Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayalby Nick Bilton
A New York Times bestseller
Ev told Jack he had to “chill out” with the deluge of media he was doing. “It’s bad for the company,” Ev said. “It’s sending the wrong message.” Biz sat between them, watching like a spectator at a tennis match.
“But I invented/b>/i>… See more details below
A New York Times bestseller
Ev told Jack he had to “chill out” with the deluge of media he was doing. “It’s bad for the company,” Ev said. “It’s sending the wrong message.” Biz sat between them, watching like a spectator at a tennis match.
“But I invented Twitter,” Jack said.
“No, you didn’t invent Twitter,” Ev replied. “I didn’t invent Twitter either. Neither did Biz. People don’t invent things on the Internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists.”
In 2005, Odeo was a struggling podcasting start-up founded by free-range hacker Noah Glass and staffed by a motley crew of anarchists. Less than two years later, its days were numbered and half the staff had been let go. But out of Odeo’s ashes, the remaining employees worked on a little side venture . . . that by 2013 had become an $11.5 billion business.
That much is widely known. But the full story of Twitter’s hatching has never been told before. It’s a drama of betrayed friendships and high-stakes power struggles, as the founders went from everyday engineers to wealthy celebrities featured on magazine covers, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show, and Time’s list of the world’s most influential people.
New York Times columnist and reporter Nick Bilton takes readers behind the scenes as Twitter grew at exponential speeds. He gets inside the heads of the four hackers out of whom the company tumbled:
• Evan “Ev” Williams, the ambitious farm boy from Clarks, Nebraska, who had already created Blogger and sold it to Google for millions. Quiet and protective, Ev is a shrewd businessman who made tough choices in the interest of his companies, firing cofounders and employees who were once friends.
• Jack Dorsey, the tattooed “nobody” who helped mastermind the original concept of Twitter, became a billionaire tech titan, and convinced the media that he was the next Steve Jobs.
• Christopher “Biz” Stone, the joker and diplomat who played nice with everyone. As drama ensued, he was the only founder who remained on good terms with his friends and to this day has no enduring resentments.
• Noah Glass, the shy but energetic geek who invested his whole life in Twitter, only to be kicked out and expunged from the company’s official history.
As Twitter grew, the four founders fought bitterly for money, influence, publicity, and control over a company that grows larger and more powerful by the day. Ultimately they all lost their grip on it. Today, none of them is the CEO. Dick Costolo, a fifty-year-old former comedian, runs the company.
By 2013 Twitter boasted close to 300 million active users around the world. In barely six years, the service has become a tool for fighting political oppression in the Middle East, a marketing musthave for business, and the world’s living room during live TV events. Today, notables such as the pope, Oprah Winfrey, and the president of the United States are regular Twitter users. A seventeen-year-old with a mobile phone can now reach a larger audience than an entire crew at CNN.
Bilton’s unprecedented access and exhaustive investigating reporting—drawing on hundreds of sources, documents, and internal e-mails—have enabled him to write an intimate portrait of four friends who accidentally changed the world, and what they all learned along the way.
The New York Times Book Review
"Exhaustively researched...extensively detailed...unexpectedly addictive."
The Wall Street Journal
"#Backstabbing, power struggles and profanity laid bare"– "It is breathless storytelling"
The New York Times
"Deeply reported and deliciously written."
"A compelling read, more like espionage than a corporate history."
"A dramatic and detail-rich recounting."
"With a cinematic approach befitting its eclectic cast of characters, the perceptive read…is rife with Byzantine-like intrigue, character clashes and broken dreams."
"Goes where no book has gone before."
The Huffington Post
The Wall Street Journal
"A fast-paced read, chock-full of details."
New York Magazine
"Nick Bilton’s impressively detailed fly-on-the-wall exposé of the micro-blogging site’s birth and evolution evokes all the titillating elements of a soap opera."
Novelistic rendition of Twitter's contentious origins in the techie subculture of San Francisco. New York Times Bits Blog columnist Bilton (I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted, 2010) reconstructed this history from interviews and the digital trails (i.e., emails and Twitter timelines) of his four principals: blogger, founder and chief investor Evan "Ev" Williams and his friends and employees Noah Glass, Christopher "Biz" Stone and Jack Dorsey. Each contributed an important share in the invention of the platform that, unbeknown to them at the time, would revolutionize the way the world communicates and interrelates. Williams provided the funds and the space for his colleagues to brainstorm startup and application ideas. Dorsey came up with the idea for a simple "status updater." Glass pulled the company name, which suggests the vibrating sound a phone might make when it receives an update, from the dictionary. Stone pushed for the company's light-touch, user-centric ethical and moral dimensions. Almost immediately, Bilton reports, there was tension among the co-founders. Within months, Glass would be pushed out of the circle, denied any glory or much fortune from the company's future success, and Dorsey, the company's tentative and inexperienced first CEO, was ousted in a coup just as Twitter was becoming a phenomenon following successful exposure at the 2007 South by Southwest festival. Neither man took these turns well, but whereas Glass eventually made peace with his fate, according to Bilton, Dorsey plotted revenge. The narrative sometimes gets so inside the heads of its subjects, it can seem to blur the line between reporting and fiction, but Bilton insists every thought in the book is based on interviews and "not assumed." A captivating study of male camaraderie and competition, more like the story of an indie rock band than one of the world's most ubiquitous corporations.
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Meet the Author
Nick Bilton is a columnist and reporter for The New York Times, where he explores the disruptive aspects of technology on business, culture and society. His columns span everything from the future of technology and privacy to the impact of social media on the Web. He is a regular guest on national TV and radio and is the author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. He lives in Los Angeles.
