Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Founder's Dilemma: Who Owns Your Work?

When it comes to creativity, the line between ideation and launch is rarely a straight one. As the old saying goes, “Success has 100 owners, but failure is an orphan.”

In his new book, Hatching Twitter, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton spent a year and a half combing through emails, interviews, and, yes, tweets to reconstruct the origin story of one of the world’s most popular social networks — and it gets messy.

Bilton’s book provides an inside look at how one of the most successful Internet startups in history grew from a side project to an $18 billion initial public offering. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the company’s merry-go-round leadership, which resulted in the ousting of one of the company’s original founders, Noah Glass, and disputed the commonly held notion that Jack Dorsey is the sole inventor of Twitter.

We asked Bilton about being lucky versus being good, as well as what we have to learn from the successes and mistakes of one of the world’s most discussed companies.

Edited for length and clarity.

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How much of Twitter’s success was simply good timing?

The reason Twitter was successful was because it came at a time when people were getting mobile phones and they wanted something to do with them. If you look at Facebook, it is the same thing. There were people on computers and they wanted to be able to connect with friends. It was the right time, the right place, and the right technology. And I think that a lot of it is timing. Instagram could have come out 10 years ago and no one would be able to Instagram without a good camera on the smartphone.

Nobody was Instagramming on the Motorola Razr.

Exactly.

It seems the best you can do, as an entrepreneur is to put yourself in the most agile position to jump on opportunities.

Look for something that’s missing or a category that doesn’t exist. If you want to Instagram a picture of your dog, but can’t, the solution isn’t to create a social network for dogs. That’s just incremental. You should find a completely new category [and create it] as a way to solve a problem. That’s where you find the best new companies. 

Between “The Social Network,” Snapchat, and now “Hatching Twitter,” it seems that all successful startups have a founder that is pushed out. Is that just how today’s startup culture works? Or is that just the product of these three very high-profile examples?

I think that in the Valley, there is this tendency to get cutthroat when things get successful. The Valley tries to hide it, and say it is “all in the greater good of humanity.” But when things take shape, they happen behind the scenes in the Valley where, in other industries, the back and forth has been front and center.

It’s just odd to see these founders completely scrubbed from the record.

You can see it in every single company that’s really successful. There’s an early Apple founder who is no longer there. Wikipedia, there were people who were pushed out, PayPal, there was a big fight. It just bothers me, why can’t these companies give the people the credit they deserve? One of the things I was trying to do with this book was share the credit amongst the little people that really deserve to be getting some. 

Clockwise from top left: Twitter co-founders Noah Glass, Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, and Biz Stone.

Clockwise from top left: Twitter co-founders Noah Glass, Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, and Biz Stone.

Before your book, the popular belief was that Twitter was Jack Dorsey’s idea that he helped nurse and then got kicked out of and then ultimately came back to. But, as you show, it wasn’t that simple.

The version that Jack tells is that he created this when he was eight years old in his bedroom. But what I found from my reporting is that it was a collaborative effort by multiple people, and they all play a role in it. Jack was the one looking to step out into the limelight, into the press, and say, “This is my idea, this is my creation.” As a result, a lot of people got written out of the story. And it happens a lot in the Valley. You don’t talk about the creation of a company and explain, “Oh, this guy Bob was sitting at the bar and came up with the name, it was this guy that coded this part, and that guy kinda started this part.” You have to boil it down to a paragraph or a sentence, often to the detriment of the people who deserve credit. 

I wonder if that’s because there’s such an ingrained mythology of the startup, where it’s often attributed to one “visionary” person who pushed it through and remains at the helm.

For Twitter, it wasn’t just one large personality that took over and pushed the others out. Noah Glass was pushed out, Jack was pushed out, Evan Williams was pushed out, Jack was pushed out again, and what the difference between the social networks and startups in the Valley compared to the other companies is, basically, the people are all living very much in public. There’s a lot of attention on technology right now because it’s where the cash is coming in.

It’s one of the only industries where you can chase fame and money at the same time. 

Yeah, exactly. And I think that in many aspects, the Valley has the backstabbing of Wall Street but the fame of Hollywood.

The Valley has the backstabbing of Wall Street but the fame of Hollywood.

In the book you wrote, “Some people are destined for greatness. Others fall up a hill to get there.” Where do you come down on that kind of balance in regards to Twitter? 

Look at Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. He could be an army general and he’d probably be the best army general there is. I think he is the kind of character that is going to win at all cost. And you could say the same thing about Steve Jobs, you could say the same thing about Bill Gates, there’s a good chance [Tesla and SpaceX founder] Elon Musk is in that group. 

And then you can look at other people that I think are incredibly innovative and have some great ideas that are not that. I think there’s a lot of luck. [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin is a good example. Sergey could never run Google in the same way [former CEO] Eric Schmidt could, but he is a brilliant character who comes up with lots of ideas. 

When you look at the way all of these kind of transpired, and when you look at the story, everyone with the exception of Jack [Dorsey] realized that it is a lot of luck. And I think Jack kind of wants to take credit to the creation in a way that not necessarily fair to the events that took place.

The things I find interesting about Evan Williams is if you ask him about his new company, Medium, he’ll openly admit, “I don’t really know what it is. I think it could be this, or I think it could be that, but I know there’s something there.” And I think that’s admirable from a startup perspective, where you don’t know what it is that you have and you don’t necessarily pretend that you do. Whereas there are other people I meet on a daily basis that pretend that they have figured out a cure for cancer when the reality is they’re flailing around. 

There are people I meet on a daily basis that pretend that they have figured out a cure for cancer when the reality is they’re flailing around. 

A lot of people are critical of startups for not being ambitious enough. Do you think that criticism is well founded or do you think it’s out of touch with what’s actually happening?

No, I think that there’s a little bit of both. There are a lot of startups that work on things that I don’t think help society or make the world better. I think they are silly ideas essentially designed for a very small population of Silicon Valley, which is very small, and I think those are things that end up failing because no one wants to use them. 

But there are a large segment of people that are working on really important things, with new kinds of battery technology, building drones that they use in Africa to deliver medicine, medical things to help the society, and a lot of different stuff. 

What I find is that the people that are building these silly apps that don’t make the world great, are the ones that usually go out there in search of attention and get it. The people that are truly building things that are changing the world really don’t care about the attention. And that’s a noble pursuit. It’s probably our job as reporters to find those people, to cover them, and to get them the attention they deserve — rather than just writing about the next social network that allows you to share pictures of your dog.

More insights on: Books, Interviews

Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Managing Editor and Producer of 99U. You can also find him on his personal blog and on Twitter. Sean is a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week.
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