The New York Times today published a story online by Nick Bilton about Twitter’s early days that’ll be in the paper’s Sunday magazine. The piece by Bilton, a Times tech reporter and the author of a book on the founding of Twitter, contains a slew of interesting tidbits, but the things I found most amusing were the tidbits about the people who tried to buy Twitter in its early days.
Al Gore pitched Williams and Stone one night over copious amounts of wine and Patron tequila at his St. Regis suite in San Francisco. Steve Ballmer, the chief executive of Microsoft, approached Williams during a private dinner at Bill Gates’s home.
According to Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici, Gore’s plan was to merge Twitter with Current TV to try to make it more attractive for acquisition by Apple or Google.
The prevailing theme of the piece, however, is that Jack Dorsey isn’t the predominant mastermind behind the social media site that many, including 60 Minutes, have portrayed him to be.
Twitter wasn’t exactly conceived in a South Park playground, and it certainly wasn’t solely Dorsey’s idea. In fact, Dorsey forced out the man who was arguably Twitter’s most influential co-founder before the site took off, only to be quietly pushed out of the company himself later. (At which point, he secretly considered joining his biggest competitor.) But, as luck would have it, Dorsey was able to weave a story about Twitter that was so convincing that he could put himself back in power just as it was ready to become a mature company. And, perhaps luckiest of all, until now only a handful of people knew what really turned Twitter from a vague idea into a multibillion-dollar business.
Oh?! Do tell!
In 2005, Jack Dorsey was a 29-year-old New York University dropout who sometimes wore a T-shirt with his phone number on the front and a nose ring. After a three-month stint writing code for an Alcatraz boat-tour outfit, he was living in a tiny San Francisco apartment. He had recently been turned down for a job at Camper, the shoe store.
His luck changed one morning as he was sitting at Caffe Centro off South Park. As Dorsey looked up from his laptop, punk rock blaring through his earphones, he noticed a man about his age. Evan Williams, then 33, was a minor celebrity on the San Francisco tech scene. A few years earlier, he sold the Web-diary service he co-founded, Blogger, a word he popularized, to Google for several million dollars. Now Williams was using some of his Blogger money to finance a new company, Odeo, that made podcasts. Odeo was co-founded by his neighbor and friend, Noah Glass. Its dingy loft headquarters happened to be located around the corner, a block from South Park. Williams had stopped in and ordered a coffee.
Dorsey, who was shy after battling a speech impediment as a child, was reluctant to introduce himself personally. Instead, he opened his résumé on his computer, deleted any signs of his desire to work for Camper shoes, found Williams’s e-mail address online and sent a message to see if Odeo was hiring. Williams, whose investment in Odeo had turned him into the company’s C.E.O., soon called him in for an interview. He and Glass, both college dropouts themselves, preferred rabble-rousers to Stanford grad students and Dorsey, with his nose ring and disheveled hair, seemed like a perfect fit. He was hired immediately as a freelance engineer and blended in seamlessly, often winning the company’s weekly “Getting [expletive] Done” award, and hanging out after work with his new co-workers, particularly Glass. After work, they would go on bike rides around the city or to live music shows and drink late into the night, usually talking about technology. Dorsey and Glass soon became inseparable.
One night in late February 2006, around 2 a.m., Dorsey sat in Glass’s parked car as rain poured down on the windshield. The two were sobering up after a night of drinking vodka and Red Bull, but the conversation, as usual, was about Odeo. Dorsey blurted out that he was planning his exit strategy. “I’m going to quit tech and become a fashion designer,” Glass recalls him saying. He also wanted to sail around the world. Glass pushed back: He couldn’t really want to leave the business entirely, could he? “Tell me what else you’re interested in,” he said. Dorsey mentioned a Web site that people could use to share their current status — the music they were listening to or where they were. Dorsey envisioned that people would use it to broadcast the simplest details about themselves — like “going to park,” “in bed” and so forth.
Glass had heard Dorsey’s status idea before, and he was unimpressed. It didn’t seem like much of a leap from the “away messages” that people had been posting on AOL Instant Messenger for nearly a decade. Also, Glass thought the idea sounded too similar to other start-ups, including a service called Dodgeball, which let people use their mobile phones to share their current locations with a note attached.
As he listened to Dorsey talk, Glass would later recall, he stared out the window, thinking about his failing marriage and how alone he felt. Then he had an epiphany. This status thing wasn’t just about sharing what kind of music you were listening to or where you were, he thought. It could be a conversation. It wasn’t about reporting; it was about connecting. There could be a real business in that. He would certainly like such a service: his nights alone in his apartment, alone in his office, alone in his car, could feel less alone with a steady stream of conversation percolating online. The two brainstormed for a while longer, and as Dorsey staggered out of the car to go home, Glass said, “Let’s talk to Ev and the others about it tomorrow.”
Dorsey later pushed Glass — who came up with the name “Twitter” and, according to Bilton, was the real driving force behind its development — out of the company and the rest, as they say, is history. Go read the whole sordid thing when you have time. It’s a fascinating read.