different company.
Hatching Twitter, The Company That Almost Wasn’t
Recommendation: Quick-read Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter (2013.) It’s a fast-paced, entertaining back-story to how Twitter was founded and the drama caused by its founders’ personality conflicts and all the alliances and ousters and betrayals.
Nick Bilton tells an exciting saga of rivalries turning to fallings-out, hubris unfolding. As great wealth is built and lost, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg notes, “[Twitter is] such as mess—it’s as if they drove a clown car into a gold mine and fell in.” Bilton is gossipy, and his narrative tends to theatrical—an undeniable fodder for an inevitable Hollywood adaptation.