Note: I have attempted to be as true as possible to the spirit of his speech as possible, but obviously I could only type so quickly. Without further ado, I present to you Biz Stone’s incredible speech.
The topic of the night: A bunch of stories. These stories are familiar themes with unique perspectives.
- A new way to define success
Movie: Wings of desire. (Don’t watch the remake of this movie.) Two immortal beings are tasked with keeping watch over Berlin. They can’t be seen by or interact with normal people. They keep things on track. One angel falls in love with a circus trapeze artist, and begins to long for simple pleasures of life, coffee on a cold night, etc. He decides to renounce his immortality and come to earth so that he can experience life, even though that means he will die. He locks eyes with the trapeze artist and it’s like they’ve known each other forever. Got what he wanted.
Lesson: To succeed spectacularly, be ready to fail spectacularly. To succeed in his dream of living he needed to be willing to die.
Example: People went to him and asked if they should quit their jobs and work on a startup. They were worried about what would happen if they failed. He said that what would have happened is they would have wasted other people’s money, they would never be lent money again, they will be embarrassed. But they ended up quitting their jobs, doing it, and ultimately getting acquired (by Twitter). This never would have happened if they hadn’t been ready to fail.
“Now I want to talk about my childhood.” Shows a painting of naked indians in a field. Crowd laughs.
Biz was in a generic boy scouts kind of thing called “boy rangers.” They dressed up like Indians and were put into tribes and he was elected chief (“Early leadership skills!”). They gave him the name “owl bear” because he was wise like an owl and strong like a bear. He had to spend his own allowance to be in it. He didn’t want to be in it. Because he was in this he didn’t participate in sports growing up. In high school he decided to go into a sports to make friends. Tried out for basketball and football and baseball but didn’t know the rules, so he didn’t participate during the tryouts because he had no idea what he was supposed to do. Obviously, he was not picked to gout out for the teams. He looked at all the available teams and saw that the school didn’t offer lacrosse. He thought that if no one knew lacrosse it would be a level playing field, they could all be bad at it together. Went to the administration and asked if he could form a lacrosse time if he found a coach and got a team together. He did and was appointed captain of the team (“Again, early leadership skills!). He was really good at it because he wasn’t inhibited by his fear that he would do something wrong, since no one else knew what they were doing either.
Lesson: Opportunity can be manufactured. Opportunity is usually described as a set of circumstances that come together at just the right time, but you can actually manufacture the circumstances that make the opportunity, eliminating competition.
In high school he was an artist, he had a job, he produced the senior play, and he was on the lacrosse team. Because of this he had a “no homework policy.” At the beginning of the semester, he told his teachers he wouldn’t do homework but he would pay attention in class and do well on the tests. Said he tried to do all his homework and he was up until 4 A.M., so clearly they weren’t talking to each other and it wasn’t practical. There was a nervous kid named Matt used to like, throw up before tests. When Matt saw Biz put all his stuff in his locker at the end of the day and walk away empty handed he asked, “Where are all your books?!” He’s like “I don’t do homework.” “You can’t do that!” “You can do anything you want, Matt!” and he just walked away.
College wasn’t working for him quite as well. They told him he had to do it their way. This did not quite jive with him.
During college, he got a job carrying boxes around at a publishing company. His friend had one of the first macs ever, so as he worked this job he simultaneously learned how to use a mac and figured out paint and photoshop. The art department was switching from old school techniques to desktop publishing. One day, while the art director was off, Biz snuck in and used the new workstation to design a book cover, then secretly put it in the stack to be sent off for review. A few days later he was offered a job as a book jacket designer. Because of this, he decided to drop out of college and apprentice with the art director to learn the craft of graphic design. Steve Jobs has quote on programming where he says you should learn to program so you learn how to think. This job taught Biz the following lesson:
Lesson: Creativity is a renewable resource. Sometimes people would shoot down his book covers that he thought were great. He just kept working. There is always an artful approach, sometimes it just takes a lot of trial and error.
