New York Times reporter Nick Bilton has a book coming out on Twitter.
It’s excerpted today at the Times, and if there’s one thing that comes through loud and clear in the book, it’s that the company was an operational mess during its early years.
This isn’t unusual with tech startups, of course. Running a brand new business — inventing a new business, in Twitter’s case — with little formal experience isn’t pretty.
Jack Dorsey was the first CEO of Twitter. There are many examples of Dorsey being a not-great CEO, but here’s one detail from Bilton: “Dorsey had also been managing expenses on his laptop and doing the maths incorrectly.”
Ev Williams eventually forced Dorsey out of the company and took over as CEO. Williams had previously run Blogger, which he sold to Google, so he had some operational experience.
Unfortunately, Williams wasn’t that great a CEO, either.
While Twitter accounts, and tweets sent, grew under Williams, the company stumbled in other ways.
Essentially, Williams was indecisive and slow-moving, according to Bilton. He struggled to hire key executives like a CTO or COO. When Williams did finally hire people, it was usually his friends — not necessarily the best people for the job.
Influential Twitter investor Fred Wilson “thought Williams had always been a terrible C.E.O.,” says Bilton.
Williams was confronted on the issue at the behest of one of his investors, Bilton writes:
So [the investor] pitched the idea of bringing in, as an adviser, Bill Campbell, the famously foulmouthed former C.E.O. of Intuit and head coach of the Columbia University football team, who had mentored Jobs, Google’s Eric Schmidt and many other top executives. During their first meeting, Campbell’s message was exceedingly simple. When Williams asked, “What’s the worst thing I can do as C.E.O. to screw the company up?” Campbell responded, “Hire your friends!”
Eventually Williams was pushed out, and told he “was creating an organizational pileup” with his indecision.
When Williams was forced out, Dick Costolo, who had been hired as COO, was made CEO. Dorsey returned to the company as a public face, a creative visionary type. Williams remains one of Twitter’s biggest shareholders.
Under Costolo, the company appears to have stabilised. Employees previously thought Twitter would burn out like MySpace. Now, they think it’s going to last.
This has interesting implications for Twitter, and, to an extent, tech investors generally. Essentially, Twitter was a complete mess in its formative years. But it was such a good idea — and despite its early problems, such a useful tool — that it survived anyway.
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