8 Lessons Startups Can Learn From Twitter’s Chaotic Creation Story

Three in four startups fail, yet Twitter will go on this week to make millions for its founders. Nick Bilton, the author of Hatching Twitter, shares insights about how they came out on top.

8 Lessons Startups Can Learn From Twitter’s Chaotic Creation Story
[Image: Flickr user Sonny Abesamis]

Most startups will never see anything close to the amount of money Twitter plans on raising during its IPO this week (a reported $1.6 billion) and in fact, three out of four tech businesses fail.


Entrepreneurs in training looking to create a successful company, then, might want to know what turned the 140-character sharing service into a viable business worth billions. For answers to that elusive question, Fast Company spoke with Nick Bilton, New York Times columnist and the author of the forthcoming book Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal.

Nick BiltonImage via Twitter

Bilton tells the tale of Twitter’s founding, which he likens to a murder mystery. Nobody dies, he assures. But, as the title of the book indicates, the company had a tumultuous beginning. The four founders of Odeo, which turned into Twitter, started as friends. “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,” explains the book’s Amazon page. Out of those ashes, however, emerged a service so powerful it can influence stock markets and revolutions alike.

So how did the soon-to-be Twitter billionaires turn chaos into gold? Here are 8 tips drawn from a conversation with Bilton:

Lesson 1: Mythical founding stories are just that: myths.

“Founding a startup is actually very difficult– a lot more difficult than I think we sometimes realize when we cover these companies. There’s a lot of turmoil and grit and grind that goes into these things. The stories, where it seems like these things came about in an almost Moses-like fashion usually are not necessarily the real story of how these things begin.

Lesson 2: Don’t go into business with friends if you want to stay friends.


“The saddest part of the story is that these were a group of people that were really close and their thirst for control of this company tore them all apart.

There’s a moment in the book where Noah [Glass] is starting Odeo and he goes over to Ev [William]’s house and he says ‘can you give me some money to help start this thing?’ And Ev’s like: ‘Look, I’d love to do it but I don’t want it to screw up our friendship.’ But, Noah, who was very idealistic and was very sweet, was like ‘There’s no way it’s going to screw up our friendship. We’re, like, really close friends, how could it screw up our friendship?’ Of course, six months later they were at each others’ throats as they were trying to decide who would run Odeo and what the company would end up being.”

Lesson 3: If you do go into business with your friends, try not to push them out of the company.

“There’s nothing wrong with being rich and successful and doing it without hurting other people. I think the easy route is to hurt other people and to dismiss them and remove them from the history of the story and creation. And, sure, it’s more difficult to explain what happened at the beginning and to give people credit and money that they deserve, but I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Lesson 4: Fighting is okay, though.

“If there was no turmoil, Twitter wouldn’t exist. There’s a lot of things you could point to that show that company would not exist without it: If it wasn’t for Noah’s crazy mind and his disagreements with Ev, it wouldn’t have pushed them to start exploring new projects. If it wasn’t for the turmoil of Apple essentially making Odeo nonexistent in a single press release, there wouldn’t have been that. I think the turmoil between Jack [Dorsey] and Ev throughout the entire book and entire story show that without those two having those two complete drastic different views of what the companies was we wouldn’t have this extremely popular service, Twitter.


The thing I love about all of them is that they all kind of wanted to tell the man to go fuck themselves in one way or another and they did that by building this product.”

Lesson 5: Really embrace the chaos.

“Don’t try to build something in this world where everything just works and makes sense. Embrace the chaos and really own it. I think that trying to look at these founding stories and wondering why your company is not working because you don’t have this wonderful creation myth, understand that that’s what exactly these things are: They’re myths. And the dirt and grind and the grit and the turmoil and the fighting can lead to great things.”

Lesson 6: Don’t be a selfish jerk who takes credit for everything.

“Everyone can get credit in these stories. It doesn’t just have to be given to one person. There were 12 people in the room when Twitter was hatched and 11 have been written out of the story. Essentially it was this story that Jack Dorsey created this on his own. But really, it wouldn’t exist without those other people. If you have a successful startup as an entrepreneur, you should embrace and own and share the glory with everyone who helped get you where you are.”

Lesson 7: It’s okay if your product constantly crashes…as long as it’s cool.


“In the early days there weren’t that many users on the site. There were people who were paying attention to it, but not many people signed up. The ones who had signed up were using it quite extensively and it started to crash and started to go through major problems. Some of that was attributed to the fact that Jack Dorsey and Florian Webber, two of the earlier programmers, had built this thing in two weeks as a prototype and had never meant it to be used the way it was. So, for a variety of reasons, this thing was going offline all the time and it started to gain attention because it was this thing that kept going offline. People kept saying: What is this thing? If it’s breaking because so many people are using it, I want to know what it is. It’s like if you see a line outside of an ice cream shop you’re going to go see what the line is all about.”

Lesson 8: Don’t get drunk at inappropriate times if you have investors to answer to.

“Jack and Biz [Stone] had to go to New York for some meetings and they didn’t know what the heck Twitter was but they had this opportunity to meet with some media companies in New York. They had a couple of hours to kill so they decided to get lunch in the park over by Madison Square Park and Biz being his usual goofball self said ‘Hey, this is like a business lunch! We should do what business people do and order a martini.’ So they drank a martini, then he said: ‘I think business people drink two martinis.’ Next thing you know they’re totally drunk and have to go to this meeting. They sat there and didn’t say a word.”


About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news


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