Noah Glass is the Twitter cofounder you’ve never heard of.
He was pushed out of the company way back in 2006.
Before that he was the cofounder of a startup called Odeo. He had an investor who would become cofounder and CEO, Ev Williams.
Odeo was supposed to be a podcasting platform. But then Apple launched iTunes and everyone at Odeo panicked.
Williams told everyone: come up with something for us to do next!
Along with Jack Dorsey and a developer named Florian Webber, Glass pitched something called Twitter. Glass came up with the name. Williams liked it enough to put Glass in charge. The product became Glass’s obsession. He told Williams he wanted to spin it out of Odeo as its own company.
But by the summer of 2006, Williams was tired of Odeo. He bought it – and its assets, including Twitter – back from Odeo investors. He renamed the company Obvious. Then he fired Noah Glass.
Writing that story, we managed to finally get a hold of Glass, who had not updated his Twitter, YouTube, or blog accounts in almost two years. Friends thought he had moved to Alaska and dropped out of life.
The conversation we had with Glass touched on what it feels like to be left out of history, how hard it is to be “betrayed” by your friends, and whether Ev Williams lied to Odeo investors about Twitter’s numbers. It went like this…
BUSINESS INSIDER: Tell me if I’m wrong. It seems like you are the Twitter cofounder that no one talks about. Is that it?
NOAH GLASS: Well, yeah. That’s true.
I was not in the story, which in some ways was difficult to deal with in the beginning, since it was a massive labour of love and a massive labour to get it created. To create the thing, to bring it into the world. It was a ton of effort and a ton of energy.
To not be included in the story was hard to swallow at first, but when I realised what was happening to the product, this thing I helped create, the thing’s not about me. The thing’s about itself. Twitter is a phenomenon and a massively beneficial tool and it’s incredibly useful and it helps a lot of people. I realised the story’s not about me. That’s OK.
BI: Tell me a little bit about the beginning of 2006 and how this thing got going.
NG: [Odeo] was in turmoil, honestly. Investors were not really happy with what was going on. Ev, who was CEO, was not really happy with the company with growth and the direction it was going. We were sort of looking for something else. We were looking for a backup plan. We had a certain amount of money and we had a team in place. We just started experimenting with stuff.
I was looking at stuff like how people were communicating on MySpace and other social networking things and seeing how people were trying to communicate and seeing how systems weren’t really designed to do what people were doing with them. But people were trying to communicate in a certain kind of way. Non-synchronous. Non-realtime communication. Almost like building on the blogging idea.
Jack [Dorsey] was someone who was one of the stars of the company and I got the impression he was unhappy with what he was working on. He was doing a lot of cleanup work on Odeo. He and I had become pretty close friends and were spending time together.
He started talking to me about this idea of status and how he was really interested in status. He developed this bicycle messenger status system in the past. I was trying to figure out what it was he found compelling about it. At the same time, we were looking at ‘groups’ models and how groups were formed and put a couple things together to look at this idea of status and to look at this idea of grouping and it sort of hit me – the idea for this product. This thing that would be called Twitter, what it would look like. This ad hoc grouping mechanism with non-realtime status updates all based on mobile phones.
There was a moment when I was sitting with Jack and I said, “Oh, I do see how this could really come together to make something really compelling.” We were sitting on Mission St. in the car in the rain. We were going out and I was dropping him off and having this conversation. There was a moment where it all fit together for me.
We went back to Odeo and put together a team. A very separate working team, mostly it was myself, Jack, and Florian [Webber], a contractor. [Florian] was working from Germany at the time. Have you talked to Florian at all?
BI: I’ve tried to reach him but he’s difficult to reach.
NG: I haven’t spoken with him in 5 years. He has his own ideas about how life works. He’s an amazing guy and a major part of it also.
That’s a thing I want to reiterate – you’re trying to look for the full story. Some people have gotten credit, some people haven’t. The reality is it was a group effort. There were lots of people putting ideas into and it couldn’t have been done without this group of people. Whether or not there’s individuals who get credit or don’t get credit, that may be totally irrelevant. It was a collaboration. And it was almost a collaboration that came out of necessity.
In a lot of ways, we needed something. We felt a definite pressure. I felt like in two months I’d have nothing to take on. I had no idea what I was going to be doing. I was looking for something else and I wanted to keep the team together.
