I recently had the chance to interview Twitter CEO and co-founder, Evan Williams, a nice lad who grew up on a farm in rural Nebraska. In this exclusive interview Evan talks about how Twitter came about, how it has evolved and, and his approach to innovation. Read on…
Twitter wasn’t Evan’s first breakthrough product. In 1999 he had started a company called Pyra and, while working on a project management web application as a way to keep track of the project, the team wrote script to turn a personal website into a blog, which eventually turned into Blogger. “It wasn’t at all what our company was planning go do, it was very much just an idea on the side which seemed like a very small idea compared to what we were working on.” They basically just stumbled on the idea behind Blogger.
Evan says that his co-developers had more discipline than he did so wanted to focus on the original product, but he couldn’t bring himself to drop it. “I just couldn’t get rid of the Blogger idea, it kept nagging me,” he says. And he eventually convinced his co-developers to build it on the side. But, “it turned out to be more interesting than then original plan” and Blogger started getting some traction, so eventually they shut down the original project to focus on it. Blogger became very successful and Evan and his partners sold their company, Pyra, together with Blogger for an ‘undisclosed sum’ to Google in February 2003.
With Twitter, Evan says it was similar in some ways, but different in many others. By that time he’d left Google and started a new company, called Obvious, to develop ideas. He called it ‘obvious’ because, he says, often after an idea has been developed other people will say, that it was “obvious” from the start. Compared to Pura, “we were further along with the company,” he says. “We had raised venture capital and were about a year into the company. We were more like 14 people instead of 3. We were focusing on a podcasting product that wasn’t really taking off and so were actively looking for new ideas.” And Twitter was one of the ideas they came up with.
But, why did he think it was a good idea?
It’s not as if there weren’t enough ways to communicate with friends when Twitter was conceived (it was launched in March 2006) – blogs, email, IM, phone…even F2F (‘face-to-face’ in Internet jargon). “I don’t know,” says Evan. “A lot of it, for me anyway was gut.” He’d seen how people had used Blogger and saw the similarities with Twitter, and he saw its potential. “Once we had the prototype and were using it ourselves, then it was very clear it was interesting. It was immediately compelling to the small group of us using it.”
But, Twitter didn’t take off overnight. In fact, despite the success of Blogger, he knew Twitter would difficult to explain to the finance folks. He didn’t try to convince the the original investors in his new company of the value of Twitter and eventually he bought the company back from them. “It would have been a tough sell,” admits Evan.
Since its launch three years ago, how people use Twitter has evolved. “It’s changed quite a bit in the ways people use from what we originally imagined,” he says. “It’s continually surprising. Even though we have had the notion for a while that Twitter has the potential to be very big, it’s the way it’s grown and the different uses and the reality of it becoming big in so many different ways is always surprising.” When he first used it he took it much literally, ‘what are you doing?’ to update friends. It’s now become much broader than that. People have learned “It’s just a way to communicate something to a bunch of people at once.” It’s now become a way to find out what’s happening with the things people care about – whether friends, news, events, a band, a sports team.
(Of course Facebook has it’s own ‘what are you doing now?’ feature, but Evan thinks that people use it very differently to how people use Twitter because Facebook is for people in their social circle, wheras Twitter doesn’t have to be.)
He thinks media usage will continue to evolve and before long other things will come along that’ll make Twitter look pretty primitive. But, certain new patterns in media have now started to stabilize. For instance, the reverse chronology time-line (most recent stuff first) seen on blog posts (like this one) is now how people consume media, whereas not too long ago it was a novelty. And, “one that will be obvious to everyone soon is that all media is social media. There will be very few examples of media that stands alone and don’t have commentary from other people.” A positive thing about media, he believes, is that people question its credibility a lot more now than they used to, and media sources – bloggers, twitterers – will get a reputation for being credible when, and if, other people say they are credible.
Obvious doesn’t exist as a company any more, it’s all about Twitter. The plan had originally been to develop more products like Twitter and spin them off into their own companies. “In the case of Blogger and Twitter the ideas that became interesting were not the ideas the companies were founded for,” he says. The most interesting ideas are often hard to fund at first because they are so new. Most times, he says, it’s almost impossible to start something on the side (like he did, twice), you just say, “I can’t do that.” So, he “wanted to create environment to pursue those sort of ideas and where it would also be okay if they didn’t work” – the ideas that exist somewhere between hobbies and ones needing venture capital money.
While the theory behind Obvious is sound, “in practice it didn’t really get off the ground,” he says. “Twitter was getting to the point where it deserved to be its own company. I found myself gravitating towards Twitter and I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a mode where I was switching my focus so much. Multiple times a day I was switching projects and I found, for myself, that way of working didn’t work at all. I came to the conclusion it was better to do one really big thing than lots of small or medium things, and there was nothing that I could think of that was potentially as big as Twitter.” So, Evan is not even thinking beyond Twitter now.” Twitter’s the biggest possible thing I could do,” he says.
I asked him about his creativity. “I’ve always thought of myself as very creative. I’m not a ‘wacky’ creative, I’m more of an innovator and I see potential in things and I see opportunities and I’m good at synthesizing ideas.” He’s very clear that he didn’t invent Twitter, but he did see what it could become. “I’m good at recognizing new ideas when often the people who came up with them don’t recognize them themselves that they’re good ideas.” His skill is partly in “questioning assumptions, which I think is a core thing in creativity. I’m continually asking ‘are we thinking big enough?’ and pushing the team towards not just solving the problem we have today, but thinking much bigger, thinking ‘well, why are we stopping there?’”
And, when it comes to innovation, he is more of a doer than a talker. “I’m a big believer in just trying stuff,” he says. “I don’t want to debate too much whether or not something’s a good idea until we see it in action.” This is possible with web applications in particular where it’s often just as easy to try it out as talk about it. “The Achilles heal of successful products and even companies is that success locks you into a certain mode and it allows the upstarts to come in and try something completely different, or just different enough to be superior.”
During his time working for Google Inc., despite its reputation as one of the most innovative companies around, he saw a lot of projects not able to get off the ground because Google were focused on much more important incremental improvements. “You have to accept a certain amount of discomfort if you think there’s a better way to go.” At Google they use endless amounts of data to make the decisions and are constantly testing new things on a very small percentage of users and seeing their reaction. But, there are many innovations for which that process doesn’t really work, where numbers don’t necessarily tell you the story. “Sometimes you just have to go with your gut,” says Evan.
Talking of his own background, he says, “I definitely think people can learn how to ‘do’ creativity, but I think for the most part people ‘unlearn’ how to do it. At grade school my parents were told by my teachers I would come up with the right answers, but the wrong way. Even if I knew the answer I didn’t want to get to it the way they wanted me to get to it.” He strongly believes that creativity is often beaten out of kids at school, it’s about coming to the same conclusions as everybody else. He rejected that philosophy, but rebelled in a quite way by throwing his energy into changing the status quo through technology.
“It was a nerdy form of rebellion,” he says.