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February 1, 2013 5:22 pm
Biz Stone and I are sitting in a San Francisco hotel, shortly before he addresses a hall full of students from Hult Business School. His talk – a combination of Twitter history lesson, hard-learnt start-up wisdom and pitch for his new venture, Medium – is funny, inspiring and self-deprecating. There’s a generous sprinkling of that Silicon Valley save-the-world sincerity that newcomer Brits like me still find a little hard to process. But it goes down a storm with the students, many of whom seem to have enrolled at Hult in the hopes that they themselves might be the next Biz.
Yet Stone’s own story is as much one of luck as design. After stints at publisher Little, Brown and early blogging community Xanga, he found himself working in 2006 alongside Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey at Odeo, a podcasting company which had singularly failed to change the world. Its staff, says Stone, “didn’t care any more”. So Williams put his team into pairs and told them to “do something cool”, says Stone.
Over two weeks, Stone and Dorsey created a prototype of a service that let people use mobile text messaging and the web to tell others what they were doing. “The team thought it was really stupid,” says Stone. But before long it became clear that twttr, as it was originally called, held greater promise than podcasting. Working under Twitter’s then-parent Obvious Corp, its creators enjoyed using it enough to look past the common criticism that Twitter was not “useful”. “Evan at the time said, ‘Neither is ice cream: should we ban ice cream and all joy?’” recalls Stone.
As Twitter grew faster than its creators could handle, that early experience helped to shape Stone’s objectives for the company – and what he would like the “success mechanism for capitalism itself” to be: make money, be impactful and be joyful. “We hired a CSR person at Twitter years before we hired our first sales person, to make sure we had a culture and impact of doing good,” he says. “It turns out to be a competitive edge. It attracts more talent because people are attracted to meaning.”
At this time, Stone’s home life was almost as chaotic as work. Stone’s wife, Livia, was then working as a wildlife rehabilitation specialist and would bring back injured animals to their 600 sq ft home. “At any given point it was baby rabbits, wounded crows, various rodents, and we have a permanent resident in Roshi, our small tortoise that was found and needed a home – in addition to our rescue dog and cats,” he recalls.
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Now, however, Stone’s circumstances are somewhat different. Twitter is valued at more than $9bn, after a fund managed by BlackRock in late January offered to buy stock from early employees. That rapid value-creation has allowed Stone, Williams and others to not only buy bigger houses, but also put more money into “pro-social” goals. After parting ways with Twitter, in mid-2011 they rebooted Obvious Corp as an investor and incubator in downtown San Francisco.
A personal belief is that if you’re not personally invested in what you’re working on, you’ll fail …
Stone also took on a start-up closer to home. His first child, Jake, is now just over a year old. “Balancing family and work is a top priority for me and I treat it as such,” he says. “Meaning, I actually put specific family time and events in my calendar, so that precious time is dedicated and properly blocked off from any work that may try to sneak its way into my schedule. Nevertheless, I also think it’s important that my son grows up knowing that dad works hard.”
That work-life balance has not slowed Obvious’s pace of investments. It has backed several companies, including Neighborland, a website that encourages local civic participation; Lift, an app that helps people to set and achieve personal goals; and Beyond Meat, a plant-protein substitute for chicken that actually tastes like chicken. Stone, a vegan, hopes that Beyond Meat can become “a market leader in the protein industry itself”.
“Beyond Meat will not be the only investment Obvious makes outside the digital space,” says Stone. “We are not making many investments, but those that we do are based on philosophically aligned ambition, not necessarily on products or services traditionally in our comfort zone.”
Stone says that Obvious only backs companies that “build systems to make the world a better place. We help the entrepreneurs achieve their goals with our time as well as our money,” he says. “Because of that we can only serve a small portfolio of companies. But each of them is doing something we feel is impactful and meaningful.”
As well as backing other people’s ideas, Stone and Williams have a new one of their own. Obvious’s “main endeavour” is Medium, an online publishing platform that launched last summer. With a clean, calm, distraction-free design, Medium is intended to encourage thoughtful, timeless posts.
The Twitter era has been one of acceleration: news cycles and attention spans feel shorter than they did when the 140-character site was invented in 2006. So Medium is a sort of karmic rebalancing. “We are trying to realise that we live in a world of infinite information,” says Stone, “and more information doesn’t make us smarter.”
Stone is still very proud of Twitter and its platform for fast and free expression, and his maxim that “tweets must flow” remains a guiding philosophy there. Yet Medium is part of Stone’s view that the digital revolution is just beginning. “It is an attempt to reimagine publishing, given this new media landscape that we live in,” he says.
Twitter began with a simple yet audacious goal: to democratise information and ensure that “everyone has a voice that is easy to read and easy to write”, says Stone. “That is great. It is huge. It is kind of omnipresent now. But what do we measure in order to deliver more relevancy, more knowledge and more of the good stuff? I don’t feel like I have all the answers but I feel like it’s worth asking the question.”
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Medium is one attempt at an answer. As well as lowering the bar to sharing information, Stone and Williams hope it will also raise the quality of what is produced. “We always knew we wanted to do something for ourselves,” Stone says. “We settled in on familiar turf, but with the idea that we really would take a fresh look at things and start from first principles: what does publishing look like given today’s media landscape? That’s what excited us the most. A personal belief is that if you’re not personally invested in what you’re working on, you’ll fail.”
Medium is yet to open up to the public: “we’re taking our time,” says Stone. As well as recruiting a select band of authors, Obvious is also bringing in greater editorial resources, such as Kate Lee, a former literary agent in New York who now acts as Medium’s “director of content”.
Twitter’s not about the algorithms or the datacentres … it should be measured by whether it’s a force for good in the world
Writers on Medium can assign their posts – which can be little more than a photo caption to a long essay – to a “Collection” of contributions on a similar theme, each creating a miniature online magazine. The layout lends itself to browsing, but lacks the garish ads which litter most websites. “One of the things we think is important is that design historically is as important as content in many ways,” says Stone. “It has to look very good. That’s part of the problem with web publishing today – it’s driven by metrics that don’t lend themselves well to aesthetics.” By keeping a lid on its audience for now, Medium is unlikely to experience the same problems that faced Twitter in its early days, when it often crashed under the weight of its own popularity. But the team has prepared for scale. “One big thing that’s totally different this time around is the first thing we did was build a world-class infrastructure,” says Stone. “We have the technical talent now to build the kind of system that should be able to find success. That doesn’t mean we’ll be successful, but we’ll hopefully be prepared.”
Twitter has now put most of its technical troubles behind it, passing the 200-million-user-mark in December and growing a successful advertising business. As management and investors prepare for a hotly anticipated stock market flotation, perhaps as soon as next year, Stone is sticking to the view that such services should build users first and worry about revenues later. That approach left Twitter with almost no income in 2010, when it finally launched its first advertising formats.
When I ask where he expects Twitter to be a year from now, Stone’s answer includes no mention of a Nasdaq listing. “From my perspective, a year from now or 10 years from now, Twitter should be considered a triumph of humanity not a triumph of technology,” he says. “It’s not about the algorithms or the datacentres or that sort of thing – it should be measured by what people are using it for and whether or not it’s considered a force for good in the world. That’s difficult to measure, but you should be able to answer that question yes or no.”
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent.
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