Book Review: Hatching Twitter
A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal
320 pages, Portfolio Trade, 2013
Hardcover $17.00, e-Read version $7.99
Most of us have an image of an inventor shaped by the works of Edison, Bell and the Wright Brothers: Hardworking souls toiling through hours of experiments until a groundbreaking innovation is discovered. Such is not the case, though, for the founders of the social online networking service Twitter. Through the entertaining book “Hatching Twitter” by Nick Bilton, we’re able to see firsthand how the success of Twitter is more happenstance melodrama than relentless persistence.
Bilton, a New York Times columnist and writer, researched thousands of Twitter documents including employee emails, boardroom presentations, government communications, newspaper articles and blog posts. Weaving these accounts together he created a fascinating chronology of how Twitter’s founders changed (intentionally or not) the world.
“Hatching Twitter” begins with short chapters on each of Twitter’s founders, drawn together by the desire to create something that will make them notable and rich. Evan Williams is the misunderstood son of a Nebraska farm family who migrates out west to Silicon Valley. He eventually starts the web site Blogger, which he sells to Google. Williams parlays his Google windfall into a podcasting business which his friend Noah Glass convinces him to invest in.
The business, initially known as Odeo, at first operates in makeshift work spaces, going between a small cramped office and a small apartment. New employees are hired in, each with unique skill sets and personality quirks. One of these hires, Jack Dorsey, begins his work as a lowly contract programmer, his significance to the future of Odeo and Twitter is unanticipated.
Odeo works to position itself as the go-to application for podcasting. One night its plans are blown to pieces when Steve jobs announces that Apple is introducing the iPod, which includes a major podcasting platform. Odeo’s grand vision now destroyed, Williams calls a meeting to brainstorm what the company can do to survive and appease its investors.
It’s a 2am conversation the following morning between Glass and Dorsey that takes the idea of text messages that can be broadcasted to a broad audience. Facebook is trying a somewhat similar concept on college campuses, but Glass and Dorsey seek a way to communicate their thoughts to friends that are not close by as a solution to their own loneliness.
The concept is tweaked at meetings that follow and a new direction is forged. The next question is what to call the new company. Before Twitter was selected, we learn that names like Worship, Quickly, Tremble, Friendstalker, Vibrate, Twitcher, and Twitchy fortunately did not make the cut.
Growing pains persist throughout the early months of Twitter. The company gains followers slowly at first. Twitter’s first marketing rollout event is at a disaster, but over time “tweeting” becomes trendy and hip and Twitter popularity goes worldwide.
As this growth accelerates, the company’s servers have persistent problems keeping up with the site’s burgeoning traffic. Investors become antsy with the technical issues but there are always new investors waiting at Twitter’s door step. The book’s more humorous episodes include failed and bizarre individual attempts to invest in the company from Al Gore, Ashton Kutcher, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
While Twitter is evolving so are the egos of its founders. Key players may be fired from Twitter, but the inept staff left to manage become vulnerable themselves, resulting in a corporate environment that violates every administrative and human resources curriculum ever written.
We learn this from the Twitter story: Bad relationships chronically fester within even a successful business and people are willing to invest in a company even when it produces zero income for several consecutive years.
We also learn that the crazy and unlikely story of Twitter is extremely entertaining. “Hatching Twitter” is well written in a style that lends itself to the drama and storytelling of a good movie script … which may be author Bilton’s overarching intent.
Chris Wendel is with Northern Initiatives in Traverse City. Based in Marquette, Mich., Northern Initiatives provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, technical assistance, and new markets throughout northern Michigan. www.northerninitiatives.com