The Non-Overnight Success: How Twitter Became Twitter

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What did Twitter look like before it was Twitter? Let us begin the story with an image…


Jack Dorsey’s first sketch for what would become Twitter (Photo: Jack Dorsey and d0tc0m)

This photo was first shown to me by Peter Sims, a former venture capitalist and now friend.

Pete and I share a number of common interests: wine, K-os, long dinners, and above all… little bets.

It’s a favorite topic of conversation.

Perhaps a year ago, after a quick tour of the Stanford Institute of Design (d.school), Pete and I sat talking about start-ups in Tresidder dining hall. He was working on a new book about innovation, which he wanted to bridge different worlds, to explain the shared traits of the game changers.

The question he posed was simple: if you look at the biggest successes in the world, whether Apple CEO Steve Jobs, comedian Chris Rock, or award-winning architect Frank Gehry, what do they have in common?

Answer: the bigger they are, the more small bets they make.

Becoming the best of the best is less about betting the farm (a common misconception) and more about constant tinkering. Within Pixar or within Amazon, there is a method to the madness, but it’s not haphazard risk-taking.

In the following guest post, Peter will look at the unlikely evolution of a little tool. It’s a little tool now used to overthrow governments, and a tool that’s become a company some value at more than $10 billion: Twitter.

How the hell did it happen?…

Enter Peter Sims

We’re taught from a young age to avoid errors and failure at all costs, yet as any successful creator or entrepreneur will attest, breakthroughs don’t happen without them.

So we have to be willing (and able) to think differently. Instead of trying to develop elaborate plans or perfect ideas, we need to make small, affordable bets in order to learn quickly, build momentum and networks, and expand our abilities and resources in order to discover unique ideas and opportunities.

Consider how Twitter came about. It didn’t happen overnight. Jack Dorsey had been, in his words, “obsessed” by how people moved, interacted, and communicated since the early 1990s. So, he learned basic computer programming, created maps with dots on them, and used information from Manhattan dispatch systems to track the movement of bike messengers, taxis, police, firefighters, and couriers. It was a start.

Dorsey then transferred to New York University and got a job as a programmer with the largest dispatch company in the world. He learned a lot in the role and eventually focused on the short format messages that people sent to large dispatch boards. “This became the basis for all of my work going forward,” he recalled.

After moving to the San Francisco in 2000, Dorsey continued to tinker with short messaging ideas. He started a company that dispatched emergency and taxi services from the web, but soon realized how little he knew about start-ups. Coming at the end of the dotcom era, the timing was bad, too. “The company scuttled and was more or less a failure,” he acknowledged.

Yet he would learn from it.

Dorsey continued to use instant messaging and LiveJournal (the early blogging platform) to post updates on what he was doing – simple things like, “I’m on the phone” or “I’m listening to the Black Eyed Peas.” Once again, these were small, achievable steps toward Jack’s larger interests.

Then one night, Dorsey couldn’t sleep and sketched out an idea on a white board. The idea was to exchange short “status update” emails with friends using his RIM 850, a predecessor to the BlackBerry. The device had four lines of text good for short format messaging, but unfortunately his friends didn’t have RIM 850s.

So that experiment didn’t go anywhere either, but Dorsey got little bit smarter, a little bit better, and a little bit closer to a big idea.

Around that time, Dorsey sketched out what would become the basis for Twitter several years later. On top it reads “STATUS,” followed by a short fill-in the blank where he wrote “Reading.” But lacking resources, Dorsey had to get a real job while continuing to tinker on the side.

Dorsey was eventually hired as an engineer at Odeo, a podcasting company where people weren’t in love with podcasting. The company was, in fact, going nowhere, so founder Evan Williams asked employees for new ideas.

One night in 2006, Dorsey’s colleague sent him the first text message he ever received. “I had no idea what this thing was,” he remembered. But as Dorsey and his colleagues talked more about text messaging, he realized the short message format could be the missing link.

Williams gave him two weeks and another programmer to develop the idea. After the prototype was a resounding success internally at Odeo, Williams upped the ante for a six-month project then launched a full-scale version publically in July 2006. Twitter would consume more and more resources until Williams spun it off as a separate company in 2007.

