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. Interesting post….BTW Dorsey has a different kindda mind…..I love square and impress with the fact that he went for a new startup when twitter was/is growing crazy

    Like

  2. Dope dude!

    Had no idea you were a K-OS fan. Fun fact, did you know that K-OS stands for Knowledge of Self. Homeboy’s apparently a part of Socrates’s long lost entourage.

    Thanx for the inspiraction Tim!

    Like

    • I agree. I have learned so much more from my mistakes than my successes! If you can observe a mistake with curiosity you see it with a mind that finds itself going deeper into solving the problem rather than running away from it.

      Like

      • Tim,
        Now THAT’S some quick turn around and excellent customer service! A mistake pointed out and corrected within seconds! 4HrWW was amazing! Thank you for the inspiration! I’d like to share an upcoming endeavor with you and perhaps get your insight as to the viability and automation you speak of.

        Stacey O.

        Like

      • Tim, in a “how to start a business” interview you mentioned that there is a book on financial statements. You said Buffet wrote the intro. I would really like ot read that book. What is it?!

        Like

  3. Great post, most of the material out there encourages us to plan and have everything laid out before making a move. But I like the advice stated in the post, “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.” Which is true, because sometimes elaborate planning makes me paralyzed and instead of moving forward I become caught in the process, rather than observing and testing the small incremental gains.

    Like

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  5. Always love reading stuff here. I’ll have to read that book now to learn more.

    Do you believe the 4HWW followed the same path with little small bets resulting in becoming a bestseller?

    Like

  6. I appreciate the story of the time it took and the continual “failures” as an example of the usual entrepreneurial process. We need a different “ethos”. School teaches you to get it “right” — perhaps because producing workers for manufacturing needed precision of process? Whereas to invent, we need to enjoy the process of getting it “wrong” most of the time on the way to creating something of value.

    Like I tell my kids, if you’re not failing, you’re failing!

    Like

  7. I don’t feel so bad now, especially since he struggled since the 1990s :) I appreciate his efforts. I learn so much from my twitter feeds. Yes I stalk you on twitter too, Tim :)

    S

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  8. I’ve often had weird serendipities happen to me. One seemingly random experience might prepare me for something much bigger in the future.

    I can see how “Tinkering” — constantly tweaking your way in the direction of a goal, goes hand in hand with serendipity or “getting lucky”

    Like

  9. I’m guilty of over-planning from time to time for sure, looking for more information or perfect timing. Classic paralysis by analysis. Love the theme of taking smaller risks, and correcting course along the way…much easier to get and maintain momentum.

    Thanks for the post, Tim

    Like

  10. Great article Tim. I already forwarded it to a couple people. It’s interesting because I am in the process of creating a startup and when I saw your picture of what twitter looked like on paper it reminds me of exactly what I am going through right now. Hopefully this can be my muse.

    Keep writing these articles, they help immensely.

    Like

    • @Jesse that’s what I got out of this article as well, the realisation that all those notes captured (evernote is brilliant) path the way to significance.

      Just realised the importance of getting the beta out there to let it naturally evolve with the customer.

      Good luck musing.

      Twitter started for me as a free party/live band notification tool, now look at what it’s become.

      Like

  11. I love this! I am a business advisor, and lately I have been thinking about the concept of fine-tuning a business. So many owners I work with expect results to be achieved by doing something big – which occasionally is necessary – but most often it’s the small, directionally correct (or not) changes that make the big difference. My mantra lately has been “test and learn,” and now I can refer them to this blog post for more ammunition.

    Thanks for sharing this and I look forward to reading the book!

    Jennifer

    Like

  12. Very cool. Mainly the “luck” part for twitter occurred when the Miracle on the Hudson picture of the US Airways flight was uploaded to twitter by Janis Krums…

    Like

  13. I hadn’t the back story on Twitter thanks for sharing.

    Way too often we don’t hear about the “9,999 tries” just the one that worked. I think too may people really believe that people simply “get lucky.”