I put together a barebones team and kept it really separate and I ran it by Ev and the investors. I did all I could to keep it separate because there was lots of stuff going on with Odeo. Trying to make it better, trying to sell it. And lots of distractions. It was really difficult. Here I was inside of a sinking ship trying to launch a rocketship out of it. It was a very tumultuous, scary, and nervous time.
BI: I heard from one of Odeo’s investors that you approached people at one point to say, “Hey, let me spin this thing off and start a company called Twitter.” Is that true?
NG: Yeah. That’s totally true. And that’s probably part of the reason why I’m no longer involved with it. I felt like Odeo was crashing around me and I didn’t want Twitter to be.
We had done a soft launch of it. I kept it really secret. I didn’t want anyone to know what we were working on as we were setting up all the technical aspects of it.
Orginally, it was all running on my laptop on my desk. An IBM Thinkpad. Using a Verizon wireless card. It was right there on my desk. I could just pick it up and take it anywhere in the world. That was a really fun time.
BI: That’s when you wanted to spin Twitter off from Odeo?
NG: That was the plan – take this thing and spin it off. At that time, even in the very early stages, I had this strange feeling that I had never had before – that this was something big. I felt it from the onset. People must have thought I was a crazy person because of the way I treated it. That may have been detrimental. I really felt strongly, more strongly than I felt about anything in the past and since then – that this is something massive sitting right here in front of us. All it needs is time to grow.
I actually had done all the paperwork and was ready to roll. It was ready to go. That’s not the way it worked out.
BI: I asked an investor “why did Evan end up running the company and not you?” The person basically said Ev had the money.
NG: Yeah, he had the power. Looking back, it seems to be the right thing now. It worked out, right? At the time, it didn’t feel like it.
Maybe I would have done things slightly differently and that was one of the things Ev and I had a disagreement on early on, and I told him I would do things differently.
This may be cliched to say, but when you speak truth to power, the ramifications can go a lot of different ways. Evan Williams is a powerhouse. Did you talk to him at all?
BI: I’ve tried to. He doesn’t really want to talk.
NG:: He can talk to who he wants to now. He’s the creator of Blogger, he’s a massively influential person behind the blogging thing. He definitely has some amazing skills. What he did with Twitter definitely resulted in growth that was phenomenal.
I spent a lot of time early on building a mechanism that would facilitate growth that we saw and facilitate sharing like what we see happening now. Initially, the product was growing because of the social aspect between people. The idea that police departments or fire departments are using it to give updates on the city, that was something we built into it in the very beginning as a concept. A lot of that stuff was hashed out early on.
BI: You said you felt almost immediately that Twitter could go somewhere and be powerful. When do you think Evan sort of saw that?
NG: I don’t know if he sees it now, honestly. He’s no longer the CEO. That’s probably indicative. I think the way he works, and the way everyone works, is to validate it within your community. He saw his friends grabbing on to it early on and thought, “Oh, this is something.” Whether he thought it was something big, I never really got that indication.
BI: Do you think he saw something valuable in Twitter before he bought it back from investors?
NG: Yes. Of course he did. Ev is very shrewd. He’s a very shrewd businessman, and he’s had a lot of practice. He’s had lots of failures in the past. He’s had some big failures in the past. That’s his business – to isolate and spot value where it is.
There’s a difference between between fanatical – and I hate to say that I was fanatical – but to be extremely passionate like I am or being very super rational and calculated like he is. Evan and I are two different polar opposites. I am very passionate about certain things and I will get passionate about certain things I believe in. I’ll speak passionately and I’ll wave my arms and I’ll jump up and down and I’ll use energy to prove my point or create momentum around an idea. Whereas he’ll sit down, think about it, write it down, walk away. He’ll write a paper on it, come back and say, “This is my opinion.” He’s very calculated.
BI: Do you feel like he slow-played Odeo’s investors in any way? Let me read you something he sent to the investors. This is September 2006.
“By the way, Twitter, which you may have read about, is one of the pieces of value that I see in Odeo, but it’s much too early to tell what’s there. Almost two months after launch, Twitter has less than 5,000 registered users. I will continue to invest in Twitter, but it’s hard to say it justifies the investment venture Odeo certainly holds, especially since we’re in a different market altogether.”
He’s downplaying Twitter in that letter. Do you think he was really that pessimistic about its chances?
NG: I don’t think I want to comment on that. You understand why? You understand the potential implication of what you’re saying?
BI: I do.