His mentor used to make bank as an independent graphic designer, so he wanted to open an independent graphic design studio. He quickly figured out that wouldn’t be enough money, so he taught himself web design because you got paid a lot of money. “No one knew how much my work was worth. I was like, this is awesome!” Friends who went to college and did consulting hated it, so they quit and came to him with help for web design. This led to his social network thing called Xanga being created. They ran Xanga in New York, completely off of his credit cards and racked up $75,000 of debt.
“Xanga was a bad name because you had to say ‘xanga with an x.’ What I learned was, name things better. This is what we did later.”
This whole time he was watching the career of Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger. Admired his work. Turned out Evan was watching his career, so when Google acquired Blogger Evan sent him a note asking if he wanted to work at Google. “And that’s how a college dropout with nothing even close to a computer science degree got a job a Google.”
Evan and Biz had an idea called Odeo, which was about podcasting. Their idea was to “democratize radio.” Turned out they didn’t like podcasting. There’s a difference between a good NPR program and some dude rambling in his basement about RSS for an hour and a half. Most podcasts were the latter. They didn’t even podcast themselves. When people put mics in front of them they never knew what to say. Eventually Biz asked, “Say we become successful and become the kings of podcasting, would you want that?” Evan said, “No.” “Then we were like, Dammit, we just raised 5 million dollars for a podcasting company and we don’t even care! Oops.”
Started Twitter as a kind of fun project. After watching home improvement shows, he spent an afternoon (it turns out) ruining his house trying to rip out the carpet hoping there was a beautiful wood floor under that. “What’s under your carpet? Not a beautiful floor. Nope.” As he was sweating and standing there in his filth, he saw that Evan tweeted, “Sipping pinot noir in the Napa Valley,” and he laughed at how different their situations were. At this moment, he realized that what he was doing made him laugh. This was a major turning point.
The biggest complaint about Twitter was that people said twitter was not useful. “Evan used to say, ‘Neither is ice cream. Are you going to ban ice cream?!’” On his trip home, Biz got a tweet that there was an earthquake and got worried. Then he saw some other tweets saying it wasn’t that big of a deal. At this moment, he saw that what he was making was useful.
Came to SXSW. What’s great about SXSW is that you end up talking with all the people you should be talking to in the Silicon Valley, but don’t. At SXSW you can hang out at night at the parties and catch up with them. One night, the bar that him and Evan were in was too loud for conversation. Evan tweeted that he wanted to move to a different bar down the street. In the about 8 minutes walk to the other bar, 800 people showed up because of retweeting. People retweeted so much that there was a big line out the door. His plan completely backfired, but it was very illustrative.
Flock of birds metaphor: Many becomes one becomes many. Individual birds come together to travel and then land and become individuals again. This is what they saw twitter as enabling people to do. They had invented a new way for humanity to come together as one. They thought, “What if it wasn’t a party at a bar, what if that was an emergency instead.” Thought this was amazing, flew back to the Silicon Valley and registered Twitter incorporated the next day (it wasn’t even a registered company before that point.) His friend from Google asked this question: “What do you want people to think of Twitter 5 years from now.” He hadn’t thought of it before, but he blurted something out, because when he was at google he got the impression that the employees thought computers and computer science and algorithms were going to solve all the problems in the world. “I blurted out that I hoped that people thought Twitter was not a triumph of technology but a triumph of humanity. I think people are good and want to do good things and if you give them a tool to help them do good, you do good for the world.” This experience proved that these tools were not about the technology but about the people. Biz wants people to understand that they are not just citizens of a town but citizens of the world. With these tools we can achieve in a day what would have taken 100 years in the past. “It was my hallucinogenically optimistic dream that it would help people come together and do amazing things. This is what made us begin to think that this was the most important work of our lives.”
“Back to my childhood,” he says. The crowd laughs.
A New Way To Define Success
When Biz was a kid he thought the way you were a good person was by doing things for other people. Thought you should donate money in the little boxes to save Africa even if nothing tangible came of it.