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Read an Excerpt
The author Julian Barnes once wrote, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
What you are about to read is the result of several hundred hours of interviews with current and former employees of Twitter and Odeo, government officials, Twitter executives’ friends and significant others, and people at competing companies, as well as discussions with almost everyone mentioned in the book. While Twitter, the company, declined to give me official access for the book, Twitter’s current and former board members and all four cofounders of the company agreed to sit for, collectively, more than sixty-five hours of interviews. Although most interviews were recorded to ensure accuracy of dialogue, all of these conversations, while on the record to be used within this book, were conducted on “background,” with the understanding that material would not be explicitly attributed to specific sources within this book. There are only a couple of people mentioned in this book who declined to be interviewed.
It became apparent in the interviews for the book that people’s memories of past events have changed over time. During only a select few occasions two people agreed that a meeting took place, but their recollections of the location or timing were drastically different. In every instance possible I have tried to triangulate timing and location of events using documents I obtained and, of course, social media. There may be some occurrences where this was not possible; in these instances I have done my best to estimate timing. I chose to leave out of this narrative moments of the story for which accounts were too different. In some areas of the book events are referred to a few months earlier than they occur to help the reader understand the overall significance of a moment.
The book is also based on more than a thousand documents I obtained or reviewed during my reporting, including employee e-mails, boardroom presentations, investment filings, contracts, employee calendars, partnership documents, government-level communications, instant-messenger correspondence, newspaper articles, blog posts, and highly confidential Twitter legal notices and internal e-mails. In moments of the book where scenes are described in exact detail, I have often personally visited the location. Any instance of a character’s inner monologue or emotional state is based on interviews with that individual and not assumed.
Even with the hundreds of hours of interviews and the internal documents, the most exact location of memory I found was strewn about the Internet on social-media Web sites. With a researcher, I pored through tens of thousands of tweets, photos, and videos.
It became clear in the reporting of this book that the imperfections of memory of those I spoke with have sometimes become more pronounced over the past decade. But what has remained intact are the hundreds of thousands of photos, videos, and tweets they all shared over the years, helping to pinpoint exact moments in time, clothing, conversation, and mood. Unbeknownst to the people in the book at the time, their use of the tools they created, especially Twitter, ensured there were very few inadequacies of documentation to deteriorate the true events that make up this history.
October 4, 2010, 10:43 A.M.
The Twitter Office
Get out,” Evan Williams said to the woman standing in his office doorway. “I’m going to throw up.”
She stepped backward, pulling the door closed, a metal clicking sound reverberating through the room as he grabbed the black wastebasket in the corner of his office, his hands now shaking and clammy.
This was it. His last act as the CEO of Twitter would be throwing up into a garbage can.
He knelt there for a moment, his dark jeans resting on the rough carpeted floor, then leaned back against the wall. Outside, the cold October air rustled the trees that lined Folsom Street below. Violin-like noises of traffic mingled with a muffled din of conversation near his office doorway.
Moments later, someone informed his wife, Sara, who also worked at Twitter, “Something is wrong with Ev.” She rushed up to his corner office, her rich, black, curly hair wobbling slightly as she walked.
Sara checked her watch, realizing that Ev had only forty-five minutes before he would have to address the three hundred Twitter employees and break the news. She opened the door and went inside.
Down the hall, the Twitter public-relations team reviewed the blog post that would go up on the Web site at 11:40 A.M., the moment Ev would finish addressing the company and hand the microphone to the new CEO, passing power in a gesture as simple as handing off the baton in a relay race.
The blog post, which would be picked up by thousands of press outlets and blogs from around the world, gleefully announced that Twitter, the four-year-old social network, now had 165 million registered people on the service who sent an astounding 90 million tweets each day. Five paragraphs down, it noted that Evan Williams, the current CEO, was stepping down of his own volition.
“I have decided to ask our COO, Dick Costolo, to become Twitter’s CEO,” said the post, allegedly written by Ev.
Of course, that wasn’t true.
Ev, seated on the floor of his office with his hands wrapped around a garbage can, had absolutely no desire to say that. A farmer’s son from Nebraska who had arrived in San Francisco a decade earlier with nothing more than a couple of bags of cheap, raggedy, oversized clothes and tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debt, Ev wanted to remain chief of the company he had cofounded. But that wasn’t going to happen. It didn’t matter that he was now worth more than a billion dollars or that he had poured his life into Twitter. He didn’t have a choice: He had been forced out of the company in a malicious, bloody boardroom coup carried out by the people he had hired, some of whom had once been his closest friends, and by some of the investors who had financed the company.
Ev looked up as he heard Sara come in. He wiped the sleeve of his sweater across the dark stubble on his chin.
“How are you feeling?” Sara asked.
“Fuck,” he said, unsure if it was his nerves or if he was coming down with something. Or both.
Down the hall, through the doors that led to the Twitter office’s main foyer, copies of the New Yorker, the Economist, and the New York Times were fanned out on the white square coffee table in the waiting area. Each publication contained articles about Twitter’s role in the revolutions now taking place in the Middle East—rebellions that, through Twitter and other social networks, would eventually see the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and spark massive protests in Bahrain, Syria, and Iran.
Around the corner, Biz Stone, another of Twitter’s four cofounders, finalized an e-mail telling the employees that there would be an all-hands meeting in the cafeteria at 11:30 A.M. Attendance was mandatory; no guests were allowed. There would be no hummus, just important news. He hit “send” and stood up from his desk, heading for Ev’s office to try to cheer up his friend and boss of nearly a decade.
Jason Goldman, who oversaw Twitter’s product development and was one of Ev’s few allies on the company’s seven-person board, was already sitting on the couch when Biz arrived and dropped down next to him. Ev was now quietly sipping from a bottle of water, despondently staring off into the distance, the turmoil and madness of the past week playing over in his mind.
