Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Worth the tweet

Published in Mar-Apr 2014
A review of 'Hatching Twitter' by Nick Bilton.

The book doesn’t start well for me. This is on the opening page: “Get out, said Evan Williams to the woman standing in his office door way, I am going to throw up.

“She stepped backwards pulling the door closed, a metal click reverberating through the room as he grabbed the black wastepaper in the corner of his office his hands now shaking and clammy.”

And a few pages later…

“Cars swooshed by leaving pockets of moving air in their wake which helped dry the small droplets of sweat that had gathered on his brow from the morning commute.”

You know immediately what kind of a book you are in for. It is going to be one where: a) Nick Bilton is going to come at this with all adjectives blazing. There will be good adjectives, bad adjectives and ones that are frankly irrelevant – like that bit about the wastepaper bin being black or the droplets of sweat having gathered on the brow. There will be, as journalists say, “lots of colour” to conjure up the mood of the scene. Nick Bilton is going to make you feel what it was like to be there, right in the room with a vomiting man whether you like it or not. b) You are going to be in a particular genre of book made popular by Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin. This is the business pot-boiler – a fusion between popular fiction and business case history. The story will be big on personalities – clashing, of course, and often in tense meetings – and lighter on analysis. The book starts with an introduction to the dramatis personae and sets out to be a kind of modern Greek tragedy. There will be victims and victors. Greed, ambition and ego are going to be driving forces along with a fair amount of fear.

So should you bother to read this book? You might be surprised to hear, given how snooty I have been about Nick Bilton’s prose style, that the answer is yes.

Here’s why: The story moves at a fair old lick with short chapters and plenty of a) swearing, b) eating of pizza as coders work through the night, c) backstabbing within a dysfunctional group of people, and d) envy, loathing and revenge. You do get a sense of what it is like to be in San Francisco at a moment in time, when an odd collection of personalities are inventing the new online services that will go on to take over the world. Twitter is important – as are Facebook, Google and other services yet to be invented, but which you can be sure are being dreamed up right now in that hothouse of digital geekdom.


Twitter was a phoenix rising from the ashes of a failing idea – it started as a side project within a business called Odeo. But here was the critical thing. As Odeo was falling apart they started looking for a new idea. They did not pack up or look for a regular salaried job. They had another go and this time they hit the jackpot.


Telling the story in all its messy, accidental reality has a value. It refutes any illusions that you might harbour that innovation is a smooth, well-planned process. The people who invented Twitter did so because they could. They did not conceive of the ways that Twitter would be used. They put it out there in the market and people picked it up and used it for different purposes. Celebs saw it as a tool to get fans and followers whilst political activists, in places like Iran, used it as a way of getting news out. Digital startups have shown how too much planning and delay can be a mistake. The key to success is to get your idea into the market and learn from how it is used. Most companies still do not operate this way or give their people permission to do so.

You get a sense of the milieu and culture of digital startups in San Francisco. You are in the company of a strange tribe of geeks. Twitter is a peculiar combination of the idealistic and the rampantly materialistic. On the staff are hacktivists with anarchist and anti-capitalist outlooks. Yet the motivation of most of the founders is to get rich and enjoy the ego satisfaction of being lauded and admired by their fellow geeks. Hovering in the background are investors looking to back the right horse and get rich too. This is American capitalism red in tooth and claw strongly flavoured with a hippy sensibility. People live on sofas and struggle to pay the rent and a few years later they are fabulously wealthy as the company makes its IPO and sells its stock on the open market. That is the dream of many of the young men – it is mostly young men – who are right now hatching and growing new businesses on the west coast of the USA.

You can also infer from the story some important ideas about what it takes to make innovation happen. A combination of enablers all coming together at the same time makes San Francisco one of the most important places in the world for innovation. Among those ideas…

Pre-existing technology

The existence of ready-made platforms, code and other services mean that prototypes can be quickly made and tried. In fact Twitter was one such – it was, so to speak, stitched together using existing elements.

Talent, energy and belief

San Francisco today is like a modern gold rush with plenty of bright, hopeful young people prepared to take a risk. It is a particularly American story in which the people who succeed have come from nothing in order to try their luck. This is atypical of life in general. Most people who have money have come from money. But the American dream is that anyone can make it no matter how humble their background. Hatching Twitter is another story that nourishes this powerful idea. It is not as well written as The Great Gatsby but it is in the same tradition.

Money

At a certain point an entrepreneurial startup runs out of seed money and needs investment in order to grow. That network of investors exists in the USA. Ideas with potential can get the funding supercharge to take on the world. Google, Facebook and Twitter are not regional or local businesses – they are global and their success breeds belief that there is another idea as big as that round the corner – the trick is to spot it and back it.

Optimism and greed

Twitter burns through money without any idea of how the service is going to convert its rapidly growing user base into revenue. This is one in the eye for people who ask old-fashioned questions like, “What is your business model?” In the USA there are investors who are prepared to hand over very large sums – in return for stock of course – in the belief that if you build a large audience (or ‘user base’ to use the jargon) you will be able to find a way to turn that into profits. You will just ‘figure it out’ later.

So are the founders of Twitter just lucky? Are they ‘accidental billionaires’ like Mark Zuckerberg – a strange character who tries to buy Twitter and has, like many geeks, very poor social skills.

They are certainly lucky to be born Americans and to get their timing right – an all-important factor in having success. But they also made their own luck.

Some took risks with their own money – like Evan Williams. They were comfortable with the idea that a project might fail – in fact most ideas being conceived right now in San Francisco will fail – and are prepared constantly to reinvent.

Twitter was a phoenix rising from the ashes of a failing idea – it started as a side project within a business called Odeo. But here was the critical thing. As Odeo was falling apart they started looking for a new idea. They did not pack up or look for a regular salaried job. They had another go and this time they hit the jackpot.

Hatching Twitter

By Nick Bilton

Sceptre

299pp. PKR 1,795

Available at Liberty Books.

Julian Saunders is Managing Partner, The Joined Up Company. julian@joinedupcompany.com