Of course, luck was an important factor, but Dorsey’s approach was brilliant. He focused like a laser on short messaging and made hundreds (if not thousands) of small, affordable bets in that area, most of which failed. But with each step he got slightly smarter, better, and closer until he ultimately achieved a remarkable feat.

It’s an approach that the best entrepreneurs and creators have learned to do well, but anyone can do it. Jack began when he was a programmer.

It begins with a little bet. What will yours be?

# # #

More on Peter Sims: The above guest post is by bestselling author and former venture capital investor Peter Sims. His new book is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. For a free excerpt, click here.

Posted on: April 20, 2011.

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105 comments on “The Non-Overnight Success: How Twitter Became Twitter

  1. Yes, yes, yes! I once took a master class with a world famous trumpet player, who, after playing an insanely difficult piece remarked, “I don’t do ANYTHING hard. I simply do lots of easy things in quick succession.” I owe him millions!

    Like

  2. I have to point something out: 4HWW blog comments are quite possibly the most satisfying to read. A quick dip into any random YouTube video’s commentary, and what do you get? Nothing but hate, hate, hate. Here, it’s almost impossible to find. Not only that, but there’s actual concise and practical contribution. Tell me it’s not outsourced, Tim. *he says with a suh-mile*

    Like

  3. Yes, success is so much about trial and error!
    Most people don’t realize how much time and experience is needed to succeed. That’s why many of them give up soon.

    Like

  4. Nearly everything I’ve read about being an entrepreneur talks about this as a fundamental principle to succeeding (as an entrepreneur). Preparing one’s self for failure is an integral part of the game. More than that, it’s important, as was said, to not put all your eggs in one basket and instead, put an egg in one basket, another egg in another basket, then one in another basket, all the while, learning what happens to the egg when you put it in the basket. Maybe an eagle comes and takes it away the first time, but the second time, you mask the egg with leaves and sticks.

    It’s this constant course-correcting that can turn a great idea into a business idea.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

    Like

  5. Hello Tim,

    I would really like to contact you in a less public manner. It mentions in the Contact info the following: Please realize that my assistants often get more than 2,000 e-mail per week.

    Can you please provide me with one of your assistant’s email address, so I could send my proposal…

    Thank you,

    Elad.

    Like

  6. tim,

    I am organising off shoring all office work from london to india :)

    Thanks for writing your book, made me realise, India the future !

    over 200 employees worldwide, but just me in london, for now

    I even get them to send letteres and brochures to clients, direct, from India.

    I like cobra beer and curries, its the future, india :)

    Like

  7. I love these little insights…

    Any reason why publisher don’t release a Kindle version? I’d buy it in an instant. The book sounds good, but not motivating enough to get the paperback…

    Like

    • Tim mentioned once that only hardcover books count towards NYT #1 / Amazon ranking, so a lot of publishers delay their kindle release to improve their ranking. That’s why Tim’s links are always to the hardcover version. It’s cool that he kindled #4hb to look after readers, rather than just ranking. Esp since kindle outnumbers paperback sales (http://su.pr/323PXu)

      I’d buy it if offered on kindle, since hardcover books + paid to travel aren’t kind on my back and scheduling addresses isn’t fun (even with slow travel).

      Like

  8. I read an advanced copy of Peter’s book, and it’s well worth the read.

    The greater message I got from Peter’s great book is that you need to learn to how to learn from the results of your bets and translate them into forward progress.

    Like

  9. Hi. I enjoyed the book – interesting writing syle! :) I have lost ten lbs on the diet – a little slower than the norm maybe but, progress! I also found out that I likely have a gluten sensitivity as my symptoms (diahrea ect) disappeared while ont the diet. I have 3 questions:

    The book refers to thyroid function frequently. I have no thyroid due to thyroid cancer and I am wondering if you have info on how this affects the use of supplements, foods and blood sugar, and the impact of other suggestions in your book.

    Is corn/corn tortillas acceptable as a slow carb or is it cheating?

    Info on gluten sensitivities with respect to this program would also be appreciated.

    Thank you.

