Twitter co-founder Biz Stone

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Twitter co-founder shares lessons learned from the site’s recent crash, talks about the growing influence of the brand and speculates on the micro-blogging site’s future.

Twitter co-founder and creative director Biz Stone has also helped build other popular social media services, including Xanga, Blogger and Odeo, and published two books on blogging. Recently, he accepted the role of Strategic Adviser for Social Impact at AOL, working on cause-based initiatives. Stone is a native of Boston, MA and developed his entrepreneurial spirit early, mowing lawns and producing, directing and acting in his own high school plays. He later moved to Berkeley, CA, where he advises other start-ups, including Trazzler and Square.


Tavis: Biz Stone is the cofounder of Twitter, which has become a cultural and social phenomenon around the world, as if you didn’t know. Biz and his cofounders were named to this year’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world by “Time” magazine.
Last week, when Twitter briefly crashed following a hacker’s attack it became one of the biggest stories on the planet in a matter of hours. Biz Stone is here, and I’m glad to have you here.
Biz Stone: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: How you doing, man?
Stone: Excellent.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah – you survived the crash?
Stone: Yes, we did, we did.
Tavis: What have you learned on this side of the crash?
Stone: Well, this was what’s called a denial-of-service attack, and it’s pretty common on the Internet and it’s not going away any time soon. So what we learned from this was you’ve got to tune your systems to be able to handle this level of assault, this scale of assault. So we spent a lot of 2008 sort of catching up with a lot of the popularity of Twitter, unexpected popularity, getting there technically so that we’re stable. And then along comes this massive attack.
We learned a lot from it. We worked actually behind the scenes with folks from Google and other companies to figure out how to stop the attacks and how to better deal with them in the future.
Tavis: Does that mean that – you said how to better stop the attacks and do it –
Stone: Well, better deal with them. You don’t really stop these attacks.
Tavis: That’s what I was asking, exactly.
Stone: Yeah.
Tavis: So you can’t really stop it.
Stone: No, it’s – believe it or not there’s actually some not-so-great people out there on the Internet and this kind of attack is basically – I don’t know if you know exactly what this is, but it’s millions of sort of zombie computers that have all been infected at some point or another with some piece of software that’s just waiting, dormant, for a command from somebody, and they just wait there patiently until someone decides to utilize them, at which point they say, “Okay, everyone go to this website.”
Millions of illegitimate requests, which then block out all legitimate requests from anyone who’s trying to access a site, and that’s how they deny service to legitimate users.
Tavis: I would assume, though, that to be hacked means that you have gotten to a level where you’re significant enough and big enough and the story becomes big enough for the hacker to successfully try to hack you. It’s a back-handed compliment.
Stone: Yeah, right, exactly – you’re not a target until you become popular, exactly.
Tavis: Precisely. Much better said than how I put that. You should host a talk show; you said it a lot easier than I did. Where does the nickname Biz come from?
Stone: Unfortunately it comes from me not being able to say my full name when I was a little kid, which, you get that – usually it comes from a brother and sister, but in this case I did it to myself. My full name is Christopher Isaac Stone. I couldn’t say Christopher, I said, “Bizibur,” and my parents thought that was funny.
Tavis: What was that again?
Stone: Bizibur.
Tavis: Oh, okay.
Stone: It kind of sounds the same.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughter)
Stone: Anyway, it stuck and I tried to go by Isaac most of my life and I still do in some places, but Biz just stuck. Once people find out that other people call me Biz, they want to call me Biz.
Tavis: It’s been reported in so many places, the success, obviously, that you guys have had, and in some places been reported what the backstory was. I’m always curious about the backstory. Tell me what you were doing. Tell me your backstory prior to Twitter.
Stone: Before Twitter, I was actually working at Google, and before that I was at another start-up. Basically, I don’t know how far back you want to go but I was at a start-up that was kind of a rival start-up to my current cofounder’s start-up, which was called Blogger, and so we knew of each other through the Internet.
And I left my start-up; his start-up had gotten acquired by Google. He sent me a note and he said, “Why don’t you join us?” And so that’s when we actually kind of met, originally sort of in a rival kind of way, then we became colleagues at Google. And we liked working together so much that we both left Google and we started working on another service, another start-up, that was actually a podcasting start-up.