NG: Of course you do. I don’t know.
BI: I think it’s important to explore that issue.
NG: You can. Go ahead. I don’t know what that would mean for me. Can I ask something, Nicholas?
NG: You feel as though – you’ve spoken to investors who have some sort of unease about this thing?
BI: Here’s what I’ve encountered amongst Odeo investors.
There’s angel investors who were just sort of friends of Ev’s and maybe Ariel Poler and friends of George Zachary who just put money in, and they all feel sort of dumb. They all feel like, “Oh, my bad. I didn’t press hard enough to find out what the Twitter thing was.”
Other ones feel philosophical about it and wish Ev had been a little more forthcoming.
And then one or two will ask a question: “Did Evan see numbers that showed people were very engaged with this product in a way that he hid and did he recap the company in order to seize a product he saw would be valuable? Did he? I don’t know.”
That’s what they’ll say.
NG: In some ways I definitely feel that there is something to your story. To that angle of the story.
[But] I have to tell you that Ev wasn’t happy for a long time. He wasn’t happy with the structure before Twitter even happened. He was unhappy with the structure of Odeo. He was unhappy with the relationships with investors.
Think about it – he had the money. He had the power. They didn’t really do anything. In the board meeting we would basically tell them what was happening. They’d say yes, no, offer whatever tidbits of advice. He didn’t feel as though he needed that structure anymore. He didn’t want it. He was trying to find ways to get out of it for a while. For a few months, six months before.
Quite honestly, he didn’t want to be CEO of Twitter. I wanted to be CEO of Twitter. In a lot of ways, he never wanted to be there. The whole time.
In that letter he sent to the investors, he’s not lying. He didn’t lie about anything. He said, “This is what I’m doing. I’m going to invest in it.” Which is a pretty big statement. Whether or not he felt it was going to be a massive thing, he felt it was going to be something.
I think he wanted to set up an incubator company at the time. Obvious was supposed to be something different than what it is today. Obvious was supposed to be this umbrella company where they had multiple projects. Like an incubator. And he stopped until Twitter became one of those things.
It wasn’t something where he saw it was going to be massive and needed to devalue everything.
BI: So Ev didn’t intentionally downplay Odeo’s assets when he bought the company back from his investors?
NG: Without getting inside of his head, you’ll never know. There’s a lot of different ways of looking at it too. He was a nice guy. Was he doing anyone a favour? Was he really doing favours? Hard to say. Was it a calculated move? Definitely. Was there lots of thought put into it? Definitely. He definitely made a lot of money. That was a phenomenal investment. He got a great deal.
BI: When Ev stepped down from the CEO position last Fall, the New York Times did a big story on him. They had this one quote in the story, not a quote of his, but one of those weird things when they say someone says something. They say, “Mr. Williams says that all successful businesspeople make enemies along the way.”
NG: That’s true. Ev had lots of enemies at Blogger before we even started Odeo. A lot of them come from necessity. They come from ego too, of course. He had to shut down the company. At Blogger he had to let everybody go. Then they got bought by Google, and that doesn’t make anyone happy. The people he had to let go right before this massive thing happens.
BI: Were there signs in the summer of 2006 that Twitter, even if it was small, that engagement was strong?
NG: It was highly, highly compelling. Highly engaging. I’d been testing, doing the shortcode, writing up the description of what it was. It had to be approved by our gateway provider for our shortcode. I don’t know how many users we had at the time, but it was relatively small. The people who run the SMS gateway were like, “This thing is the best thing I’ve seen. The best thing I’ve seen using SMS in this way.” They were doing thousands of different SMS applications at the time.
There were definitely indicators. It was super compelling, super engaging. Anyone who was using it at the time realised it was something different, something special.
I pitched it at a board meeting. One of the very last board meetings, I think. I don’t know if the other guys got it. They kind of got it. But I don’t know if they fully got it. They saw it as a distraction.
Unless you sort of beat them over the head with it, they were never going to see the value in it. They saw it as a distraction from what they had invested in. They had invested in Odeo, and here I was telling them this thing is great, this is where we should be going. They’d say, “What about Odeo?”
BI: The other day I listened to Biz give an interview on Howard Stern, and Howard Stern asked how Twitter was founded. The answer he gave made me say, “That’s not reality at all.” Unless 13 or whatever people I’ve talked to…What do you think when you hear that stuff? How do you deal with it?