    Doug

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  14. Mr. Dorsey must have received or at least heard about text messages (SMS) before 2006. Is it really possible that he had no idea what it was until so late, especially for a guy who is so passionate about, well, short messages?

    Like

  15. Interesting post…
    “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”
    …nuggets of gold

    btw just checked k-os out he is pretty cool, thanks for the tunes tip =)

    Like

  16. Inspirational post. I think of it as critical mass or the tipping point. Keep edging towards the goal, fail/learn/stretch farther untill the tipping point is reached.
    So many times we are closer than we think.

    Since the 90s I have been an avid reader of everything tech yet as an artist, I have absolutely no idea why. I just crave it. Yet…. I know it plays into *something* that’s coming just around the corner…deas that keep me up at night.
    It’s like an itch of the soul. Or a game. Never thought of it as small bets. Love it!

    Like

  17. Great post. One of the most important goals of a business (or a person) should be to dramatically reduce the temporal and financial cost of failure. Basically to make experimentation faster and cheaper. You lower your downside and see if there is upside. Online businesses have an advantage over offline businesses in this regard since the costs of distribution are low; are vastly data driven and its relatively easy to segment a % of their customers to conduct tests (such as A/B testing).

    Its a great practice. Would love to hear your thoughts on inculcating this practice into a culture. Thanks for posting!

    Alix

    Like

  18. Ironic since no one uses Twitter as it was originally intended. It was supposed to be, “I’m going to ABC Club tonight, i’ll tell all my friends via Text Message” which is useful because you want your friends to come see you at the club. The whole, “I’m eating french fries right now mmmmmmm!” came later. And even that was short lived, as it is now, Twitter is a promotion platform for bloggers, entrepreneurs and celebrities. It was basically an accident. Dorsey had no idea that one day, Charlie Sheen would be posting his jibberish to onlookers/fans. After all, you just need a website for that.

    Like

  19. Do you mean they take smaller bets after they’ve become big? Or people/organizations that become big have always taken small bets from the beginning.

    I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs are willing to take huge bets (betting the farm) in the early days when they feel they have nothing or little to lose, and then shift to risk aversion after they have more at stake.

    Like

  20. @ Jennifer I like your mantra “test and learn,”

    The idea to allow ourselves the opportunity to fail and learn is important. Too often I feel we develop an avoidance to risk and hope we will one day magically learn it all!

    Nope!Test, test, test and LEARN; Is the way to go. Look at Tim and his blog, books, an life adventures. I believe one common theme of the regular posters to this blog is to test learn and move forward. We all see the magic of making mistakes not taking ourselves too personally and have fun with the process.

    Leonard
    Thanks
    Leonard

    Like

    • I think he means instead of saying: “I’m going to put all my money into building a company that builds and distributes cars” instead say: “I’m going to focus on building the best engines” or suspension system etc.

      In other words focus on the smaller ideas until one of them turns big.

      Like

  21. my biggest frustration is that I fail, collect data but then have a hard time deciding what to do with it. :( I need guidance.

    Like

  22. Tim, just discovered your book and it is truly a case of, ” when the student is ready, the teacher will come,” One week in and the changes and new found focus has been amazing! I was curious about your spiritual beliefs and what is your source of inspiration and motivation besides excitement and challenges? Thank you for having the courage to go against the grain.

    RZC

    Like

  23. The hardest part of all that is not feeling defeated when the majority of small bets don’t pay. This article reminds to hang in there and stay focused. Good timing with this one, Tim.

    Like

  24. Awesome story! I always enjoy your blog post it seems as if you made a wise investment in Twitter I can only imagine that it is going to continue to grow in popularity.

    Tim

    Like

  25. How did Dorsey correct the problem of how little he knew about start-ups? Trial and error (small bets), networking, mentors, all of the above?

    Like

  26. i have been taking the alpha-lipoic and superCissus and L-Glutamine for 2 months then stopped for a month and was thinkng about going back on for another two months. Is this the right idea or just stay on them?