It had to do with audio on the Internet, but we weren’t in interested in that as we should have been, and that led to some experimentation, which ultimately led to Twitter.
Tavis: How do you contextualize something that grows this phenomenally big in such a short period of time?
Stone: It’s an interesting question, because it really has grown faster than anything we’ve worked on before, and it’s grown at a phenomenal rate and it’s been a great challenge. It’s now a very interesting and intriguing technical challenge for a lot of our engineers, too, but I think the way you deal with it is you just focus on the team, the core.
When we think of Twitter internally we think of three things. We think of Twitter the technology, Twitter the product, and Twitter the company and the culture, and we give equal attention to those things because what we really want to build is a company, and what we really want to focus on, not as necessarily the triumph of technology but the triumph of humanity – what people will do with a simple technology like we’ve seen them doing.
That’s what we want to have happen, so our job then becomes keep the service running to the best of our ability.
Tavis: You said something a moment ago, Biz, I want to go back to, because it got my attention, because I think it’s at the heart of what for me, at least, is best about Twitter, and that is – you used the word humanity. The humanitarian purposes that Twitter has been used for, and there are all kinds of examples. We could spend hours talking about stories that have been in the news where Twitter has been successfully employed.
The flip side of that question, though, is did you guys ever imagine all the silliness? I laugh, quite frankly, at people who want to know, or who care what I’m doing every minute of the day, and there are other celebrities who provide a lot more information than I provide. But did you ever think that that would be one of the usages of it?
Stone: The very first experience I had with Twitter was we created this prototype in about two weeks and my cofounder, Jack Dorsey and I, we created this in about two weeks just to see who was going to like this. So we asked our colleagues, try it out over the weekend. And I was trying it out over the weekend, and I was actually, it was the first weekend, my wife and I had just bought our first house and I had to rip up all the carpeting from the previous owners.
And it was a heat wave in Berkeley at the time, and it was just terrible work. I was sweating; I was discovering things underneath the carpet that I did not want to be discovering, and I was just cursing, why’d we buy this house? And my phone buzzed in my pocket and I took it out, and it was Evan, my other cofounder, and he said, “Sipping pinot noir after a massage in Napa Valley.” (Laughter)
And I laughed out loud, and I just thought this is so funny that he’s doing that now and I’m doing this, and it made me laugh. And that laughter signaled to me this is a product I want to work on, that’s making me laugh.
So I think we did notice that there was – there was the potential for silliness, but in my opinion, humor is a lot more important than people give it credit for. It’s a very important delivery mechanism for information because a lot of times humor is where truth is, and humor is a way for humans to convey things that they wouldn’t otherwise be comfortable doing.
So the silliness was actually, to me, a signal that this was a great thing to keep working on. After that, we started realizing that during earthquakes or wildfires, things like this, that it was a very useful tool in disseminating information very quickly through a network of people.
Tavis: How important has the celebrity embrace of it been to the fostering of it?
Stone: Well, I think certainly the celebrity embrace, as well as I think you can put these international sort of events that have occurred, plus the celebrity sort of embracement of it – I think it’s helped it grow. The celebrities have large followings of people already, so you have someone like Lance Armstrong or Martha Stewart using the service, they have a lot of people who are very interested in what they’re doing.
So naturally, they bring to Twitter – they attract people that want to follow them on Twitter, but then the flipside of that is they have a very powerful tool. Someone like Ashton Kutcher has access to three million people like that – the second he wants to get a message out, it goes out to three, maybe four million people. It’s growing every day.
So for us I think the adoption from internationally well-known people has been a good growth mechanism, but I think the flipside of it is it’s also very valuable for those celebrities.
Tavis: What do you know, what does your research tell you about the age group? I can pretty much guess the age group that’s most embraced Twitter, but I think now about cell phones. I was talking to my mom today – my mom has a cell phone. And I know people whose grandparents, of course, who have cell phones.
It’s a technology that everybody eventually over time can embrace. Can you see seniors embracing Twitter?
Stone: Absolutely. We actually don’t know a lot of information, demographically speaking, about Twitter, because we don’t ask people too much information when they create an account. Anecdotally we see a wide range of people. I’ve had people call me up on the phone and say, “Hey, my whole senior center’s trying to get on Twitter, can you help me out?”
