When he was 16, Evan Williams loved reading business books. The first one he read was about real estate, and at the time, he lived in Clarks, a town in central Nebraska that today has a population of 379 and a median home value of $34,900. Williams wasn’t particularly interested in investing in property in Clarks or anywhere else, but he reveled in the fact that it was so easy to learn about building businesses and making money. “I realized I could go buy books and learn something that people had spent years learning about,” he recalls. “I was very intrigued with the idea that there’s all this stuff out there to know that you could use to your advantage. It was written down in these books, and no one around me was using it.”
Today, Williams is half a continent away from Clarks, in San Francisco; no longer just reading about business, he’s the founder of Obvious, the Web-product development company that owns the popular microblogging service Twitter. At 35, without a college degree, he has become a bootstrapping, improvisational businessman whose decisions are influenced by what he describes as “hallucinogenic optimism.”
Williams became mildly famous in Silicon Valley during the first dot-com boom, after he cofounded Blogger in 1999. Blogger made it very easy for people to publish their thoughts on the Web in personal weblogs, as blogs were known at the time. In 2003, Google acquired Blogger for a sum the entrepreneur declines to disclose (although he says it was less than the $50 million that Valleywag, a Silicon Valley gossip blog, has reported). It was, in any case, a significant amount: Williams worked at the Googleplex in Mountain View for a little more than a year before he left with the cash to conjure more winning ideas.
At first, he struggled to find something that would fully engage his energies. But Twitter seems to be it. The idea behind the service is simple: people compose 140-character updates about themselves, ostensibly answering the question “What are you doing?” Users can post their updates by text-messaging from cell phones, by logging on to the Twitter website, or by using desktop software such as instant-messaging tools. Messages (also known as twitters, twits, and tweets) can be private, sent only to friends or groups of friends, or they can appear on Twitter’s home page for all to see. Twitter has been so successful that last April, Williams spun it out into its own company.
Twitter’s headquarters is in South Park, a tiny San Francisco neighborhood south of Market Street that attracts a mixed crowd. During the week, hipsters sip coffee in cafés on South Park Street, a one-way path that bounds the oval park; homeless men guard shopping carts near the park’s entrance; and entrepreneurs and computer programmers gather inside offices that line the green, trying to build the next big thing.
I visited Twitter’s loftlike office to meet Williams on a warm July afternoon. He has a spare frame and a handsome face that retains a youthful softness, and he was wearing his standard outfit of plain white T-shirt and jeans. The simplicity that made Blogger so attractive to Google, he told me, is similarly driving Twitter’s growth. Williams matter-of-factly described how the companies came about (both serendipitously) and explained what he sees as their appeal: they fill people’s need to stay connected with one another.
By the largely noncommercial standards of social-networking startups, Twitter is a success. (Whether the company can become a profitable business is another matter, one much debated among those who follow the social-networking industry.) Twitter took off in March, around the time it won a Web Award for best blog at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, TX. Since then, the number of registered Twitter users worldwide has been steadily rising. Twitter doesn’t reveal the actual numbers, but TwitDir.com, a third-party Twitter directory, estimates that there are nearly 500,000 public users, who allow their profiles and updates to be searched. In August, Twitter received about $5 million in funding, much of which came from Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital fund. The company is in talks with Hollywood studios about using Twitter for promotional purposes, and MTV used the service to promote its annual Video Music Awards in September. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Twitter’s success is the sudden appearance of “me-too” startups boasting that their services offer Twitter’s features and more. (For a review of Twitter and its competitors, see “Trivial Pursuits”.)