I recently read Nick Bilton’s new book, Hatching Twitter. I confess that I am a sucker for these kind of books. I could read about the founding of startups all day. Inside Intel, eBoys, The Accidental Billionaires, Delivering Happiness and The PayPal Wars are some of my favorites. Jessica Livingston’s books, Founders at Work and Venture Capitlists at Work, are also right up there for me.
The most interesting thing in reading these books is that you quickly realize what we see on the outside of startups is not often reflected inside. Startups are messy. Some fail that shouldn’t and some have tremendous success that probably shouldn’t. Bilton paints the latter picture in the story of Twitter. There were a few recurring themes in the book that I was left thinking about.
Outliers. We give way too much attention to outliers. The Facebooks, Twitters and Instagrams of the world are exciting stories and every entrepreneur and VC dreams of being part of one. However, these are one-in-a-million companies. Yes, they are sexy, but for everyone of these there are a hundred great tech companies started solving real hard problems that become huge successes yet we never hear about them.
A budding entrepreneur should not be looking at them as an example of what to model their own startup after. The dominant way these outliers are found is by people working on ideas and catching lightning in a bottle. Very rarely is an outlier launched by someone who wants to start a company. Rather, a company is needed as a vehicle to see the idea to fruition.
Disarray. Twitter was an absolute disaster on the inside. There was never an identified leader from the start. The team had constant disagreements and backstabbing was a recurring theme as people were kicked out, including all the original founders at one point or another. The person who probably should be identified as the founder, Noah Glass, was kicked out just as Twitter got off the ground. Even four years after the launch of Twitter, Williams and Dorsey still couldn’t agree on what it really was. In the first few years the service couldn’t reliably stay online. The board was divided and every director had their own opinion on who the CEO should be. If there was ever a list of things that kill startups it appears that Twitter would check every single one off. Mark Zuckerberg supposedly told a friend that “[Twitter is] such a mess, it’s as if they drove a clown car into a gold mine and fell in.”
Yet, Twitter survived. And not just survived, but thrived. On the outside it almost appears as if the company was trying as hard as they could to fail. It may be the best example of catching lightning in a bottle there is. Startups are rarely successful in the early days because of operational excellence. Rather they are built on the strength of the product-market fit found and power of distribution. A friend of mine often says that startups are like sausage – everyone likes them, but no one wants to see how they are made.
Storytelling. Hatching Twitter reemphasized to me the power in storytelling. Bilton characterizes Jack Dorsey as an insecure, incompetent and insensitive individual. Those close to the story of Twitter seem to agree. Yet, most put Dorsey in a much different light. Why?
After Dorsey was kicked out of Twitter and Evan Williams took over he began to learn the power of storytelling. He built an image that was very different than his punk roots. He began to emulate Steve Jobs in his vocabulary and the way he carried himself. He shed the punk look and became a Dior-wearing “exec.” He crafted a story of how the initial idea for Twitter started brewing when he was 8 years old and evolved up until its founding. He positioned himself as the sole founder of Twitter. He started receiving recognition for this story and the legend continued to grow.
Those close to Twitter and Dorsey paint a very different story. Dorsey was not the sole creator of Twitter, in fact, he was just a small piece in the ideas and work of many before him and around him. Dorsey was an incompetent leader and manager which resulted in his removal as CEO of Twitter. When an early member of the Twitter team was asked if Jack Dorsey created Twitter he respond by saying: “The greatest product Jack Dorsey ever made was Jack Dorsey.”
Dorsey’s current success at Square is interesting in light of his role and demise at Twitter. The fact that he has appeared to be part of another success is important. It also begs the question of whether Dorsey is an incredibly talented individual or did he just learn to play the part through his Twitter experience? Bilton would likely say the latter and I would agree. This is not a slight on Dorsey though. Many of us are in the positions we are and have the abilities we do because of past experiences and learning opportunities. After reading the book I couldn’t help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and how we wrongly believe that individuals who achieve great things are just exponentially more talented or smarter than everyone else when, in most cases, it was an incredible set of circumstances and opportunities presented that put them in a unique position to succeed.