Skip to main content

What I learned from Twitter's leaders

By Anil Dash, Special to CNN
November 8, 2013 -- Updated 2348 GMT (0748 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anil Dash: It's worth looking at skills of Twitter execs who led company to successful IPO
  • He says CEO Costolo is a former stand-up comic; improv thinking spurs company adaptability
  • He says other top figures guided principled stances, showed value of civic-mindedness
  • Dash: Founders brought money, attention to detail, ability to explain in human terms

Editor's note: Anil Dash is an entrepreneur and writer in New York. He is the co-founder of ThinkUp, a new tech startup in New York City . He blogs at dashes.com Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The Internet is buzzing with news of Twitter's initial public offering on Thursday, inspiring enough enthusiasm from investors to push the company to a $23 billion valuation in its first day. It has been quite a ride for a company started just seven years ago, attracting just a few geeky users at first, and then accelerating to eventually reach more than 232 million active users each month.

The company has been through an extraordinary set of triumphs and tribulations along the way. I've watched much of this happen—I work in the tech industry and count many of the leaders and founders of Twitter, since its earliest days, as friends—and I think I can identify some of the more human lessons we might take away from Twitter's milestone. The rest of us aren't going to get rich from Twitter's IPO, but the people who are embody some basic truths about what it takes to take a small company big.

Anil Dash
Anil Dash

Their work informs the work I do each day, both in my own new startup ThinkUp and in my life overall.

Dick Costolo, CEO: Costolo is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative executives in the tech industry, creating a series of companies focused on delivering real-time information. But while he famously has a background in stand-up comedy (he shared the stage in Chicago years ago with folks like Steve Carell), there's a bigger lesson to be had here: That serious business can be informed by a sense of improvisation. Improv is based around the idea of saying "Yes, and..." rather than "No, we can't," and that's a fundamental philosophy for building a business that can adapt to the real world.

Katie Stanton, head of international strategy: In between her stints building products at Yahoo and Google and her current role heading international efforts at Twitter, Stanton worked both at the White House and the State Department. That she did this showed an awareness of the importance not just of having a global perspective, but of serving—and interacting with--one's community, one's city, or country. More of the tech industry, and every industry, would benefit from being more civic-minded.

Jason Goldman, former vice president of product: One of the least-heralded leaders of Twitter during its early days, Goldman was a quiet but forceful voice for improving the process of running Twitter as a company. Much of the hardest work in building anything big and ambitious gets done in roles that aren't glamorous, that focus on just trying to get a little bit better each day.

Chloe Sladden, head of media: Sladden was one of the first people at Twitter to think systematically about how the company would connect to more traditional media, like television. Inside the tech industry, people are used to making big distinctions between technology and media, or between "new media" and "old media," but it's a huge insight to realize that those boundaries are increasingly arbitrary. That kind of thinking is how opportunities are created.

Behind-the-scenes drama at Twitter
High stakes for high-profile Twitter IPO

Alex Macgillivray, former general counsel: At several points in its history, Twitter made choices to do the right thing when it didn't have to, choices that a lot of companies have backed away from. From its stand on free speech to its efforts to be more transparent about the ways it utilizes users' data, many of Twitter's initiatives happened because the company and its lawyers were willing to do extra work on behalf of what was right. One of the most consistent advocates for fighting the good fight was Alex Macgiillivray, who left the company last summer. His advocacy has hopefully influenced all kinds of companies to stand up for people's rights.

Biz Stone, co-founder: In the many stories and books that have already been written about Twitter's history, the role of Christopher "Biz" Stone is one of the least understood; reporters have often left it as, essentially, "He seems like a nice guy." His contribution to Twitter, and to the many projects he has worked on before and since, has been so much more than that. He has displayed a consistent ability to articulate—in human language, understandable to all-- what's valuable about a piece of technology. This is perhaps best exemplified by his early description of Twitter itself: "The messaging system we didn't know we needed until we had it." In a tech industry that often seems disconnected from regular people, this is one of the most crucial skills to have.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder: Though he's become one of the most famous names in technology, the most striking thing about Dorsey's career is his focus on every small detail of how things are presented, whether that's a product or a company or a process. That kind of sweating the small stuff is what propels a company's ambitions, and it's a trait Dorsey has carried into his mobile payments company, Square.

Michael Sippey, vice president of product: Sippey was among the earliest people to create a blog on the Internet, and more than a decade and a half later, he's working on building more features like photos and video into Twitter, based on the fundamental ideas of multimedia sharing that were pioneered during the early days of the blogosphere. That kind of fixation on a big, meaningful problem like finding better, richer ways to communicate with friends and communities, is a tough thing to stay focused on in the short-attention-span tech world, let alone on which to build a long career.

Evan Willams, co-founder: Perhaps no one person is more responsible for Twitter's existence than Evan Williams, who bankrolled the company out of his pocket in its early days, and serves on its board today. The headlines from the financial press will be about how Williams became a multibillionaire after Thursday's IPO, but the bigger story is one of his sheer persistence. Williams was co-founder of Blogger, where the company went through a near-death experience before being acquired by Google, and just a dozen years ago, he was tapped out. But he kept with it, and brought that same persistence to the ups and downs of Twitter--and is putting the same ethos to work in his new company, Medium. There's an important lesson in that example of never giving up.

The strengths and stories of the people who built the company to its success—and there are many more--are instructive for any company. At the same time, of course, they are just people—smart ones, but imperfect, and lucky, too. Certainly it helps that all these smart people grew up in America, where they never had to worry about clean water or good public schools or political instability.

The privileges we enjoy in the United States allow us to succeed on this level, and it's why I challenge Twitter to extend these kinds of opportunities more broadly by expanding the diversity of its board, and in the process better reflecting its increasingly international and diverse user base.

On a day when many are celebrating Twitter for its financial success, and lauding the value of its stock price, we can find a deeper value in the personal stories of this handful of people who helped build Twitter. Hopefully the positive values that helped Twitter get to this point are what this newly public company can use as its definition of "success" going forward.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anil Dash.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT