Zamzar was launched in October 2006 and in this special series of blog posts we look at some of the biggest startup successes who also launched in 2006 and how they came to be.
The first startup story in this class of 2006 series is the story of Twitter.
How did Twitter begin?
It was often thought Twitter began in Evan Williams’ Californian apartment and that it was founded by Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey. The story goes that they met having tried to build out a podcasting platform known as Odeo but then pivoted when iTunes was launched by Apple.
Odeo and Noah Glass
In 2005 Glass created a little known company called Odeo, a platform for podcasting. One of the earliest investors was Evan Williams who had money to invest after selling Blogger to Google. With that investment, Glass moved the operation to a new office and started hiring developers. One of the first employees to join Odeo’s team was the developer Jack Dorsey. With things moving at pace, Williams was made CEO of Odeo and as CEO one of the first things he did was bring in Biz Stone from Google to help him
Just months after Williams’ investment iTunes was launched by Apple with a built-in podcasting platform. Apple would go on to sell 200 million iPods, all of which allowed people to listen to Podcasts on the move. George Zachary, another leading investor in Odeo commented that “[Odeo] was going sideways”.
Pivoting to Twitter
Williams, realising the writing was on the wall, asked the Odeo developers to come up with different ideas with the intention of pivoting Odeo to something new.
Jack Dorsey had an idea for an app that allowed people to write a quick comment about what they were getting up to at any given time. Dorsey pitched the idea to Glass who, over time, grew to like the idea and even came up with a name for the product “twttr“. Williams, unconvinced of the potential, decided to put Glass in charge of the project and develop it some more.
Blaine Cook, a developer at Odeo, said of Glass “It was predominantly Noah who pushed for the project to be started. He was Twitter’s spiritual leader”. George Zachary went on to say “There were two people who were really excited [about Twitter,] Jack and Noah Glass. Noah was fanatically excited about Twitter. Fanatically! Evan and Biz weren’t at that level. Not remotely.”
Zachary says Glass told him, “You know what’s awesome about this thing? It makes you feel like you’re right with that person. It’s a whole emotional impact. You feel like you’re connected with that person.”
By March of 2006 Glass’s team had a working prototype and would be covered by Techcrunch that summer.
It was clear this thing they’d created was addictive. Employees working at Odeo were racking up huge monthly phone bills as a direct result of constantly updating their status, and seeing what others had updated.
Two months after the Techcrunch article came Twitter’s big breakthrough moment which, strangely, centered around an earthquake where people were letting friends and family know what had happened (and if they were ok), not by calling them but by putting out a status on their Twitter page. This helped put Twitter on the map and just a few months later Twitter had thousands of users.
A return on investment
Shortly before the earthquake, Noah Glass pitched Twitter to the company’s investors who’s response was muted. Perhaps sensing their apathy to the project, Williams, a couple of months later, wrote a letter to those investors saying that Odeo was going nowhere and that he wanted to buy back shares in the company so that investors didn’t take a loss. In the letter he stated:
“By the way, Twitter, which you may have read about, is one of the pieces of value that I see in Odeo, but it’s much too early to tell what’s there. Almost two months after launch, Twitter has less than 5,000 registered users. I will continue to invest in Twitter, but it’s hard to say it justifies the venture investment Odeo certainly holds — especially since that investment was for a different market altogether.”
Investors welcomed Williams’ intervention and the fact that he was saving them from losing investments so agreed to sell their shares back to him. This would prove to be a $5 billion mistake. Were the investors conned? Did Williams know the potential of Twitter or was he doing good by the investor and trying to get them their investment back? Only one thing was for sure, Williams was now in full control of Odeo.
Williams’ first decision was to change the name of Odeo to Obvious Corp. His second decision was to fire Noah Glass.
It’s not clear why Williams removed Glass from his post. There’s been talk that there was a clash of styles; Williams was shy and thoughtful, whilst Glass was more animated. Whilst others thought Williams was not comfortable with Glass’ influence over Twitter, and the team. Either way Glass was gone and Williams spun Twitter off into its own company in 2007.
Twitter then exploded. In 2007 400,000 tweets were posted per quarter but just a year later this figure jumped to over 100 million tweets.
And as for Noah Glass, his own Twitter page says “Some people have gotten credit, some people haven’t. The reality is, it was a group effort. I didn’t create Twitter on my own. It came out of conversations. But, I do know that without me, Twitter wouldn’t exist. In a huge way.”
Williams replied “It’s true that @Noah never got enough credit for his early role at Twitter.”
Twitter’s story is indicative of the journey taken by many Internet startups. A failed project, a pivot to a new idea, a fight for control and explosive growth. It’s fascinating to think that had iTunes been released a year later perhaps Twitter would never have existed.