By Yitzi Weiner & Kelly Reeves
…Another key thing is you have to really want to do what you’re doing. If you’re just trying to make a good business, and you’re not actually emotionally invested in what you are doing, it’s probably not going to work for you. But, if it’s something that you would really like to do for the next 10 years plus, and you really want to work on it, you’re more likely to be successful. And, it would be way better for your life, because if you enjoy what you’re doing, then you’re not craving all the other stuff as much because you just enjoy going to work.
At Web Summit’s Collision, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, among several other technology companies. Christopher Isaac “Biz” Stone was the creative director at Xanga from 1999 to 2001. He co-founded Jelly — a search engine driven by visual imagery and discovery — with Ben Finkel in 2014 and served as the company’s CEO until its acquisition by Pinterest in 2017. Aside from Twitter, Stone is an active angel investor and advisor in the startup community has backed companies such as Square, Slack, Medium, Nest, Beyond Meat, Pinterest, Intercom, and Faraday. Stone also serves as a board director at Beyond Meat, Medium, Polaroid Swing, Workpop, and Jelly Industries.
Thank you so much for joining us Biz. How did you get started as a tech entrepreneur?
I had some friends from university and they were very great students, and they said: “let’s start a company. You’re the wild genius”. I was like: “Well yes! That’s right, I am…” I kind of accidentally became a tech entrepreneur without the background at all and it just went from there. Once I got to Google, it was like: “Oh, you were at Google early. You must be some kind of genius.” I’ve tricked everybody this whole time.
How did you drive users to your new app Twitter when you first started it?
We didn’t have any sort of growth hacks or tricks back then. There was no Twitter to spread the word about things on. I think Instagram was very much helped by the existence of Twitter because people were able to share their photos, and everyone thought: ‘I want to make a photo like that.’
But really, it was the San Francisco early adopters. Those were the people who were trying it out, and those folks were loving it. Then so many people who were so vociferous about how stupid they thought Twitter was would join Twitter just to say how stupid it is. I feel like that ended up spreading the word even more because people were curious about these passionate people talking about how stupid this thing was, and they were like: ‘I really want to check it out.’
And then, of course, something unexpected happened, which was celebrities and brands and politicians started to take to Twitter, and that really started driving a lot of that growth. Not only that, but people happened to use Twitter for the Arab Spring. These were brave people standing up against radical Muslims, risking their lives. It had to be user-friendly. It had to be easy to use.
But the press really liked to bring Twitter up all the time as if it was part of all this stuff. Every day there were hundreds of articles about Twitter, alerting people to its existence, which helped drive sign-ups. I was always keen to say ‘that’s not us.’ That’s those people who are doing it. They could have used YouTube or something, but they just decided to use Twitter. We didn’t do anything. It got the word out a lot. It wasn’t really engineered as much as it just happened.
At what exact moment did you realize Twitter had “made it”?
That one’s clear. That was in March of 2007 at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. I don’t know how many people were on Twitter at the time. Thousands? But I was sitting in the back of a conference room, and I looked out at the sea of laptop screens open in front of me, and they were mostly on Twitter. I was shocked! I was like: “Oh my God, I designed all that, and there it is on everyone’s screen.”
Then of course there was this story that I heard about this guy who was at a pub, and it was loud and crowded, and he just wanted to talk shop with fellow nerds. So he suggested on Twitter “let’s go to this other pub. It’s quiet.” And in the eight minutes it took them to walk there, a line was coming out the door, and the way he told it was: He tweeted it. The people who followed him (on Twitter) re-tweeted it, and then all of a sudden, this mob showed up, and I thought: “Well that’s a thing.” I don’t think there was anything else that could do something like that. And that’s when I realized it was a new invention, and we actually ran back to San Francisco after that and formed Twitter Incorporated. There wasn’t really any company.
There was another smaller moment when Jack (Dorsey) said: “Hey, there are 5,000 people on the service, and I was like: “5,000 people! Oh my God! We made it! That’s crazy!”
How can a start-up use Twitter to build brand awareness? A startup is just building a base and it can be tough to compete with other trending tweets from well-known brands. How do you cut through the noise?
