6 things we learned from 'Hatching Twitter'November 4, 2013: 3:01 PM ET
As Twitter prepares to go public, its messy founding is detailed in a new book.
FORTUNE -- Nick Bilton has wonderful timing. Tomorrow the NY Times scribe's new book, "Hatching Twitter," will hit bookstores, just days before the company is planning to go public in one of the largest tech IPOs of all time.
It is a compelling read, more like espionage than a corporate history. Bilton goes into deep detail on the role of Twitter's (TWTR) forgotten founder, Noah Glass, and blows giant holes in the company's press releases and public statements about why fellow co-founders Jack Dorsey, Ev Williams and Biz Stone changed jobs (or left the company altogether) at various times. In fact, it makes Facebook's founding seem fairly kumbaya.
I read an advance copy yesterday, and several passages jumped out as noteworthy (which is different than newsworthy). Here you go:
1. Jack Dorsey is the villain
When word of this book began to circulate earlier in the year, rumor was that Jack Dorsey was Bilton's primary source of information. This caused many to believe the book would be sympathetic toward Jack, portraying a misunderstood inventor wronged by his former friends and partners (before eventually emerging victorious). Instead, Dorsey ends up as the book's villain. Not only for sneakily working to get co-founders Noah Glass and Ev Williams fired from the company (and blaming Ev for the former), but also for creating a founding myth around Twitter that was incomplete at best and outright false at worst. The kicker:
By 2013, with a net worth of a billion dollars, it might seem like Jack had 'won.' But... he had joined the company as a quiet young programmer in search of friendship and a mentor. He had found the mentor, sort of, in his emulation of Steve Jobs. But he lost friends when he used those same people as a ladder to climb to the top.
2. Fred Wilson is the hammer
After a month of vacillating over whether or not to fire Jack Dorsey as CEO -- and telling Dorsey he had three months to turn things around -- Twitter's board made its choice. Directors Fred Wilson and Bijan Sabet summoned Dorsey to the Clift Hotel for a breakfast meeting. Sabet played good cop, trying to soften the blow to Dorsey's ego and bank account. Wilson, however, dropped the hammer in between bites of egg.
"You know, you're really good, Bijan said, his eyes calm as he looked at Jack... "You're a founder of the company and we really believe in your vision, so we want you to stick around." Fred interrupted him. "It's effective immediately, Jack; it has to be." Jack realized this wasn't a hostage negotiation. This was it.
3. Twitter had no backup
Twitter's most persistent problem for its first few years of existence was its utter inability to remain online. The man charged with fixing the persistent "fail whale" was engineer Greg Pass, but he learned something quite troubling after building a program designed to detect the outage's source:
While he had been running tests on the site, he had discovered that there was no backup of Twitter. "If the database goes down right now, we would lose everything," Greg said awkwardly [to the board]. Every tweet, every user, everything. Gone. "You're fucking kidding me," Fred [Wilson] said with almost comic disbelief. "Well, what the fuck are you doing in here?"
4. Oprah doesn't understand computers
A seminal moment in Twitter's growth came on April 17, 2009, when founder Ev Williams appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The highlight was Oprah sending her first tweet, but things didn't go nearly as smoothly as it appeared to the viewing audience. In short: Oprah is oil and a keyboard is water.
"To ensure she couldn't mess up her first tweet, the staff had set up a laptop with colored stickers that Oprah was instructed to press after typing her first 140-character missive. It was paint by numbers for the clumsy computer user... Oprah was instructed to 'press the button on the keyboard with a yellow sticker' which would load tweets from all her friends...
But instead Oprah pressed the caps-lock button first, then began typing... Rather than hit 'send' on Twitter, she accidentally pressed the key with the yellow piece of tape on it. This reset the screen and erased her first tweet. Cut to commercial. Oprah hadn't actually tweeted. Ev saw this and his throat tightened; he quickly pushed Oprah aside and grabbed the keyboard."
5. Bill Campbell is no saint
In early 2009, Twitter board member Peter Fenton urged legendary CEO coach Bill Campbell (ex-Intuit, ex-Apple) to begin advising Ev Williams. Neither Campbell nor Williams were interested in first, but eventually began working with one another. In the end, however, Campbell apparently didn't see adequate growth in Williams, whose managerial faults included an inability to make quick decisions. Rather than tell Williams directly, Campbell went behind his back:
At board meetings, Campbell would appear to listen to Ev's presentations on the state of the company. After Ev's sermons were done, the coach would clap loudly and hug his protegee, proclaiming again to everyone in the room that Ev was "doing a fucking great job" and asking them to clap... Then, after Ev left the room, proud that his mentor thought he was doing such a great job, Campbell would shout at the group: "You gotta get rid of this fucking guy. He doesn't know what the fuck he's doing."
Once Williams learned he was about to be fired as CEO, he confronted Campbell directly:
'Are you for this too,' Ev asked. 'Do you agree with the board?" Campbell started hemming and hawing, looking away from Ev, unable to properly answer him... Campbell dithered, cursing about the board, the investors. "These fucking guys," he said. Eventually Ev had heard enough and asked Campbell to leave.
6. Twitter fired Dick Costolo... briefly
Bill Campbell's other outrageous moment comes after the board has opted to fire Ev Williams as CEO. The original plan was that he would continue to serve as president of product, which largely would have made Dick Costolo redundant. Some of the board already had argued for naming Costolo as CEO, but Williams disagreed. Upon hearing the dissent, Campbell waved away Peter Fenton's call for more discussion:
"No. Guys we're running a startup here," Campbell said as he stormed out of the room, leaving a shocked boardroom in his wake. Moments later Campbell was sitting in Dick's office and telling him he was fired and needed to cal the board and resign without severance... Dick sat, mouth agape, unsure what to do... As soon as the board heard, Dick's phone started ringing, with Fred and Bijan telling him "Don't go anywhere! You're not fired!"