NG: I try not to listen. Honestly. For the past few years. I try not to listen. I moved to Los Angeles two years ago just to get away from it, to get away from the noise. Because I couldn’t move on.
There was a time I approached them. I approached Jack and Ev and said, “I want to be included in the story. I want some credit.” I looked at emails and some documentation and said, “These things should be acknowledged. I should be acknowledged as a co-creator.”
I have mixed emotions, of course.
In one way, the story is not told. I think even Oprah asked [Biz] where the name came from, and I came up with the name. I spent a bunch of time thinking about it, what name worked, and that became the name.
There’s a creation myth that everyone tells. Everyone is the hero of their own creation myth because they were there. They were in the limelight. They got to tell the creation story.
There’s truth in their story, of course. There’s some truth in every story.
I didn’t create Twitter on my own. It came out of conversations. I do know that without me, Twitter wouldn’t exist. In a huge way. But the same is true without Jack. And to some degree it’s true without Ev. Ev was involved.
BI: What about Biz?
NG: Biz was involved more than Ev. Ev wasn’t involved at all for the creation and launching of it. He’d come in and we’d talk occasionally. I think during a lot of the time he was working on the idea of buying back Odeo. I was working on Twitter, and very intensely.
Biz got a lot of credit after writing a document describing what we were working on. He was working on a lot of other things too. I asked if he would write it because I needed the documentation for the lawyer. I needed something for the lawyer in order to describe the company I wanted to create around Twitter. He wrote the document for me and got a lot of credit, but I told him to write it and what to write. Have you met Biz? Have you talked to Biz?
Biz is a good guy.
Biz is energetic and enthusiastic about stuff. That’s why he’s in all the media. That’s why he does what he does. He’s a personality.
BI: Did you walk away with equity in Obvious? How did that work out?
NG: I didn’t walk away with anything initially. At a later time I received a certain amount of equity in Twitter. Am I OK? I don’t really want to comment on whether I’m OK or how well I did. I came away with something. If I stayed, if it would have gone the other way, I would have come away with a lot lot more. I didn’t come away with zero. I received a small amount of cash during the buyback. A very small amount for my involvement and shareholdings in Odeo. Everyone else got payback first.
BI: What happened after you left Odeo? How did you feel?
NG: I’m sure you get this impression from the story and I’ve never really said this before – I did feel betrayed. I felt betrayed by my friends, by my company, by these people around me I trusted and that I had worked hard to create something with.
Afterwards, I was a little shellshocked. I was like, “Wait…what’s the value in building these relationships if this is the result?”
So I spent a lot of time by myself. And working on things alone.
I worked on a game for a while. It didn’t really come out the way I wanted it to.
I moved to Los Angeles to work on something totally different. It was an alternative energy system that I had in mind. I built a prototype for that. It just didn’t function the way I thought it was going to function.
I’ve been working on projects that could be something big if they get fleshed out.
Moving back to San Francisco is sort of a step in being involved in collaboration again. It’s something I didn’t necessarily want to do because of what had transpired. Because of the story you’re writing. Collaboration on something where everyone else gets all the credit and all the glory and fame is frustrating. It can be a frustrating experience.
BI: That’s an understatement.
NG: To say the very least about that, right?
It kind of turned me off from collaboration for a while which is something I really enjoyed. Being back in San Francisco, it’s a very collaborative city. I walk my dog to the park now and I’m talking about some cool application with some random person. It has a cool energy to it that I haven’t felt in a while.
It feels good. I’m back here. Right now I’m looking around, sort of looking outside of myself now. Looking at other ideas, other things. Seeing if I can help other people work on things. Seeing what the post-Twitter environment looks like now.
BI: What do you think of Twitter right now?
NG: I feel like Twitter has something at its core that’s valuable. It’s relatively obvious to those who use it, those who experience it.
It needs to grow. It’s needed to grow a lot. I think they tried a lot of things in the past few years that weren’t necessarily the right things. I think its real potential still hasn’t been revealed yet.
It needs someone who’s not just mesmerized by its sparkliness, but can see it as a product. Who can look at how people are actually using it and how people want to use it.
Whoever’s there now needs to reinvestigate the product: how it’s being used, and what it’s core functionality is. Because there are still people out there who don’t get it. How can something be so popular and widely discussed and visible, and yet people aren’t understanding it? It’s not overly complicated. It’s not. It’s super-simple. That’s the thing that someone needs to address. Those core concerns.