“Remember when . . . ,” Goldman and Biz chorused, trying to cheer Ev up with humorous memories of the last several years at Twitter. There were lots of stories to tell. Like the time Ev had nervously been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, fumbling in front of millions of viewers. Or the time the Russian president showed up to the office, with snipers and the Secret Service, to send his first tweet, right at the moment the site stopped working. Or when Biz and Ev went to Al Gore’s apartment at the St. Regis for dinner and got “shit-faced drunk” as the former vice president of the United States tried to convince them to sell him part of Twitter. Or other bizarre acquisition attempts by Ashton Kutcher at his pool in Los Angeles and by Mark Zuckerberg at awkward meetings at his sparsely furnished house. Or when Kanye West, will.i.am, Lady Gaga, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain, and countless other celebrities and politicians had arrived, sometimes unannounced, at the office, rapping, singing, preaching, tweeting (some others were even high or drunk), trying to understand how this bizarre thing that was changing society could be controlled and how they could own a piece of it.
Ev struggled to smile as his friends spoke, trying his best to hide the sadness and defeat on his face.
There was one person who might have been successful at making Ev smile: the man who was now pacing in the office directly next door, his bald head bowed, his phone cupped to his ear. Dick Costolo, once a well-known improv comedian who had graced the stage with Steve Carell and Tina Fey. The same Dick Costolo Ev had “decided to ask” to become Twitter’s new CEO, the third of a company that was only four years old.
Yet Dick wasn’t in a jovial mood either. He was talking to the board members who had been involved in the coup, confirming the wording of the blog post that would soon go out to the media, and also what he would say to the hundreds of Twitter employees when he took the mic from Ev.
He paced as they plotted what would happen next: the return of Jack Dorsey.
Jack had been the first CEO of Twitter and another cofounder. He had been pushed out of the company by Ev in a similar power struggle in 2008. On this particular morning, he’d been expecting to make a triumphant return to the company he had obsessively built before his own ousting.
As Jack had been informed by the board a few hours earlier, though, his return to Twitter would not happen today; it would be delayed again. Jack was only a few blocks away as the scene unfolded that morning, pacing in his office at Square, a mobile payments company he’d recently started.
He had woken up in his wall-to-wall-concrete penthouse apartment in Mint Plaza and dressed for work in his now-signature several-thousand-dollar outfit of fancy Dior shirt, dark suit blazer, and Rolex watch. It was a very different ensemble from the unkempt T-shirt and black beanie hat he had worn two years earlier when he was ousted from Twitter.
But although he wore a different uniform that morning, he was equally disdainful of Ev, his once friend and forever cofounder, who had foiled Jack’s planned return to Twitter. Although Ev had been successfully removed as the CEO, he had not, as was originally supposed to unfold, been publicly fired from the company. At least not yet.
Back in the Twitter office, Ev looked up as the clock approached 11:30 A.M. Time to go.
Ev had no idea that within just a few months he would be completely out of a job at Twitter. Biz and Jason followed Ev out the door and down the halls, as they had for years, clueless that they would also be pushed out of the company in due time.
They walked silently toward the company’s cafeteria, past the colorful walls and white sleigh rocking chairs and the confused employees who were grabbing their seats. None of Twitter’s staff members knew what they were about to hear from their beloved boss, Evan Williams. They had no idea that the company they worked for, a company that had changed the world in countless ways, was itself about to change forever.
Ev’s bicycle tires crunched on the gravel as he drifted along the dirt road, past the endless rows of green and yellow grapevines. The orange glow of the morning California sun warmed his back, his bright orange sneakers pressing down on the pedals as he picked up speed to begin his dreaded daily four-mile bike ride to work.
As he approached Sebastopol’s Morris Street, 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. This was the moment in the ride when he once again told himself that one day soon he would be able to afford to buy a car to get to work, rather than have to use an old bicycle borrowed from a coworker.
Of course, he had never imagined people needed to own a car in San Francisco, where he had thought he was moving when he arrived in California earlier that year. It was 1997, the middle of the modern-day gold rush called the tech boom. Young, nerdy tech enthusiasts like Ev, along with designers and programmers, had set out for the area in pursuit of a new dream where, rumor had it, you could get rich by selling ones and zeros rather than nuggets of shiny yellow gold.
He had arrived a twenty-five-year-old with empty pockets and fierce idealism, only to find that the job he had been hired for, writing marketing material for a company called O’Reilly Media, was in Sebastopol, a small, quiet hippie town fifty-five miles north of San Francisco.
When viewed on a map spread out on his mother’s small kitchen table in Nebraska, it had looked much closer to the big city. Ev decided he didn’t have much of a choice but to keep the job. He had no college degree and no idea how to write code. The odds of finding work elsewhere were slim to none. Plus O’Reilly was paying him $48,500 a year, which would help deplete his tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debt and student loans from the single year he had made it through college. He also reasoned that his new employer, which published technology how-to books, would be the perfect place to learn how to program. So he settled in on the outskirts of town, renting a six-hundred-dollar-a-month shoebox that sat atop a stranger’s garage.
Ev felt a surprising sense of comfort in the solitude of Sebastopol, surrounded by the sounds of nothingness. It reminded him of the farm in Clarks, Nebraska, where he had grown up. The day he left for California, Clarks’s population went from 374 people to 373.
At his new office, he often sat quietly at his computer, wearing baggy, cheap jeans, an oversized T-shirt—almost always tucked in—and, if the day afforded it, a strange hat.
When your parents are farmers, style isn’t usually part of the morning breakfast discussion. Neither is talk of tech start-ups and San Francisco, which is why his father, Monte, hadn’t quite understood why young Ev was heading to California to play with computers rather than tending to the family farm. But the Williams family had never really understood Ev.
From the time he could walk he was a daydreamer. As a young boy, he would sit on the side of the family’s green tractor in the deep fields and stare up into space. He was shy and sometimes socially awkward and rarely fit in, often spending hours alone with his thoughts. As he grew up, normal life in Clarks required that he go hunting with his dad and brother. Like all midwestern boys, he was supposed to learn to fire rifles, shoot a bow, gut a deer, and fish for bass or trout in the Nebraska lakes. He was also expected to fall in love with football. And, of course, all of these things should be done while driving a very large pickup truck. All part of the American Dream.