Twitter started working with Product: Red. They turned the site red, allowed donations, anything they could do to help. Product: Red likes to talk about these pills they give to HIV patients for a month-3 months. It basically takes them from deaths door to perfect health. After that, they seem basically normal and they stop spreading the disease. After this they can go back to being dads and moms and students and workers. Eventually a little geoeconomic area stabilized, and then another, and then another. The whole region was being stabilized based on tiny donations.
Lesson: There is compound impact in altruism. A lot of people are doing altruism wrong. They think they should get super rich and donate after they’ve made their fortunes. “This is a good way to have a mid life crisis when you’re forty.” Instead we should start helping out now, by donating or volunteering or doing something. Companies should focus on altruism. Companies are in the best position to help the world of anyone.
“In conclusion: I would advise you to create your own opportunities, be infinitely creative, to walk in others’ shoes and use technology to achieve that, and consider a new definition of success for entrepreneurs comprising of three parts: positive social impact, financial success, and joyfulness. If you aren’t covering these bases, you aren’t successful.”
You often seem fearless. How is that? How do you overcome hesitation?
I’m not fearless, I just have a different perspective on fear. When I was a little kid I was afraid of the dark because I thought there might be monsters in the dark. I turned it around. I said to myself, If there are monsters, that means there are other cool things in the world like magic. So any time I’m afraid, I turn it around in this way. As for overcoming hesitation, I’m not afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes are awesome, they’re probably more valuable than success is. When I’m interviewing and hiring I really love it when people talk about their failures, because that means they’ve learned how not to do it.. The reason I may seem fearless is that I actually am happy to accumulate mistakes because it will make me a better person down the line.
What quality do you value most in a leader and why?
Humor. I have a philosophy that humor is a secret delivery method of truth. When we joke around with each other we’re actually not joking around. There’s so much attached to humor: communication, pattern recognition, truthfulness. There’s a bunch of stuff associated with that.
You racked up a lot of debt when you were first an entrepreneur, how did you keep going and not just abandon ship?
I have this other philosophy that my future self will get me out of whatever jam I’m in now. I knew I could take care of it later. My job at that point was to get into debt. I left it to future Biz to figure out a way out of $75,000 of credit card debt. And he did! *Audience claps*
Twitter has always been focused, unlike Facebook. Have you always had a focused vision unlike Facebook?
Part of it comes from the idea that both Jack and I are attracted to simplicity. I’m attracted to simplicity because I’m kind of a simpleton and I like things to be easy and easy to figure out. Even though we added lots of features to Twitter, we always wanted to degrade gracefully.
Why 140 characters?
160 is the international limit for text messages. We wanted room for the username and the author’s tweet so that people could receive tweets on their phone. We knew that our business model had to be intimately related to the product so as to not aggravate the user. The business model should enhance the product, not conflict with it. We have this saying: “Value before profit.” We watched for patterns in Twitter. We asked, where are companies and individuals extracting value out of free Twitter? How could we make that even better if we were to charge them some money? From that comes promoted tweets and promoted ads. You know, Twitter is the best place in the world to look at tweets. Our “ads” are just promoted tweets, which is what people come to the site for anyway. We also want to make sure these promoted tweets are good. We have mechanisms by which we only show promoted tweets that are good because users don’t want to see bad promoted tweets and people who are promoting tweets don’t want to have bad ones shown. Staying true to simplicity, we wanted to make our monetized business model better not worse.
When, if ever, would you recommend dropping out of college?
I think it makes for a nice story when people drop out of college and become successful. I think that’s kind of perpetuated, it’s a trend. I don’t necessarily think there are a lot of billionaires an millionaires who didn’t go to college, that’s just something we kind of cling to nowadays. Personally, I think the college I went to: Northeastern, was just not right for me. If I went to a different college that allowed me to be more free, maybe it would have worked. I felt the college was being too rigid and not letting me take my own path. Then I got the opportunity to apprentice, to sit next to someone who has been doing this type of work their whole life for 10 hours a day. It was a really powerful experience for me because I didn’t have a dad growing up and this guy was a mentor in everything. I asked him questions like, “How did you decide to propose to your wife?” because he was old and he knew things. I dropped out because this guy was willing to give me my mentorship and undivided attention every day. It was the circumstances. Now this is my method: I have a set of people who are really smart and I trust. These are the people I run big life decisions by, like dropping out of college and starting companies. I usually have a gut instinct about what I should do, but I go to them to see what they say. When I find myself arguing against them for what I would do, then I’ve figured out what I believe on that specific issue.
