Twitter CEO: OK if teens don't tweet
Evan Williams talks about Twitter's users and his struggle to focus on the task at hand.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Evan Williams, CEO of Web sensation Twitter, has to defend over and over why his three-year-old company isn't making money yet, despite having raised more than $150 million in venture capital.
On Oct. 21, Twitter announced deals with Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) to supply the Web giants with data feeds of Twitter updates. Those lists are seemingly valuable, because they show what people are interested in that moment on the Web, something traditional search doesn't show.
Microsoft posted a test version of its Twitter page. Google said its deal is months off, suggesting a slapdash agreement with Twitter to steal Microsoft's thunder. In any event, assuming GoogleSoft will pay Twitter, the revenue question has begun to be answered.
Recently, Williams spoke on camera at Twitter's offices with Adam Lashinsky for Fortune's look at 40 rising stars under 40. He touches on why it's okay if young people don't tweet and his own struggle with focusing on the task at hand. An edited transcript follows.
Can you rattle off how big Twitter is?
We don't share user data or metrics. I can say it's grown 15 times across all the relative metrics --especially in the early and mid part of this year. It's grown a little bit slower lately, but we have some things in the works that we think will change that.
Why has the growth slowed?
It's hard to say, but part of it is that you can't grow by 90% every month forever. You start to saturate. That's probably the biggest factor. Most of our energy since we started the service has been supporting the growth rather than trying to facilitate growth.
Most people have a general concept of what Twitter is. Yet it defies a simple explanation. 'Microblogging site' is the one that journalists use when they need something quick. So what do you think about that expression and if you don't like that expression, what is the good shorthand for what Twitter is?
I don't know if there is a good shorthand for what Twitter is. There's never one that we found that we liked. It's a thing unto itself.
The thing with "microblogging" is that you have to put it in that construct, and it defies being fit exactly in that construct. The funny thing is that 10 years ago blogging had a similar problem. Eventually people understood what blogging is, and I think eventually people understand what Twitter is.
There's almost no difference today between blogging and online publishing. They're the same thing, essentially. Could something similar happen to Twitter?
I think Twitter is pretty different in a couple of ways. Blogging was more of a phenomenon, and Twitter is a single service. Certainly, there are other services like Twitter. And there will probably be many permutations.
Blogging got the concept of personal publishing, but it didn't really take advantage of the network. None of the blogs were intricately linked together like Twitter users are. It was much more of form than a brand or service.
I think the single issue that business people want to talk about is your business model -- or the lack thereof. Business Week recently wrote that "the search for a practical business model has been a cloud hanging over Twitter's head for some time now."
It's funny when you hear "the search" -- as if we're back here in the office looking for it. Where is it? Is it in the couch cushions? It's not really what we're spending our time doing. It's not that elusive and that we've spent a lot of time thinking about what to do and we can't think of anything. It hasn't been the priority. It's been a very logical process we've gone through.
And you can say we've been setting the wrong priorities. But when you think about building long-term value, generating cash isn't exactly the highest priority. Twitter is a network. Ultimately, we're spending almost all of our time creating the best products and the best technology for as many of our users possible.
Do you have an internal timeline of when you want to turn to the moneymaking business?
Did you share that with your recent investors? You recently raised about $100 million.
(Sighs.) We talked about the plans. Obviously, they wanted to see details. They want to see models and ideas. They know it's going to take time. Our ideas are speculative, but they have solid research and examples to point to as to why they're likely to work or some permutation of them will likely work.
No investor we have ever talked to -- whether current or new investors -- have said you need to get on with the moneymaking part sooner. Everyone who really gets the big vision has said don't worry about that. You need plenty of money? We'll raise plenty of money. Invest it in for the long-term.
Is there an analog that you can point to of a company that has done something similar? Google raised a total of $25 million -- and never needed to go back for any more.
There's not necessarily an easily namable similar company. The dynamics are different than when Google grew. Google started out when the dot-com boom was happening. It grew under the radar of big companies that were competing in but basically ignoring search. Then they were able to really invest during the bust for a long time.
Why do you need all the money you've raised?
We don't necessarily need the money. We're trying to be prudent and be safe -- and thinking long-term. It's worth a little bit of dilution to have a little bit of insurance. There's nothing forcing us to raise this round of money or the previous one for that matter.
What we're going to invest it in is people, infrastructure, and technology. We're less than 100 people today -- that's pretty tiny for running the size of service we do. It's going to take a lot more people to run it well and more as we grow.
We want to be as smart as we can about spending the money. We have most of the money from the round we raised before in the bank, but we like to have the options.
How many people will you be toward the end of 2010?
At least double or triple where we are today.
Many of the ideas for Twitter came from your users. Can you talk about that a bit?
Sure. It's definitely one of the interesting stories about Twitter. We put something out there early on a little over three years. We thought it was a simple idea. You answer the question: What are you doing? We didn't necessarily know what people would do with it. And all kinds of things blossomed and they continue to blossom.
Some of the core concepts built into Twitter today, like the ability to link to users at user name syntax, retweets, hashtags -- all of which the community invented. In each of those cases, we've embraced the idea and built it more into the product to make it more useful.
From the developer side, search itself -- the ability to do real-time searches of tweets -- came from an outside company called Summize that we actually acquired and brought in just over a year ago.