Yet Ev preferred to sit in his bedroom and glue together plastic models, or spend hours taking apart his bikes before painstakingly putting them back together, or draw ideas for video games he wanted to make when he was older—when he could afford to buy a computer. Guns, football, and hunting were simply not his thing.
When Ev grew up and it was time to buy his first car, rather than procure a big, brawny truck, he opted for a bright yellow BMW. Owning four wheels and four doors helped catapult him to high-school popularity. A car in the Midwest for a teenager is like a watercooler in the middle of the desert. He was soon whisking his new friends to parties, where he started hooking up with girls and drinking beer out of red plastic cups.
But his carefree new lifestyle came to a halt when his parents got divorced during his senior year. The small-town gossips whispered that his mother later fell for the fertilizer guy. Ev was dragged over to a different town and a different high school, where he once again fell into obscurity and isolation.
His mind was always filling up with wacky business schemes. Most of them never quite clicked, especially with the local Nebraskans. As the Internet started to gain speed on the coasts, Ev came up with the idea of making a VHS tape explaining what this Internet thing was. He then spent a summer driving around in his yellow Beemer trying to convince local businesses to buy the tapes. He didn’t sell many.
But once Ev got an idea in his mind, he was determined to make it a reality. You might have had better luck stopping the earth from spinning than barring Evan Williams from raising one of his idea hatchlings.
After high school he didn’t stray far from home and attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, but after a year and a half he felt that college and his professors were a waste of time. One afternoon in 1992 he was sitting in his dorm room reading, when he came across an obscure article about an advertising guru who lived and worked in Florida. Ev was so taken by the subject of the article that he tried to call the man to ask if he was hiring. After a few conversations with an answering machine, Ev said “Fuck it!” and got into the family’s old Chevy van. He drove the two thousand miles to Key West, Florida. As a runaway student he was flat broke. He paid for gas with plastic and slept in the van. In the morning, as the southern sun woke him, he would pop an audiobook tape into the car’s cassette deck—often a marketing or business book—and listen as he coasted along the empty roads. When he arrived in Florida, he knocked on the advertising exec’s door, demanding a job. Impressed by Ev’s tenacity and persuasiveness, the exec hired Ev on the spot. Yet after several months Ev realized the man was more bullshit artist than advertising artist. So, playing everything in reverse—with a brief stay in Texas—he drove back to Nebraska.
His determination often rubbed people the wrong way. At O’Reilly Media he was once asked to compose the marketing material for one of the company’s latest products. Ev responded by e-mailing the entire company that he wouldn’t write it, because the product “was a piece of shit.”
His abrasiveness didn’t help win many friends when he arrived in California, either, so each night he would ride his borrowed bicycle home, back past the vines of grapes that would soon end up in a bottle of something he couldn’t afford. Once atop the garage, he would sit and sip cheap beers alone in a single room that was large enough for a mattress, a small brown kitchenette, and Ev’s prized possession: his computer.
There he would teach himself how to write code, his only friends the crickets he could hear gathered around the garage cheering him on as he learned to speak a language only computers could understand.
He eventually escaped the confines of the sleepy northern California town and darted south to Palo Alto to work for Intel and later Hewlett-Packard, building mundane software and slowly making friends who worked in the industry. On weekends he would take the train to San Francisco, where his new buddies took him to start-up parties. The draw of the city eventually enticed him to rent an inexpensive, crooked apartment in the Mission area of San Francisco.
He met a girl, Meg Hourihan, a sprightly programmer who shared Ev’s passion for opinion and computers, and the two began a brief love affair. Although the relationship didn’t last long, they decided to start a company together. They set off with a small group of friends, and opened a bare-bones start-up called Pyra Labs that operated out of Ev’s apartment. The group planned to build software to increase workplace productivity. But, starting a pattern that would follow Ev through his career, something better accidentally grew out of Pyra.
Ev and an employee had built a simple internal diary Web site that would help Pyra employees keep up to date about work progress. Meg didn’t like the side project and was not shy in expressing her views, calling it just another Ev distraction. One week in the summer of 1999, while she was away on vacation, Ev released the diary Web site to the world. He called it Blogger, a word that had not existed until then. He believed it would allow people without any computer-programming knowledge to create a Web log, or blog.
After Blogger rose in popularity among the tech nerds, Meg eventually came around to its potential, but not Ev’s. Meg was concerned that he didn’t have the skills to run a business, as paperwork was piling up and bills going unpaid. A mini power struggle quickly ensued, wherein Meg tried to take control of the company and Ev refused to step down. In the end, the five-person Pyra team disbanded, leaving Ev friendless, single, and running a company out of his living room.
At around the same time, the tech boom, which had since turned into a tech bubble, went pop. The stock market started to spiral down, with trillions of dollars eventually falling out of the NASDAQ. Within months the parties disappeared. Jobs became sparse. Start-ups closed down. And most of the people who had come to the Valley in search of wealth left the area, broke.
Ev wasn’t going anywhere, though. He had a vision for Blogger, where anyone could have their own blog, the equivalent of their own online newspaper. Unlike his lonely high-school days, Ev’s seclusion was relieved by a connection to the world through the hundreds of blogs that were popping up in this town he had laid the foundation for: Blogger, population tens of thousands.
On his own blog, EvHead, he forged digital friendships with other people. By day he wrote code by the pound, often for fourteen or sixteen hours at a time, expanding Blogger and building new features for the service. At night he wrote on his blog about the “electronica” he was listening to, recent movies he had seen, a run-in with the IRS for some back taxes. Then, as the moon crested in the sky, he checked the blogs one last time, said good night to the people of the Internet, scrunched up into a ball on his couch surrounded by week-old pizza boxes and empty Snapple bottles, and fell asleep. No friends, no employees, no money. Just Ev.