Also, it’s not like you can’t just go back to college. You can always push the pause button and then go back later.
How do you monetize a free app?
Don’t just stick an ad in someone’s face. Figure out a way to improve the experience. Figure out what people are using the app for and what they want, and then help provide them with what it is they are looking for.
If you’ve failed in a start up, how do you prove this time will be different?
Go to a different VC. *Audience laughs* The venture capitalists are betting on the people, not the idea. It’s actually an asset to have failed before. I think people like this are a better bet the second time around because they understand failure.
What celebrity were you most excited about when they signed up for Twitter?
I don’t know. I don’t really look up to people that I don’t know. I feel like if I look up to people that I don’t know I’m just projecting. I look up to people who I work with who I know who have influenced my life. It was kind of the reverse for me, “We’re giving you a free thing, you should be thanking me.” Though I guess it was kind of fun when the Mars Lander had an account, but then again that was a robot, not a person.
What is the relationship between altruism and the idea of superorganisms like ants as described in Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene?
Well…I think it um…I think they’re suited perfectly. I’m assuming the thesis for Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that it has this amazing capability which is far beyond that of the individuals. When you factor in altruism, we are much more powerful. Humanity is this organism that has a conscience and now may decide to tackle something as big as global warming that we could not attack on our own…That’s what my wife calls a “manswer.” I just totally made that shit up.
How did the hashtag become part of popular culture?
When someone came and encouraged me to put hashtags before a topic that was mentioned, I thought it was the dorkiest thing ever. Now, I still kind of think it’s dorky! I guess it’s because it’s simple. It’s an immediate signal that lets you go on Twitter and learn all about something. I think it effected popular culture because it’s simple.
What do you think of the Library of Congress archiving tweets? What is your theory on privacy and how that relates to Twitter?
I wonder what it would have been like if Lincoln had twitter. I think it will be interesting for people to go back in history and see what was trending in 2016. We look to history to help inform the future, so I thought that was a great choice. My theory on privacy is that when you post something it’s on the internet forever and if you don’t like that you probably shouldn’t use our product.
How was your experience with personal/political when founding twitter?
We try to be neutral on political issues which is impossible to do. But we try. Basically our idea is this: Here’s this product we made. It’s for good or evil. People are basically good so it will be more good than evil, and that’s how I stayed out of the political issue.
How do you feel about people not living normal lives because we’re so busy interacting with technology?
I assume you’re talking about people using things like Twitter and Facebook instead of interacting face-to-face. How now we’re playing farmville instead of actually, you know, farming. Like, what drought? There’s no drought in farmville! I just bought some rain! I guess I hope that technology will bring people together and help to unlock people’s empathy. Because of technology we’re all connected now. Because we’re connected we can see the world through other people’s eyes. I hope it has the reverse effect, in that because people meet on Twitter they want to see that other person’s life or travel. I hope that it will make people want to go from virtual to real. I think we’re at the beginning of all this. We live in the age of infinite information, and hopefully that information can lead to knowledge. My hope is that technology is not removing us from more face to face time, it’s actually encouraging us to do more. The downside is that we get kids locking themselves in a room and playing video games for eight hours, which I would agree is unhealthy. I think it’s important how companies measure their engagement. Companies like Google and Zynga tend to have “engagement metrics.” Zynga’s CEO might say, “We’re really doing well, people are playing our games 8 hours a day.” Google might say “We’re doing really well, people spent 90 seconds on our site total, doing 25 searches and immediately going to another site.” It’s important how you measure user engagement.