    Like

  10. Some great advice and I do believe that constantly changing and evolving is the key to continued success. The constant tinkering of design and information evaluates to many success stories. Great post!

    Like

  11. I love the picture you use… so many people think that successful people just got lucky. Don’t forget about the hours and hours of passion and pain staking work. One of these days maybe… I’ll be an overnight success :-)

    Like

  12. Mr. Ferriss -

    Thank you for sharing this information and a glimpse into the founding of Twitter. It’s a great reminder to all of us to stay motivated and to not have failure cripple us, but rather learn from it and steadily make improvements to our business ideas.

    I believe the underlying theme here is that Dorsey found something that he was passionate about (how people move/interact) and stayed motivated on ideas that were formulated around his passion. His “failures” ultimately provided a knowledge base of what works and what does work given his particular field and he was able to manifest that knowledge into a successful company.

    People need to stop thinking “outside the box” and realize that there is no box at all to work within, and to create something great, you must be willing to do it yourself!

    Like

  13. Very interesting. Starting any business is a challenge, and often as not winds up something entirely different than what you originally thought.

    This post just goes to prove that if you believe in your idea, and pursue it long enough and hard enough, you never know what can happen.

    Like

  14. Do you think Twitter is being overused for non important updates?
    Tweets that overthrow governments are good
    Tweets that tell us what you had for lunch…not so much

    Like

  15. Interesting, especially how just one concept can take so many shapes before it blossoms into something big. That philosophy continues to drive me in my business ventures whether it’s a new medical sales line, or an internet marketing product…it’s a great story on how perseverance won out – steadfast belief and action will get results, even if it takes you through some unexpected curves on the way there!

    Like

  16. I’ve identified the need to seek out other people who have failed, recalibrated and fired away again to create great things.

    This is juice for entrepreneurs. It did exactly what you intended it to do.

    Love the comparisons, love the story, and thanks to this article, I have my serial creator recharge.

    Like

  17. Short status updates are already part of facebook; short message was part of it- but the phenomenal success came from

    1. assymetrical relationships – allowing broadcast
    2. focusing only on short messages

    Like

  18. Thanks, Tim for sharing this article.

    This is very true. We shouldn’t just wait for the perfect idea that will 100% make people rich-it doesn’t happen that way. What’s important is trying, trying, and then trying again. It’s also important to learn along the way. Eventually, something will happen.

    Like

  19. Tim,

    Recommended from a friend at Traffic Geyser. I’m trying to come up with a 4HB regiment that will increase endurance, strength flexibility, and lean muscle. I’ve read through the book and already incorporated the kettlbebell swing but am a little overwhelmed with all of the exercises discussed. Do you have a select few exercise recommendations that you couldn’t do without to perform while at the gym if you only had an hour? Thanks!

    -T

    Like

  20. Hi Tim,

    I am planning on taking a whole food calcium/magnesium(plant sourced) suppliment which contains organic barley grass, organic gum acacia, modified cellulose, silica, sunflower oil, and bacillus subtillis natto extract. The product also contains fermented soy. Will taking this compromise the 4HrBody diet?

    Thanks!

    Like

  21. Reminds me of what I’m doing with my review aggregation site. Constant tweaking. It tough to not give up on an idea when it doesn’t at first succeed the way you planned. This post is motivating me to keep on making those small bets. Thanks Tim.

    Like

  22. Amazing story! I am an avid user of Twitter and I’m really amazed by the story of its origin. Simple and small things really do matter in life. We may not notice them but all great things do start in small. Thanks for this post! I am now inspired to bet on little things. :D

    Like

  23. A great creation doesn’t only happen overnight but it is the result of years and years of discovery and development. Truly, I can say that Twitter has been one of the greatest creations that has ever existed. It doesn’t only say you really feel every moment but it made connection ties of each individual stronger. It made celebrities become closer to their fans, teachers closer to their students, people closer to their friends and news&current affairs closer to citizens. It has paved way to the idea that distance is not an issue. We could reach everyone by a single click or should I say by a single Tweet. Thanks Dorsey for creating Twitter. Thanks Twitter for existing. :)

    Like