He soon learned that if you give a microphone to enough people, someone will yell something into it that will offend someone else. Complaints flowed into Blogger constantly. People were vexed by political blogs, religious blogs, Nazi blogs, blogs that used the words “nigger” and “spic” and “kike” and “retard” and “whitey.” Ev realized it would be impossible to police all of the posts that were shared on the site, so as a rule, he opted for an anything-goes mentality.
As Blogger, and the art of blogging, continued to seep into everyday society, Ev started making just enough money, through ads and donations from people who used the site, to gradually hire a small gaggle of programmers. In 2002 they moved into a tiny four-hundred-dollar-a-month space that looked eerily like an old detective office.
By then, Blogger had grown to house nearly a million people’s blogs from around the world, with close to ninety million blog posts—both huge numbers in 2002. Yet the “office” was no bigger than a New York City studio apartment: a meager twelve feet by twelve feet. The room was dark and dank. One of the three small white clocks that hung on the wall had stopped ticking a long time ago, looking as if it had simply fallen asleep, the little hand napping on the seven, the large hibernating near the ten.
It soon became apparent that Ev needed an office manager to handle all the mundane tasks, like bills and paychecks and the onslaught of complaints about the content of the site. So he hired Jason Goldman, an already-balding twenty-six-year-old who had studied astrophysics at Princeton University but dropped out for the tech promised land and was now willing to work for the cash-strapped start-up for twenty dollars an hour.
Jason Goldman wasn’t the first Jason in the six-person start-up. He was the third. To avoid having three people looking in his direction when he called for one of them, Ev referred to all the Jasons by their last names. Jason Sutter, Jason Shellen, and Jason Goldman were Sutter, Shellen, and Goldman.
“Goldman!” Sutter barked in a playful tone on one of Goldman’s first afternoons at work. “You’re going to be in charge of the customer-service e-mail.”
“What’s that?” Goldman responded, peering up at him through his glasses in confusion. “And why are you grinning?” Goldman was tall and wiry with an egg-shaped head. As unstylish as Ev at the time, he often wore clothes a little too wide for his shoulders and pants a little too long for his legs.
“Oh, you’ll see. It’s the e-mail address we use on the site where people complain about other blogs.” Slight laughter came from others in the room as Sutter showed Goldman how to check the account. “Start with that message,” he said, pointing to the computer screen. Goldman clicked on the e-mail, which was a complaint from a woman in the Midwest who had come across a blog that she demanded be taken down immediately. He opened the link in the message and his screen was quickly filled with an animated picture of a group of naked men having sex on a trampoline.
“Ahhhh . . . man. . . . What . . . what, what am I supposed to do about this?” Goldman asked with an uncomfortable laugh, as they all giggled. He squinted at the screen, his head half turned away, trying to understand what the men were doing and who, if anyone, would be interested in such bizarreness.
“Nothing,” Ev said. “Push-button publishing for the people.” It was Blogger’s motto and meant that anyone should be able to publish whatever they wanted. There were mugs around the room that declared this statement, brown coffee stains dribbled over big, bold letters that laid out the moral code of Blogger: PUSH-BUTTON PUBLISHING FOR THE PEOPLE. And it was a motto Ev was determined to stand by. In one instance, a coal-mining company in Scotland threatened to sue Blogger if it didn’t take down a union blog that was being used to show a coal mine’s wrongdoings. Ev always stood his ground, preferring to go out of business rather than to give in to corporate pressure. Eventually, the coal mine gave up.
Blogging had an unintended side effect for Ev. As the company grew, along with other blogging services, Ev was written about in the technology trade press, and he started to grow slightly popular in Silicon Valley. Soon his endless nights on his couch alone with his computer started to change; his personal life started to grow. Just as in his early days with a car in high school, he was now being whisked off to the few tech parties that still existed in the area, hooking up with girls, and drinking beer out of red plastic cups.
Outside the small enclave of the Valley, most people didn’t believe in the promise of this weird blogging thing. Some called it “stupid” and “infantile.” Others asked why anyone would care to share anything about themselves so publicly.
But not Ev. Ev was determined to see Blogger grow, to allow anyone with a computer to publish anything they wanted. To disrupt the publishing world. To disrupt the world in general. One line of code at a time.
Noah Glass almost dropped the issue of Forbes when he saw the picture on the page. Like two magnets coming together, he pulled the magazine toward his face and his face toward the magazine, the gravitational pull of curiosity at work.
It was a warm summer afternoon in 2002 and he had been lounging around his apartment, the chatter of traffic and derelicts from Church Street below floating up through the window like an inescapable smell. Flip, flip, flip, through the pages, when he stopped at a profile of a twentysomething man who was behind a burgeoning Web site called Blogger.
As Noah looked at the picture, it wasn’t the words that made him almost fall from his chair to the earth. It was the picture of Evan Williams, the Pied Piper of Blogger, proudly posing for the photographer in front of a computer with a bright orange Blogger sticker stuck to the bottom corner of the screen. In the distance, past a smiling Ev, through a window, was a kitchen. The same kitchen that Noah was sitting in at that very moment.
Noah spun around in his chair and held the magazine up in the air, peering through the window and into the apartment directly across the way, where the same exact computer from the magazine sat at the same exact desk in real life. The same orange sticker was stuck to the bottom corner of the screen, and there was the man featured in the article in his hand: Evan Williams, sitting at his desk.
“Whoaaaa, holy shit!” Noah said aloud as a giant smile spread across his face. He stood there for a second, doing a double take between the photo and real life.
The magazine looked particularly small in Noah’s hand, given his size. He was large in every way: tall and broad, with a wide, boxy face and droopy eyes like a sad puppy’s. And like a puppy, he had the energy of a nuclear power plant.
He quickly opened the back door to his kitchen and rushed out onto the balcony. “Hey. Blogger!” Noah yelled. Ev turned around, confused and a little startled by the noise. “You’re Evan Williams, from Blogger, right?” Noah said. “I’m Noah. Noah Glass.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” Ev said cautiously as he walked out onto his balcony.