I’m not an expert on how to tweet successfully, but what I’ve always said from the very beginning was to find an authentic human voice for your brand, and you’ll attract real organic followers who are actually interested in what you have to say rather than trying to increase them artificially in some way. Then, once you develop that real authentic human voice, it will get through because that’s what people crave.
A very early example of one of the first brands that joined Twitter was JetBlue, the airline. They were issuing little press statements and nobody cared. The guy running the account got fed up and tweeted something like: “What the hell do you people want from me?” Or something like that and then everyone reacted to that and said: “Well, we want this. We want you to be a real person.” And all of a sudden it started to grow, and it was due to the authenticity and maybe that little freak-out. I think that’s really the thing to do; stay human.
What future innovation can we expect to see from Twitter?
The thing that’s tricky about that is I’m not really supposed to talk about the forward-looking things, or things that we haven’t launched yet, or things that are in the works. I think one of the things you can expect is for Twitter to continue to do what it’s always done, which is to look at what are the things people are generally trying to do on the service and how can Twitter turn that into something and make it easier. We did that with retweets and hashtags and other features that are now central to Twitter, but we didn’t really come up with them. People did.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or startup?
Five? There are five important things? I don’t know if I have five things…
- But based on my experience, and I’ve said it before, but I think it’s central and that’s finding the right people and staying with them. It’s really incredibly important to find the right person as your co-founder or as your early team.
- Another key thing is you have to really want to do what you’re doing. If you’re just trying to make a good business, and you’re not actually emotionally invested in what you are doing, it’s probably not going to work for you. But, if it’s something that you would really like to do for the next 10 years plus, and you really want to work on it, you’re more likely to be successful. And, it would be way better for your life, because if you enjoy what you’re doing, then you’re not craving all the other stuff as much because you just enjoy going to work.
So, those are the two biggest things: finding the right people and being emotionally invested in what it is you’re doing so that you’re going to stick with it through the tough times.
We have been talking about the proliferation of Clubhouse as an audio service. Do you think there might be a feature for audio on Twitter?
The funny thing is, we started out with podcasting, and now the world seems to want to listen. Like I said before: we want to do anything that serves the public conversation. Twitter is committed to that purpose. That doesn’t just mean it has to be tweets. Whatever’s in service of this idea of the public conversation, Twitter will look at it. I would love to live in a world where the operating system is audio. You don’t even need a screen, you just talk to a voice. That would be fantastic. Like the movie “Her”. I love that movie. I would love that to be the way that we…
Well, I don’t want people to fall in love with their operating systems, but the idea of it is cool.
If you were not involved in tech, what would you be doing? It might be kind of impossible to answer, but…
No, no, it’s not impossible. I’d probably be helping people. I might be in the volunteer space. I do some of that already. But, I’d like to do a couple of things. They’re totally different things.
One: I’d like to direct films or television shows. I really like film and television, and have directed some and I’ve produced some features.
Or, I would like to have a vertical farm and grow sprouts. I love the idea of doing some chores on the farm and that sort of thing.
What are your thoughts about moderating social media?
Moderation — I think it’s very important. I think I mentioned there are a lot of tools to be built using machine learning that can take care of a lot of the problem areas. Unfortunately, there’s probably always going to be some element of subjective reasoning and at that point, it’s really important to have principles and rules that you can stick by. Even more important than that is effectively communicating what those rules are and why or why not you’re not doing something.
Because if you say: “we don’t allow threats of violence on a platform” and then you don’t communicate the way you define a threat of violence, like: “Well, we define it as it has to be a threat; it has to have a time and a place…” And then nobody knows that. They say “this guy said he’s going to kill me, but he didn’t say where and when” and then the platform will say, “well that’s not a threat.” You’re crazy! Of course, it’s a threat. So you really need to cover that ground so people understand how you define it and that proves that you’re upholding your rules and that builds trust.
You have to have the mind of a teacher. It can be really uncomfortable because when you don’t like something, you want it gone, but if you’re doing it right, that’s going to come with the territory — being uncomfortable because you need to do it based on principles. That way that precedent is set and followed. You have to think about what’s going to be like in 25 years and if you do that right, then you take away as much of the subjectivity as you can.