Is there a new feature coming that you're excited about?
There's a couple of the biggest features that we've ever done that are on the verge of launching. We've announced a couple on our website.
One is the extension of what users have invented -- a retweet. We plan to build it into the service on a much more fundamental level. Instead of copying and pasting the same information, you can take the tweet and pass it along in its full form to all your followers. It doesn't get duplicated. And it's a lot faster and easier. We think that's going to help the most interesting information spread faster.
The other thing is lists. [Users face] two challenges: find enough people to follow that they find interesting and then filtering the information once they found a whole bunch. Lists are created ways to group and organize people.
You follow 900 people and are followed by almost 1.2 million people. How do you meaningfully follow 900 people?
For some reason, I kind of landed on the number 900. I often add people and then subtract people. I'm not sure why that seems like a good number for me. Obviously, I don't read every single tweet from 900 people. I scan. I check in on the website many times a day
As for the flip side, being able to broadcast to 1.2 million. How does that feel?
It's powerful. I had a blog for many years. Once you develop your readership on your blog, and you can put something out there or direct traffic or get attention -- it's like a super power. I can put a question on Twitter and instantly, I'll get answers. It's useful for all kinds of stuff.
You tweeted something interesting recently, because it shows how companies are using Twitter. You had a bad customer experience about Dell (DELL, Fortune 500) and you tweeted about it. Did you get a response and secondly -- most CEOs would be too cautious about calling out potential partners.
Well, I try not to be too cautious and try to act like a regular user. I had a bad experience. Consumers complain the easiest way possible. I think it was just a sort of gut reaction to express it that way. I don't know if I got a response.
How much do you know about Twitter's demographics?
We don't collect any demographic information. We know what our Web stats tell us. Most obvious are locations. We know that there are currently less than half in the U.S. There are quickly growing populations in Brazil, Japan, and Western Europe. The international growth has picked up quite recently.
We don't know much else. We did a survey quite some time ago, and it pointed out that 55% of the users were female and I don't remember anything about age.
The conventional wisdom is that teenagers and children are not using Twitter -- that it's more of an adult thing. More teenagers are on Facebook. Do you have any data on that? And if it's true, is that a problem?
I don't have hard data on whether that's true. Anecdotally, that is true. But anecdotally, we have seen that younger people have joined the service in the last few months.
My theory is it's more or less a good thing for us. If I had to choose, I would rather have adults on the service than teenagers. The reason kind of makes sense if you think about what you care about. Twitter is not a social network. The emphasis is on information and finding out what's happening among things you care about -- work, industry, company, news. And it's well known that teenagers are not really consumers of news.
What's the culture of the company?
It's always hard to define a culture of a company, but it's something we think a lot about and try to maintain. We're trying to build a healthy and fun culture.
Is there a motto? Like "don't be evil?"
We're not going to publish "Don't be evil." I think that's taken.
But we think similar thoughts. We're very mission and purpose-driven. We're very motivated by the idea that Twitter can do good in the world and that's what motivates us and we see that on a daily basis -- whether that's 'Don't drive on that road because it's unsafe' or just sharing information.
We really believe that Twitter can make people more informed and more connected and help them make better choices and that inspires us. That underlies a lot of our culture and it's what gets us excited.
And when we're talking to [job] candidates and they just want to join the next hot startup, that's much less motivating than saying something has impact.
Cynics say Twitter's a fad. How can you convince them otherwise?
Most people who say Twitter is a fad aren't really familiar with Twitter. Again, this is something I saw with blogging as well.
If you understand the underlying principles with Twitter, it's very hard to believe it is a fad. If Twitter goes away, it's because we didn't execute and someone else did it better. It's not because people don't want to do what Twitter provides. If it's a fad, it's because someone did it better or our services needed to be done better. We're working damn hard to make sure that doesn't happen.
My notion is that Twitter is a many-to-many broadcast network. The broadcast networks thrived for many years, right?
They still do in many forms. Something that [co-founder] Biz [Stone] has said before is that Twitter is a communication medium that you never knew you needed until you had it.
And once you have it, it's a tool in your arsenal. You have your email, your IM, your SMS, and you have Twitter. For certain things, it just makes sense to turn to Twitter.
You're kind of tweeners. It's not your first time around your block. But at the same time, you've never run a 100-person company or anything close. So what are you doing to prep yourself for that experience? Do you intend to remain CEO for a while?
I intend to remain CEO for as long as I'm the best person to be CEO, which I hope is for a while. I've never run a company of this size. I think it's really fortunate that I ran and started companies for 15 years. And learned a lot -- mostly from horrible mistakes.
What's one that comes in mind that you'll try not to repeat?
Focus was always a big problem for me. In my first company, I looked back when I finally shut it down, and I started 32 different projects -- one of which I completed. And it was always "this is a better idea than what I was doing."
Are you succeeding at focusing better?
Yes. Yes, definitely succeeding. [But] it still crops [up]. The DNA of the company reflects that a bit. Twitter is a side project of my last company. Blogger was a project of my company before that. Focus is hard to maintain. But you also learn that sometimes you shouldn't focus and look to the side. I've tried many things, but nothing that has worked this well and gotten this big.