Noah looked over Ev’s shoulder and into the distance of the apartment. Earlier in the summer he remembered seeing as many as five people stuffed into the space, often sitting in the kitchen at computers, working away. A set of servers, which were barely indistinguishable from pizza boxes, sat on the countertop above Ev’s kitchen sink powering all of Blogger. But today the makeshift workplace was empty except for Ev.
“Are you blogging? Are you blogging right now?” Noah asked excitedly between their two respective balconies.
“Yes,” Ev said, then let out a small burst of laughter. They stood there talking for a while, Noah continually laughing and clapping with amazement, proud that they were neighbors.
At the time, Noah’s head was shaved bald. When his hair grew, it was often scraggly and wild, like a surfer who lived on the beach, which is exactly where Noah had grown up. He was born in a small, decrepit house next to an even more decrepit barn that was home to a hippie commune in Santa Cruz, in northern California. His mother and the other commune residents made candles and other trinkets by hand to pay the bills.
His dad left the house for a quart of milk one morning shortly after Noah was born, and he never returned.
The commune life didn’t last long, and soon Noah ended up living with his grandparents nearby. One of his relatives, a tough mountain man, took on the role of father figure and directed Noah into adulthood. In one memorable lesson, one of the horses on his grandfather’s property kicked Noah’s brother in the leg. To teach them how to control such a situation, Noah’s relative grabbed a pipe and beat the horse to death. “That’s how you stand up for yourself,” the man told the boys afterward, the pipe dripping with blood in his hands. Noah just stood there in utter shock. He had a gentle soul and was not wired to be so tough and rugged. He was more artist than revolutionary, often preferring to escape into his creative and zippy mind.
Although Ev was more standoffish and hushed, he was drawn to Noah’s effervescent personality, and they quickly became close friends. In an earlier era they could have been an odd-couple TV show, two polar-opposite neighbors who met regularly to share a beer or two on their abutting porches, Noah mostly speaking, Ev mostly listening. Their friendship continued to grow and intertwine, moving from their porches to coffees at nearby cafés, lunches at Barney’s Burgers down the street, late-night parties, and before long they spent more time together than apart.
Goldman, who had developed a strong friendship with Ev, often joined them on their outings.
Noah was always glancing out his kitchen window to see if his new friend was home. Sometimes he showed up randomly, knocking on the door erratically—more than once while Ev was enjoying the company of a girl—and turbulently entering the apartment.
Noah was always offering to help too. One afternoon Goldman and Ev were struggling to lug a couch up the stairs of Ev’s apartment building. When they stopped to rest for a moment, they turned around to see Noah standing there, pushing them aside, no questions asked, as he dragged the large sofa up through the stairwell practically alone.
Toward the end of 2002 Blogger moved out of its rented detective’s office and temporarily back into Ev’s apartment. Noah would wake in the morning, sip his coffee by the window, and watch the programmers in Ev’s kitchen with admiration. It was something he wanted to be a part of. Sure, Blogger wasn’t a traditional start-up: It didn’t have a pool table, a fridge full of beer, or rambunctious parties—and people’s paychecks sometimes bounced because the company had trouble paying the bills—but Noah yearned to join a group of friends huddling together trying to change the world with code.
Noah had been working from home for nearly two years on a pirate-radio project, hacking together tools that would allow anyone to set up a pirate station subverting government rules and regulations. But he often found himself lonely with no one to talk to about his ideas. Erin, his wife, was often nowhere to be found, attending law school at all hours of the day and night. Noah was like an only child playing alone in a giant sandbox.
Across the way, inside Ev’s messy apartment, that wasn’t the case.
When Noah arrived at Ev’s place, they would listen to music together, sharing this idea for that and that idea for this. Often Ev just watched and smiled, his head moving side to side like a windshield wiper as this animated character paced in his living room discussing concepts that could eventually turn into real things.
As their friendship progressed, Ev confided to Noah why Blogger was now working out of Ev’s kitchen and not the office that it had graduated to earlier that year.
“You can’t tell anyone,” Ev said.
“Of course, of course, I won’t!” Noah replied with glee. “I promise.”
Ev explained that Google had approached Ev to buy Blogger. There were over one million blogs hosted on Blogger at the time, and Ev was at a crossroads: He could either take investment money from people in Silicon Valley or, if Google really followed through with the deal, sell for “potentially millions of dollars.” As the lease to the detective’s office had ended, Ev and his employees decided to move back to his apartment before deciding what to do next.
Noah was brimming with pride and excitement at the news. It meant that Ev, who was often so broke he could barely afford to eat, would become so rich he would never have to worry about a meal again. Over the next few months Noah watched Ev anxiously signing papers—with Goldman helping him—waiting to hear if the deal would go through.
Then, on February 15, 2003, he got the call. Evan Williams had found gold. Tens of millions of dollars in ones and zeros.
“The buyout is a huge boost to an enormously diverse genre of online publishing that has begun to change the equations of online news and information,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News reporter who broke the news of the deal. “Part of that vision, shared by other blogging pioneers, has been to help democratize the creation and flow of news in a world where giant companies control so much of what most people see.”
Although Ev wouldn’t receive the millions of dollars from the buyout straightaway, he was given a small check to start that was just enough to buy a flashy new Subaru (again, bright yellow). Before he drove away from the car dealership he slapped a square orange Blogger sticker on the rear bumper.
The Blogger team moved to Google’s fancy campus, with free food galore, and Ev became famous. At least slightly nerd-famous among an esoteric group of San Franciscans. People started to recognize him at tech events as he was featured in more blogs and news articles.
Noah had since taken his pirate-radio project and refocused it to work with Blogger, writing an application called AudBlog, or audio blogger, that allowed anyone to post voice-based posts to blogs from a phone. Google’s acquisition meant more attention for Noah’s project too.
