‘Opportunity is manufactured’ - and other entrepreneurial tips from a Twitter co-founder

edits this blog. Twitter: @chblm

Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder

While journalists are being encouraged to think like entrepreneurs, one of the co-founders of Twitter has been explaining what he thinks that means. Since Twitter is arguably the business that’s had the most dramatic impact on how news is collected and distributed, Biz Stone’s new book Things a Little Bird Told Me is a useful tip sheet for success in the new ecosystem.

Unlike Facebook, Google or Amazon, which are strongly associated with their founders (Zuckerberg, Page and Brin and Bezos), Twitter was spawned by a changing cast of founders and semi-founders. Its history is the story of their productive cooperation and, sometimes, acrimonious disagreement.

Biz Stone’s role was as the visionary, spokesperson, enthusiast, and advocate of the Twitter user. He’s not a technologist - rather an orchestrator of geeks, and the intermediary between them and the worlds of design, business, marketing and customers.

There’s more than a hint of myth-making in Stone’s account of his rise from East Coast poverty to tech superstardom. We hear how he persuaded his schoolteachers to accept his ‘no homework policy’ because he needed to earn money to supplement his single mother’s meagre jobs or welfare cheques (“the house we lived in had an actual dirt floor”); how he became a book designer by slipping his artwork into a folder of professional offerings at the New York publisher where he had a menial job; and how he passed Google’s notoriously hard selection process despite never having been interviewed before and suffering from a major hangover.

Twitter's Fail Whale

You don’t need to disbelieve any of this to realise you’re in the hands of a sophisticated PR operator who knows how to present the truth in its best light. Stone had plenty of practice doing that as the Twitter leader deputed to explain the company’s constant technical breakdowns. He turned customer frustration into a company asset when he hit upon a cute personification of Twitter’s failures: he “poked around on a stock photo website” to find an image that became almost as famous as Twitter itself:

“The Fail Whale, as it came to be called, was a happy, positive image, and it portrayed us as a small but committed group of birds managing, as a team, to carry the weight of an impossibly huge whale.”

Stone’s conclusion, well after Twitter solved its capacity problems, is that the crashes actually contributed to its success: “I don’t have any scientific evidence, but I believe all the fuss caused more people to check Twitter out.”

From the start, Twitter received more than its fair share of attention: “We attracted so much press and intellectual brain space that we were prematurely lumped in with Facebook.” Even today, Twitter is way smaller: Facebook has five times the number of monthly users according to Statista figures for June 2014, and both LinkedIn and Google+ have more users than Twitter.

Twitter had access to the media both as a new mouthpiece for media workers and organisations and as an easy source of content. Even the famous 140-character limit proved to be media catnip:

“The 140-character limit was an accidental PR hook from the start. It was such a big mystery. Why 140? Was it the number at which people were the most creative? Reporters always joked, ‘I’m excited to interview you guys. I might have to go over a hundred forty characters.’ The novelty of it made for a good icebreaker.”

In fact Twitter was conceived as a text-to-web service and 140 characters was comfortably within the 160-character limit that was standard for international text messages. Allowing space for the username, Stone and his colleagues chose 140 characters for the written message to avoid penalising people with longer names: “We just picked a number. There was no numerological magic.”

Stone’s book combines history with self-help advice for would-be entrepreneurs (much like the mix offered by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, in his The Start-up of You).

If you want to go straight for the advice, here’s my selection of Stone’s top 10 tips:

  • “Visualise what you want to see happen for yourself in the next two years. This is a useful exercise with any problem or idea”
  •  “Opportunity is manufactured”
  • “This is the core of entrepreneurship - being the person who makes something happen for yourself”
  • “Inventing your dream is the first and biggest step toward making it come true”
  • “Your goals should be bigger than your ego”
  • “Graphic design is an excellent preparation for any profession because it teaches you that for any one problem there are infinite potential solutions”
  • “Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out”
  • “Success isn’t guaranteed, but failure is certain if you aren’t truly emotionally invested in your work”
  • “In order to succeed spectacularly, you must be ready to fail spectacularly”
  • “Rose-coloured glasses tint the world with false beauty. But an open, curious, optimistic mind yields solutions, and has a better time along the way.”

In its evolution from scrappy start-up to communications titan, Twitter acquired responsibilities: it was credited with contributing to the Arab Spring and other grass-roots political movements. Stone handled these matters impressively, refusing to allow Twitter to take credit for anything beyond itself: “Nobody said that the telephone brought down the Berlin Wall, but were phone calls made? Hell yeah!”

When there was a flood of requests for Stone to appear on international media to talk about Twitter’s role in popular revolutions, he steadfastly refused, resisting pressure from Twitter’s board of directors and its big investors who saw the value in free publicity.

There are streaks of both steeliness and idealism in Stone that make his showiness easy to forgive. He’s now left Twitter to start Jelly: a business with idealism at its heart. As he explained to TechCrunch this year, Jelly aims to “make the world a more empathetic place by teaching that there’s other people around them that need help.” Don’t underestimate Stone’s determination to put his experience and wealth to good effect - even if, like me, you don’t understand Jelly.

If I was in any doubt about him, the account of an awkward meeting with a humourless Mark Zuckerberg won me over. Stone and his partner Evan Williams had been summoned to Facebook HQ. They suspected Zuckerberg wanted to buy Twitter. They didn’t want to sell but thought it would be rude to refuse to meet or to say an outright ‘no’. So they decided they’d name a price that was too big to be taken seriously, to get out of the tricky situation.

After a pointless tour of the offices (Zuckerberg: “Here are some more people working”) they were ushered into a small room where Zuckerberg told them: “I don’t like to talk about numbers… but if you were to say a number then I could tell you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right now.”

Williams blurted out the five hundred million dollars they’d thought of in the car on the way over: “There was a slight pause, and then Mark said, ‘That’s a big number.’ That was my cue to make an inappropriate joke, so I jumped in: ‘You said you would say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but instead you said, ‘That’s a big number’.”

Zuckerberg didn’t laugh, but within a week Facebook offered a mix of cash and stock that added up to five hundred million dollars. Williams persuaded Twitter’s board to turn it down. That was 2008. Today, Twitter is worth more than $25bn.

Mark Zuckerberg: I could tell you yes or no right now

Biz Stone and Evan Williams were interviewed for the BBC series The Virtual Revolution in 2009

The College of Journalism’s guide to social media

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