    Like

  27. There seems to be an ongoing exchange in the press over how Twitter was invented, with slightly different versions describing different roles for the key players showing up on other sites.

    Like

  28. I was pitching a VC an Idea which I had already forwarded him my ES, at the end of the meeting he replied can you forward me your bizplan. I replied I would, but I would have to hand it to you on a silver platter. He looked at me like…. I said to him I would have to cut off my head….lol I expressed my plan is always in motion. He smiled with thumbs up. A month later he met our team and wrote us check!

    Like

  29. It’s no brainer to see that social media is here to stay for good. Given vast variety of the existing channels to choose and stick with, it’s time for such a hot space to enter into a new category. There is a need for a portal to provide a quick and intelligent decision for both the consumer and the enterprise about their online connections.

    A Platform to Help us to Distinguish Our Quality vs. Quantity Friends, Fans, Followers, and Companies

    Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, Flickr and others have been doing a decent job of providing additional marketing exposure and even in some cases, additional revenue. However, as more and more social networking sites pop up, how do you manage your brand across all these channels? Maybe more importantly, which one of these sites should you select as the one that will help you best reach your target audience? The proliferation of the social media avenues is becoming overwhelming.

    This glut of information reminds me of the early 90’s when WWW was adopted broadly by the general public. Every company rushed to have a presence, to the point it became literally impossible to find the right information on the Web. That’s when a better generation of search engines – at first the Yahoo! and then Google – entered the market and helped us find the most relevant information by just typing simple keywords in their search box. If you had asked before Google launched, if there was a need for another search engine – most would have said no, we already have those….

    Then came Web 1.0 & 2.0 – Youtube, Flickr, myspace, Facebook, Twitter and countless others have turned everyday people into content producers, influencers and experts. We basically tripled down on the information overload How do you know which channels to select for deploying your social media strategy? How do you know which one is the right channel to let your fans and followers to find you, your products, and services? Most importantly, who is Joe Smith that is recommending that person, that company, that product?

    I hope my awesomize.me can accomplish such a mission. The site is not another social networking platform. Yet the portal to all your existing social media channels. The platform helps you, your fans, your potential clients to make an intelligent decision as to which company to connect to or follow via which social media channels and why? It’s free!

    Elias
    CEO & Founder

    Like

  30. This seems very much like the stuff Nassim N. Taleb talks about, specificaly the idea of many small losses over time, which then lead to one big win, vs. the more typical of society – many small wins then one big loss.
    It is the way evolution works. Small gradual changes which could be good or not, tested by the enviroment. The good ones are kept, the bad ones discarded, and that leads to an effective, working soulution.

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  31. Excellent message tim. I like the last phrase

    But I have a questioning/observation

    to make small bets, we can lose our productivity, between many things that to take care of, then we need much discipline

    I hope to explain itself

    Greetings

    Like

  32. Um, this is a bit misleading. Steve Jobs didn’t do small bets. The apple dev kit for iOS, Mac that we all know today is straight out of NeXtstep and that was one BIG bet. Steve’s biggest. It’s still paying off. As to Dorsey, well, HIS bet was his time and income but a lot of people bet a lot around him on the start-ups he was in. Chris Rock did some really expensive bets, like that talk show that bombed (and he pulled in all his chits to get guests for that one . . .). Yeah, in Dorsey and Rock’s case, it wasn’t technically their money but big money got spent.

    I agree with the principle of small bets but the examples only work if your big bet has already paid dividends. . . or somebody else foots the bill. Small bets don’t have the high oscillations that get you peak success. Dampened risk through small bets sounds great — but it doesn’t do game change.

    Like

  33. 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

  34. 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

  35. 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

  36. 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

  37. 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

  38. 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

  39. 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

  40. 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

  41. 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

  42. 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

  43. 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

  44. 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

  45. 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

  46. 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

  47. 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

  48. 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

  49. 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

  50. 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

  51. 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

  52. 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

  53. 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

  54. 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

  55. 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