So there’s over four billion mobile phones in use on this planet. Every single one of those phones is a Twitter-ready device because Twitter works over texting or SMS, which is built into every phone. And that’s one of the things that’s most inspiring to me, because there’s only 1.5 billion web users, and those are also all Twitter-ready. You add the two things together, you have a really wide swath of people that are going to have access to this real-time network. And what’s inspiring to me about SMS is that it’s available in rural parts of the world – parts of the world where they don’t have Internet access, and yet they’ll still be able to use a system like Twitter to ask their question – does anyone know if I could be getting a better price for this grain?
And then suddenly they have access to a real-time network. Somebody out there can say, “Hey, you could be charging double.” And I think two things happen at that point – one, that person’s life has been changed dramatically because they can charge double for the grain, and two, we know the price that grain is trading at in that rural village. That could be interesting information. Because Twitter also has on top of it search functionality.
Everything, as it comes in, in real time, is indexed at a sub-second speed, and so you can search Twitter for what anyone’s saying about anything, any time.
Tavis: So the exit question, which you knew was going to come, because everything you read about Twitter, this keeps popping up, which is how do these three brilliant guys who come up with a very simple but brilliant concept ever turn this thing into money? Everybody’s using it, and the numbers you’ve just laid out now of how much bigger it can be. Where’s the money in this?
Stone: Yeah. Well, first I’ll point out it’s not just us three guys. There’s about 50 or so people working up in a loft in San Francisco, working hard, so it’s all of us working together as a team. But there’s tremendous potential here for money and for revenue, and what we really want to do as a company is have a positive impact on the world.
And again, we want to do that not through the technology but through what people will do with the technology, and that’s kind of a main goal of ours. We think that the open exchange of information can have a positive impact and we need to fuel that growth and we need to fuel it with money. And in order to do that we need to have a great, sustainable business and good revenue model.
What we’ve chosen to do, the company was founded two years ago. What we’ve chosen to do is focus on value over profit, and the way we define value is getting the system to be ubiquitous, getting it to work on as many cell phones as possible in all regions of the world, and that’s been our focus. And that being said, what we want to do is we want to start showing signs of life in terms of generating revenue because many people are asking the same question you’re asking.
And I think they’re asking it because they want to know are you going to be around? We like the service; we want to invest in the service. There’s 10,000 different applications and companies being built on top of the Twitter platform, because we opened up our infrastructure. And they want to say prove to us that you’re going to be around for a while.
So we actually need to start showing signs of life from a revenue perspective this year, so we’ll begin to do that by interacting with the many commercial accounts that have already popped up on Twitter.
So Twitter, you can’t think of it like a social network. It’s not about are you a friend of mine, yes, no. It’s about millions of millions of different sources of information that you choose to curate and follow.
Tavis: But when you say interacting with those commercial interests to show a revenue stream this year, does that mean advertisements?
Stone: Doesn’t mean advertisement. What it means is you have companies like Whole Foods, you have companies like Best Buy, you have companies like JetBlue and Comcast – they’re all using Twitter. And you also have very small businesses, like a cookie shop in New York City that I walked into and I saw a sign, they said, “Follow us on Twitter, we’ll tell you when the cookies come out of the oven warm, you can run over and get them.”
And for them, that’s great – everyone runs over, buys all their cookies. They can go home. So from small businesses to big, people are using Twitter, and they’re using it to raise the bottom line. And we think that because they’re getting value out of Twitter we want to follow that value. How can we offer even more value?
So Twitter will remain free for everyone, but we may be able to offer an additional layer of value to some of these commercial accounts, whether it’s through analytics – how can I Twitter better – or whether it’s through some kind of certification – how can we make sure everyone knows this is definitely JetBlue and not someone pretending to be JetBlue?
So a variety of different features that would have some sort of paid level to them, and that’s how we’ll begin to have relationships with these commercial entities. And that’s just phase one and then we build from there and we iterate from there, as we have been doing with the product itself.
Tavis: I suspect if they figured out the Twitter thing, they’ll figure out how to make some money out of it at some point down the road. I’m betting on Biz. His name, Christopher Isaac Stone. He can now actually say that these many years later. But when he couldn’t he nicknamed himself Biz, and so Biz, nice to have you here.
Stone: Very nice to be here.

Tavis: Congrats.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm