Biz Stone: 'doing good in the world was the key to Twitter's success' | Guardian sustainable business | The Guardian Skip to main contentSkip to navigationSkip to navigation
Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder
Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, wants his new startup Jelly to 'build worldwide empathy'. Photograph: Kim Kulish/Corbis
Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, wants his new startup Jelly to 'build worldwide empathy'. Photograph: Kim Kulish/Corbis

Biz Stone: 'doing good in the world was the key to Twitter's success'

This article is more than 10 years old
The Twitter co-founder is an unabashed idealist who wants to redefine capitalism. Can his latest venture achieve this?

How should we define success in business? Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, says that to be judged successful, a company needs to make money, make the world a better place and bring joy to the people who work there.

"It's a ridiculously high bar," he says. "But if you don't set the bar high, you're never going to get there."

Stone has written a new book called Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. The book is less about the mind than the heart, less about creativity than values and less about Twitter (and that little bird) than about Stone, an unabashed idealist and, it would appear, a genuinely nice guy. This is the rare Silicon Valley story with little to say about technology, venture capitalists, monetizing users and IPOs but a lot to say about how listening, empathy and generosity can help build a sustainable business and change the world.

"It may sound like a lofty goal," Stone writes,"but I want to redefine capitalism."

I interviewed Biz Stone last year about his investment in a plant-based protein company called Beyond Meat, and heard him speak the other day at a book-signing in Washington DC. He's an unassuming guy who displays none of the arrogance often attached to tech millionaires. (His net worth is not known but it has been estimated at $200m.) Several months ago, Stone launched a startup called Jelly, a mobile app that enables people get answers to their questions or advice from others in their social networks. Jelly's slogan: "Let's help each other."

Stone, who is 40, grew up poor in Wellesley, Massachusetts, raised mostly by his single mother. He dropped out of college, worked as a book designer, talked his way into a job at Google after starting a popular blog and then, with his friends Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, started Twitter in 2006. Most of the lessons that he now wants to share are drawn from his experience at Twitter.

Twitter is, of course, an unusual business. The creators devised an easy way for people to communicate, using 140-character messages. But the phenomenon of Twitter, and the business that is today valued at an eye-popping $25bn by the capital markets, was mostly the creation of millions of people who flocked to it and figured out how to use the platform.

Once Twitter was up and running, Stone writes: "People instinctively knew how to use our service, and, as a group, they would guide us. Our jobs, from here on, would be to listen to them and to build and sustain a service to support their instincts. It was inspiring, and it was humbling."

So, he explains, it was the users who invented the word tweet (the short messages were originally called "updates"), who came up with the idea of retweets (which highlighted the best ideas and information on the site), and who figured out that Twitter could rapidly spread news (when a plane crashed in the Hudson River). They also realized that because Twitter is mobile-based, it could not be shut down by authoritarian governments, although it crashed on its own often enough in the early days. So Twitter gets some credit for spreading democracy in the Arab world, and elsewhere.

"I believed that doing good in the world was the key to Twitter's success," Stone says.

By his account, Twitter built a culture around doing good. Guiding Twitter, he says, was the belief that all decisions should be made with the users in mind. Big display ads made Twitter's home page ugly and harder to read, so they were vetoed. But sponsored Tweets were ultimately good for users because the company had to make money to be able to serve them. When working with partners, Stone says, sensibly, that "the only deal worth doing is a win-win deal." That's because business, in the end, depends on building durable relationships, not gaining a short-term advantage.

That said, Stone left Twitter in 2011 after other top executives feuded and back-stabbed, as detailed in a very different book, Nick Bilton's Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money Power, Friendship and Betrayal. In a tacit acknowledgement that not everyone in the business world is kind and cuddly, Stone writes: "My perhaps overly happy-go-lucky optimism and change-the-world idealism was out of place in a company where the leaders were in flux and my friends were in conflict."

Since then, Stone has reunited with Evan Williams to invest in startups, including Beyond Meat, which has developed plant-based substitutes for chicken and ground beef that are healthier and better for the environment. (Stone is a vegan.) He worked with Williams to build Medium, a platform for long-form journalism. Now, with a couple of former Twitter colleagues, he is focused on Jelly.

It's named "not after the schmear", he explained last week, but after the jellyfish, which has millions of neurons to that connect to one another when needed, enabling the creature to survive.

"This was a very beautiful metaphor for what we envisioned Jelly to be," Stone said. "And also I like animal logos."

I'm a big fan of Twitter. I'm not yet sold on Jelly, but am intrigued by its possibilities. Like Twitter, it may turn out to be useful in ways that we can't yet envision. And I can't help but admire Stone's ambition for his new venture.

"The undercurrent of Jelly is that if we're successful to any degree, we will be introducing into the daily muscle memory of people the idea that they can help other people … by tapping a finger on a piece of glass," he says.

The big goal of Jelly is to "build worldwide empathy", he says. What's not to like about that?

Comments (…)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion

Most viewed

Most viewed