Truth behind a tweet

Truth behind a tweet

THINGS A LITTLE BIRD TOLD MEBiz StoneMacmillan2014, pp 222499
From Microsoft and Apple to Google and Facebook, the story of each iconic brand of our times is interesting in its own way. Now you can add to the list Things A Little Bird Told Me, which tells the story of Twitter. The story is told by Biz Stone who co-founded Twitter along with Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass. Unlike the founders of other iconic brands mentioned, Biz was neither an engineer nor a computer programmer. The book benefits from Biz’s blogger background and is readable with its human touch and easy-going humour. 

Biz takes us through his life, starting with his humble background and his school days, brought up by a single mother, surviving on government lunch coupons. Though he managed to pick up scholarships to college, he drops out when he finds a full-time job with an art director who designed book covers. He starts up Xanga, a website offering blogging and other services, but it’s a failure. Running heavy credit card debts, he wangles a job with Google through the recommendations of fellow-blogger Evan Williams. 

Creative restlessness leads Evan and Biz to start Odeo, a podcasting company. Not making much headway and waiting for a buyer to turn up, Evan lets the team engage in a ‘hackathon’ where people pair up to develop whatever takes their fancy. Jack and Biz come up with the idea of people sending updates in less than 140 characters. Biz takes us through the various milestones of Twitter, the first among which was the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWI) conference attended by nerds. The conference goers exchanged notes on interesting sessions through Twitter and the number of tweets per day went up from 20,000 per day to 60,000. Mainstream journalists agreed that Twitter played a central role leading to the successful overthrow of oppressive dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. The number of tweets went up exponentially during major sports events like FIFA World Cup and NBA Finals. The crowning glory was of course the ‘Twitter Town Hall’ held by President Obama during his re-election bid in 2011. 

No start up success story is complete without a juicy take-over bid. Biz narrates how they suddenly got a call from Mark Zuckerberg to discuss a takeover bid by Facebook. While driving to Mark’s office, Biz suggested to Evan that they quote an absurd price since they were not planning to sell. “What would you call an absurd price?” Evan asked. Biz rolled over in his head the 25 million that Twitter had been evaluated at recently and said, “500 million”. And that is the figure they quoted Mark. They did receive an offer of 500 million in a stock and cash deal, but they did not sell. (Just for the record, Twitter is valued at around 19 billion USD today). 

It is the human side of Biz that comes through more in the sections after 140 pages (“If this book was limited to 140 pages, it would end here”, the 141th page declares.) From his childhood, Biz has been a firm believer in living by his own rules and making his own opportunities. At college, while juggling classes and an evening menial job, he had no time for homework. So he decided to focus on his class lectures and skip homework. He justified his ‘no homework policy’ to teachers by the argument that the point of school was not homework but to learn. He was a prankster all through his life and his business philosophy was, “We can build a business, change the world and have fun.” 

He makes a strong case for corporate and personal philanthropy, leading by example, involving himself with initiatives like and Product (RED). He let’s us into his relationship with is his wife Livy right from his diffident first date. He is deeply influenced by her work with WildCare and is a vegan. 

He dares to offer a new definition of capitalism that is built on people’s innate goodness. His new venture after leaving Twitter, Jelly, reflects that philosophy. It is a search application that relies on people rather than computers like it is in the case of Google. People use their cellphones to shoot questions to others in their network and someone who knows the answer replies, or forwards to yet another if he doesn’t. Biz has immense faith in the network of people (“Phones are the hyperlinks of humanity,” he says) and people’s keenness to help others. The book is as much a testament to that faith as a celebration of innovation and entrepreneurial success.