At a playground near Odeo in San Francisco – the podcasting start-up launched by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and his neighbour and fellow entrepreneur Noah Glass – Jack Dorsey pitched the Odeo execs. (Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone were early Odeo recruits.)
They debated the merits of a web-based communication platform that would bring together email, instant messaging, and mobile-phone texting.
‘He came to us with this idea: “What if you could share your status with your friends really easily, so that they know what you’re doing?”’ Biz later recalled.
A team of four got the go-ahead to work on Jack’s idea. Jack, Noah, Biz and Florian Weber – a Berlin-based expert in the emerging, open source web-development framework Ruby on Rails – worked for two weeks to create a prototype.
To enable the service to work with text messaging’s 160-character limit, they set a 140-character update limit. At first, it ran on Noah’s IBM Thinkpad laptop.
The team brainstormed for a name, as Stat.us (Jack's first choice) was taken. ‘Jitter’ and ‘Twitch’ were nominees. Noah finally came up with the name Twitter, which was originally written ‘twttr’. Giving himself the handle @jack, Jack created the first post on 21 March 2006: ‘just setting up my twttr’.
Odeo’s meeting-schedule problem was solved. More significantly, everyone found twttr fascinating and couldn’t resist sharing it with friends. By the end of the first day, there were 20 users.
Shortly afterward, Biz got an insight about twttr’s value after a hot August day spent ripping up carpeting in his stuffy flat with his wife, Livia. Exhausted, Biz took a break and checked his twttr feed. He found Evan had posted a link to a photo of himself. ‘Sipping pinot noir after a massage in Napa Valley’, was Evan’s tweet.
The sharp contrast between their weekend activities gave Biz a laugh – and he realised twttr offered a uniquely engaging way to communicate.
In no time at all, everyone at Odeo spent more time working on and using twttr than they spent on Odeo. A change was clearly in order. But Odeo had raised money for a podcasting product, and twttr was a text-based service. Also, twttr was an unknown quantity: ‘It’s too early to tell what’s there’, Evan wrote on his blog.
Evan took a highly unusual step: he gave all of the Odeo investors their money back in late 2006.
After the buyout, Evan and Biz founded a new company, Obvious Corp., which would develop twttr and find a buyer for Odeo. A key hire was former Blogger product manager Jason Goldman, who would become Twitter’s product vice president. (Blogger was Evan’s previous business, acquired by Google for an undisclosed sum in 2003. Odeo was purchased by start-up SonicMountain for over $1m (£500,000) in mid-2007.)
One of the first things Evan did after buying out the investors was to fire Noah Glass. It was the Golden Rule of business in action – Evan had the Blogger gold, and though Noah had played a key role in Twitter’s creation, the two clashed, and Evan made the rules.
Being a punchline
Two months after launch, Twitter had just 5,000 monthly users. While a few techies were instantly hooked, others didn’t understand how it worked, or chafed at the 140-character limit. It was difficult to describe: was it microblogging? A device-agnostic message-routing system?
‘For the first nine months, everyone thought we were fools’, Biz explained. ‘People would say, “That’s the most ridiculous thing we’ve ever heard of.”
The criticism at the time was Twitter is not useful. To which Ev would say, “Neither is ice cream – should we ban ice cream and all joy?” We were having fun building it.’
Besides the fun factor, what kept the team going? ‘From the very beginning, Ev described it as a communications platform that had revolutionary potential,’ says early employee Jason Stirman, who was Twitter’s engineering manager.
‘It was this simple little website that kept breaking, and people were posting what they had for breakfast, but he had a vision for this thing, even in its infancy.’
The original twttr site – which boasted a green and white colour scheme – was replaced in the autumn with a blue colour scheme and revamped name: Twitter. A year after it was created, in March 2007, Twitter had 20,000 users.
Following Evan’s Blogger model, Twitter was free for users. The company philosophy: build value before seeking profit. All energy went on keeping the site running and users happy. The company supported two important features created by Twitter users: the hashtag (#), enabling users to track popular or ‘trending’ topics, and the forwarding ‘retweet’ button.
To grow its subscriber base, the Twitter team made plans to attend the Texas music and technology conference South by Southwest (better known as SXSW) in Austin in 2007. The previous year, a competing mobile-texting service – Google-owned Dodgeball – had won Best Product at SXSW. In a risky move, Evan and Biz would face down their better-funded competitor before SXSW’s tech-savvy audience of more than 100,000.
Twitter’s marketing plan was to install two large, high-definition plasmascreen monitors in the Austin Convention Center hallways and display attendees’ Twitter updates. There would also be t-shirts emblazoned with the faux status update ‘wearing my twitter shirt’.
Initially, the monitors didn’t work, and Biz and Evan sweated through much of Friday night fixing them. On Saturday morning, Twitter’s server in San Francisco crashed. Then, finally, the screens worked. Attendees stopped to stare at the message scroll – then chose which sessions to attend based on what they read. Many presenters began their sessions by announcing their Twitter usernames. Attendees live-tweeted about what they heard.
But Twitter made its biggest impact at night. Crowds turned like a flock of birds in the Austin streets as mobile phone users read tweets directing them to the hottest venues and away from dull events.
Twitter was doing exactly what Evan envisioned. ‘It was the first time people were able to coordinate in real time’, Biz recalled later. ‘This was spine-tingling stuff for us.’
Stirman recalls, ‘SXSW was fertile ground for this product. You had all these tech people in the city without good ways to communicate with each other, especially at night. They had this “aha” moment – Twitter is useful.’
This exclusive extract is taken from the middle of the ‘Twitter’ chapter, in How They Started Digital: How 25 Good Ideas Became Spectacular Digital Businesses, published by Crimson Publishing.
To read the full chapter, as well as the inspirational inside stories of 24 other top digital businesses (including Groupon, Etsy, Match.com, ASOS, TripAdvisor and Net-A-Porter), pick up your copy of How They Started Digital, available on Amazon now.