Before long, through discussions with friends, Noah decided to turn AudBlog into a start-up, and as soon as Ev started cashing out his Google stock, Noah asked if he would invest a few thousand dollars to help kick-start the idea.
“I’m happy to,” Ev said sincerely, “but I really appreciate our friendship and don’t want me investing, or us working together, to affect us being friends.” After all, Ev had been down this road before, losing all of his friends when Pyra and Blogger had imploded a few years earlier.
“Come on!” Noah said confidently. “We can work together and be friends too.”
He finally wore Ev down, convincing him to fork over the money he needed to get started. Noah took off on the project, posting a freelance job listing for a start-up called Citizenware. A few e-mails started to trickle in from programmers applying for the gig, but one stood out. It was from a hacker who knew “Ruby on Rails,” a hip new programming language. After a few back-and-forth e-mails, an interview was arranged at a coffee shop in the Mission.
The interviewee introduced himself as Rabble, even though his real name was Evan Henshaw-Plath. He was tall, his head and shoulders leaning forward slightly as a drunk slouches on a pole to keep from falling to the ground. “Tell me about yourself,” Noah said, his arms crossed. Rabble explained that he was only in San Francisco for a short time with his fiancée, Gabba, so they could save money to continue traveling and going to political demonstrations and protests around the world. This, Rabble explained, was their “full-time” job. But they were not your traditional protesters: They were hacktivists, part of an emerging group of protesters who used laptops instead of picket signs and blogs instead of bullhorns and who marched down the Internet instead of paved streets. Rabble told Noah he planned to work for only a few weeks, then hit the road again, looking for another protest to join and another way to tell “the man” to go fuck himself. He had just wrapped up assisting protesters involved in the 2004 presidential elections, he explained, and once he saved money from this new gig, he would set out for South America to wreak digital havoc on a government there.
Noah wasted no time talking excitedly about his new audio-blogging project, which was a musiclike service that would make it simple for anyone to make and share podcasts, which could be downloaded to the relatively nascent Apple iPod. Noah also spent a solid part of the interview speaking effusively about Ev, his involvement, and how he was the real deal.
Rabble had a thick, long, reddish beard with strands that seemed, like Rabble, to go in any direction they pleased. As Noah spoke, Rabble listened, caressing his messy whiskers tightly with his left hand—a Rabble trait—moving his fingers downward from his chin like a baker squeezing the last drop of frosting out of an icing bag.
Rabble told more stories of his protests and hacking over the past few years: of Boston, New York, Italy, Seattle; about his assistance with May Day, the anticapitalist riots in London where protesters had constantly evaded police using mobile tools Rabble had helped build. He hadn’t actually gone to London, of course, especially after being arrested and deported from Prague for protesting there. Instead he had assisted with May Day from the comfort of a cubicle at Palm, Inc., the maker of the PalmPilot, where he was freelancing, using the company’s servers and computers (without his supervisors’ knowledge, of course) to cause havoc for the bankers, who used, well, PalmPilots.
Story time was interrupted when Ev showed up. He slid over a chair and sat quietly watching Noah, who became self-conscious and straightened his back. Ev interjected a few times with questions about Rabble’s coding skills and work habits. As Ev stood up to leave, he pursed his lips and gave Noah a blasé nod of approval.
Rabble and Noah stayed and talked for a while longer. As they wrapped up, Rabble asked why the new company was called Citizenware.
“Oh,” Noah said, pausing momentarily, then leaning forward. “The project is really called Odeo; ‘Citizenware’ is just a code name,” he whispered. “Ev’s pretty high profile, so we don’t want anyone to know what we’re working on.”
Rabble left the coffee shop, certain he would be hired for the job, then went home to tell Gabba about the plan. As expected, Rabble’s “home” wasn’t traditional. The couple lived in a two-hundred-dollar Volkswagen van that was parked on Valencia Street. It had a dented, decaying yellow exterior, where each day the rust spread like an unrelenting ivy.
For the first few weeks the official Odeo office wasn’t very official. Coffee shops around the city became the vagabond start-up’s makeshift workplaces.
Building a start-up is a lot like building a house, as Noah soon learned, so he recruited more laborers to help. Noah outlined the site’s business plan: He was the house’s architect. Rabble wrote the back-end code, the equivalent of the house’s plumbing and electrical. Then Gabba was recruited to help, building a desktop version of Odeo, essentially the house’s driveway and garage; and finally Ray McClure, a small, soft-spoken Flash developer who looked like he was in elementary school, was hired to work on the tools for the Web site—an interior designer, if you will.
At night, after a long day coding, Rabble and Gabba would leave the coffee shop of the day and become invisible as they slowly opened the squeaky door to the van and quietly slipped inside, climbing over a jungle gym of ripped black leather seats and stained carpets. They would sleep on a makeshift bed built of plywood and rusty nails until the sun rose a few hours later, ushering in another day of tireless hacking.
As soon as Ev had managed to off-load all his Google stock, he quit with the goal of never returning to the company, or any like it. The Blogger team had been stuffed into a windowless conference room that was called “Drano” because it was so close to the bathrooms. He didn’t fit in with his programmer cohorts, who spent their lunch hours bragging about their degrees from prestigious schools. Those same programmers didn’t understand blogging, and Ev soon learned that the acquisition of Blogger was facilitated simply to place ads next to people’s blogs, not to try to further the cause of push-button publishing for the people.
But after Google, Ev wasn’t anywhere to be found at Odeo, either. He soon semiretired at thirty-two years old. His bank account had gone from a three-figure balance—often barely enough to cover his rent—to double-digit millions of dollars. For Ev, it was time to enjoy the good life, not get involved in another start-up. He began taking Italian cooking classes and exploring museums. He bought a house worthy of a millionaire with wide windows that overlooked San Francisco like a perched owl and a fast new car to put in the millionaire’s garage. He went on expensive vacations with his new girlfriend, Sara, whom he had met at Google during an office party.
