A new book on Twitter's creation story contains lots of lessons for business and innovation. But, there's also a surprise twist.
Over the next several years I wrote a lot about Twitter, from Is Twitter the most important development on the Web in 2008? to A quick Twitter guide and glossary for business users (in 2009) to my 2011 directory of tech experts to follow on Twitter.
So, when Nick Bilton's book Hatching Twitter arrived on November 5, I immediately got a hold of it and read the whole story within a week during a trip to San Francisco. I hung on as the book raced through Twitter's early development and I happily correlated the events in the book with the details I remembered and wrote about during that period.
I also found myself smiling as the book described very familiar places in San Francisco, since Twitter spawned a few blocks away from the CBS Interactive headquarters in the city's South of Market (SOMA) district.
As with all of these types of business books, I was on the lookout for a handful of practical insights. The biggest surprise was that nearly all of the key takeaways were leadership or innovation insights from Evan Williams. That shocked me, because in the Evan Williams versus Jack Dorsey public brouhaha over the founding and leadership of Twitter, I've always tended to side with Team Jack.
In fact, to this day I still follow @jack but not @ev on Twitter. I had tacitly accepted the publicly-spun myth of Dorsey starting Twitter but being forced out when Twitter got big as Williams shoved him aside once he realized Twitter was a hot commodity. But then, Dorsey returned and rightfully displaced Williams in 2010, or so the myth goes.Bilton's book pretty much blows that whole scenario to pieces. His research paints a much more complicated picture of Twitter's various power struggles, and Bilton's conclusion portrays a Twitter in which Williams, Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass (the forgotten co-founder) all made crucial contributions at critical times to shape what Twitter ultimately became.
However, what shone through above all else for me was Williams' leadership. At several critical times when Twitter could have imploded or gone off the rails, Williams stepped up and made tough decisions that averted disaster. Those decisions made him look like the bad guy in some cases, but kept Twitter moving forward and growing.
The first of those tough decisions was to remove Glass from his early leadership of Twitter, despite his enthusiasm for the product and his overall likeability. As Bilton portrays it, Glass was going through personal problems at the time, was erratic, and was hurting team moral. So, Ev, who had controlling interest in the company, eventually had to remove Glass as leader.
More famously, Williams later pushed Dorsey aside as Twitter was skyrocketing to success. While this was widely portrayed as an ego struggle between Twitter's "inventor" (Dorsey) and its largest shareholder (Williams). Hatching Twitter characterizes it as Dorsey being unable to stabilize Twitter while it suffered from repeated "Fail Whale" outages and technical architecture problems, as well as Jack's difficulties adjusting to his first big leadership role.
Williams and Twitter's board of directors acted decisively to replace Jack with Ev as CEO in October 2008 to handle Twitter's explosive growth with a leader who had more operational experience running a company. Both Williams and the board acknowledged that Dorsey had showed potential as a leader, but Twitter couldn't wait for him to learn and mature. It was rocketing into widespread public attention and suffering from massive technological, operational, and staffing challenges. The move worked. Williams got Twitter stabilized, solidified its core values, and set it on a course to eventually become the respected public company it is today.
Of course, Dorsey went on to earn his stripes as a CEO by starting Square, which turned into a success of its own but developed at a much more measured pace that allowed Dorsey to grow into the role.
Ironically, two years after Williams pushed Dorsey aside as Twitter CEO, Dorsey led a revenge-motivated whispering campaign against Williams to undermine confidence in his leadership. In October 2010, it eventually led to Williams' ouster as CEO in favor of Dick Costolo, whom Williams had hired as Twitter's first COO. Under the new leadership, Dorsey eventually became Executive Chairman of Twitter while continuing his role as Square CEO.In Bilton's narrative, Williams surprisingly comes across as the one who is treated the most unfairly, which directly contradicts the popular myth. After Glass was pushed out, Williams still invited Glass to come sit with the Twitter team for the awards ceremony at South by Southwest in 2007, which turned into Twitter's big coming out party. After Dorsey was removed as CEO, he was made chairman of the company (albeit with a non-voting role on the board). Williams even tolerated Dorsey running around doing PR that exaggerated Jack's role as the "inventor" of Twitter and downplayed the roles of Ev, Biz, and Noah.
However, when Williams was unseated as CEO in 2010, he was eventually pushed all the way out of the company, despite his willingness to compromise and take a background role. Even though he was by far the largest individual shareholder in the company (which made him a billionaire when Twitter launched its IPO on Nov. 6, 2013), Williams was removed from the day-to-day operations and retained only his seat on the board of directors.
Maybe Williams needed to go in order for Twitter to take its next step forward. But, he certainly wasn't afforded any of the respect that he gave to Glass or Dorsey when Williams had to make the difficult decisions to move them out of leadership roles at critical moments in Twitter's development. That certainly makes the case for nice guys finishing last, although Williams' moves allowed Twitter to survive and thrive and he was amply rewarded when the company went public. As a general rule, no one ever feels sorry for billionaires.
Ultimately, I respect both Dorsey and Williams for the good things they've contributed to the world through technology. At Square, Dorsey has helped lower the cost and quicken the process of taking credit card payments for small businesses. This has empowered millions of artists, entrepreneurs, and sole proprietors. At both Blogger and Twitter, Williams pushed his vision of "push-button publishing for the people" to help democratize the media and, in many cases, fight against government and corporate entities that wanted censor people.
They both have important achievements worth admiring. But, from a leadership standpoint, I learned a lot more from Williams in the Hatching Twitter story. Hat tip to Williams, and Bilton.For digital natives, the story is available as both an ebook and an audiobook.