But while Sara and Ev were becoming proficient in the art of spaghetti making, Noah and his troupe of programmers were toiling away, scrunched in the corners of coffee shops around the city, sitting on mismatched chairs, computer power cords weaving among mugs and torn sugar packets. A modern-day Beatles. Their instruments, laptops; their music, code.
Noah’s mind often moved frantically. His thoughts zipped around with the speed of a single firefly trying to light an entire darkened football stadium with its movement. Some thought it could be ADD, ADHD, OCD, or an alphabet soup of all three; it didn’t really matter: This was Noah. He had always been this way.
Once, in his late teens, he was picked up by the police in Bakersfield, California, because he was acting erratically. The cops believed he was tripping on mushrooms and methamphetamines. They cuffed him and threw him in a cruiser. Although Noah denied consuming anything more than a few cups of coffee, the police booked him and tested him for every drug imaginable. Then he was stuffed into a jail cell for the night. The next morning the police found Noah in his cell, acting exactly the same as he had been the day before. He hadn’t done any drugs; he had been arrested for being Noah.
Every once in a while, Ev would appear in the coffee shop of the day and start asking questions. Noah, who was indebted to Ev for the money that had so far financed Odeo, had no choice but to answer. Before long, that fear of business ruining friendship started to come true.
Eventually band Odeo had moved to Noah’s small apartment. It took some convincing to get Noah’s wife, Erin, on board, but it would only be temporary, he assured her. She was not timid in showing her displeasure at the fact that her living room now housed a collection of unkempt programmers. (Rabble often sat programming with one hand, scratching his testicles with the other.)
Some mornings, the smell, the hand on the balls, the noise would percolate into a boiling fury for Erin. “Noah, in the bedroom,” she would bark. “Now!”
Like a child in trouble for not taking out the garbage, he would follow behind, his head dropped, his heart sad. There would follow a series of shouts from her, apologies from him, her heels banging down the hallway like mallets, the door slamming behind her as she left. He would always reappear in the living room as if nothing had happened, smiling, telling jokes, encouraging everyone to “keep kicking ass!”
As the year drew on, the Web-based podcasting site started to come together, yet the rest of the business quickly began to fall apart. Finances turned into fumes. The apartment situation also worsened, threatening Noah’s marriage, and before Noah knew it, he found himself with two options: either stop development of Odeo or ask Ev for more money.
Noah approached Ev again, asking for two hundred thousand dollars to take Odeo from an idea to a real business. Ev agreed to finance more of the project and eventually help secure funding from other venture capitalists, but only on one condition: that Ev become CEO. It wasn’t a coup as much as a compromise. For Noah, who was still very much a no-name in tech, it would mean that Ev, well-known and with tech street cred, would now be permanently attached to Odeo. To sweeten the deal, Ev offered to continuing paying the rent for his old apartment, which could become Odeo’s first real office.
For Ev it was a paradox. He had no interest in podcasting, but he had started to enjoy the label given to him by bloggers and the media: one of the new up-and-coming tech pioneers who had helped take blogging mainstream. Now here was an opportunity to do the same for podcasting.
It was time for Ev to prove that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. And if Noah wanted to succeed, to break radio and put it back together again, he knew he needed to let the farm boy from Nebraska run the show.
His hands tied, Noah sadly had no choice but to agree, trading the CEO role at Odeo to Ev for a two-hundred-thousand-dollar investment and keys to Ev’s old apartment that he once saw in a picture in Forbes magazine.
Few people noticed the twenty-eight-year-old man sitting in the window of Caffe Centro coffee shop day after day. People shuffled in to get lunch or wandered by the window outside, but few saw or talked to him. He liked it that way, often preferring to sit with his headphones on, a faint hum of obscure punk music streaming into his ears while his fingers massaged his computer keyboard.
He often looked out of the window, which he had spent most of his life doing. To many people he was one: a clear piece of glass, see-through, an invisible man. He was born with a speech impediment, which made it difficult for him to speak as a child—he was unable to pronounce more than one syllable. “Hello” came out as “hel.” “Good-bye” sounded more like a muffled “goo.” When people asked his name, rather than reply “Jack Dorsey,” he said “Ja.” Although he had overcome his speech problem with therapy, it had left an indelible dent in his communication skills.
Jack’s inability to talk did have its benefits. In St. Louis, where he was raised, he enjoyed riding around on the city’s buses, taking in the vast expanse of the blue-collar neighborhood he lived in, his imagination wandering with each twist and turn. His speech impediment also helped him find one friend: a computer that arrived in his house as he turned eight years old, an IBM PC Junior. He soon fell in love with its monochrome screen and learned to speak to it in code.
On weekends his computer time was interrupted by his mother, Marcia, who would drag Jack and his brothers through the streets of St. Louis in search of the ultimate purse, “the one true bag,” as she called it. Jack would sit quietly in the aisles of women’s clothing stores while Marcia shopped. There he also started to develop a fascination with bags himself. Rather than opting for purses, though, Jack found comfort in messenger bags.
In San Francisco years later, he wore one daily. A light-colored Filson bag that contrasted with his dark clothing: black T-shirts, zip-up sweaters and jeans, bulky sneakers to match. His shoulders, which sloped down steeply, made his jackets hang on his skinny and lanky frame. He sometimes played with a silver nose ring that hugged his nostril.
He loved that nose ring. At one freelance job a couple of years earlier, where he wrote software for a system that was used to sell tickets to tourists visiting Alcatraz prison, he was told by his employer that he couldn’t wear it to work. Rather than take it out, he chose to conceal it under a large beige Band-Aid. As a result he had trouble breathing in the office and often walked around with his mouth agape. He reasoned that it was better to stand up for his right to wear a nose ring and struggle to breathe than to take it out at the behest of his employer.
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