Monday, March 29, 2010

Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter, on Innovation, Internet and Entrepreneurship

There are no Managing Innovation (#HBSinnov8) or Founder's Dilemma (#fdhbs) classes the rest of the week, so I thought it a good time to type up my notes from SXSW Interactive. One of the more notable events of the week was the keynote address from Evan Williams, co-founder and CEO of Twitter (and recent HBS case protagonist in #fdhbs). As you may have heard, it was a bit lackluster and I would now say this tweet was indeed serendipitous...

(click the link above to see the picture)

When Williams announced Twitter's new @anywhere platform from the stage (to applause, but not cheers) it was clear that he is no Steve Jobs... but I stayed until the end of the Q&A and found his insight and reflections interesting nonetheless... here are the [paraphrased] pieces that stood out.

"Whatever you assume when you start out, you are wrong. Experimentation leads the creative process... Google started out thinking they were going to sell search products."

"We are still focused on how do we create the best experience for users and business... users are opting in to commercial messages all the time. We want to make that process better and faster."

"'What is Twitter?' has always been an iconically difficult question to answer. We think of it as an information network that helps [users] find out what is going on in the world around them, and share... First piece, you don't have to contribute... Value we are working on today is increasing signal to noise ratio and giving people more choices."

How does Twitter handle iteration? "We have awesome people that are doing what they think is best. Autonomous teams... go for it... give them the resources they need."

On his role as CEO: "I personally like to get involved in the product and strategy. Then the nitty gritty... half my time on that, then half of culture internally. How do we scale the company and adopt characteristics we want? ... Parallels between service and culture we want to create... openness and transparency... easy to say, harder to do..."

Re: Openness and transparency... "A window is transparent, a door is open... a window lets you see what is happening, a door lets you come in... openness is survival technique... being open to your probably being wrong... assume there are more smart people outside the company than inside..."

"There are 50 million tweets a day; most users see 100. Are those the best 100 for you to see? Probably not." Hinted at Microsoft and Google being able to help that within the network.

"We don't know the best use for this stuff... like the Internet... why limit it?... We are just realizing the value of the Internet. It is about democratization... we take that for granted. It is changing institutions today, it will changes institutions in the future."

Next wave? "Real businesses will be built on Twitter.... '' is the consumer interface for the mainstream audience... we would love to see more focus on creating deep experiences that create value for audiences."

"We are sending cease and desist notices everyday to Twitter-follower-shot-gun-spammers... [we] need shepherding."

"SMS is still important in places where internet adoption is low. Twitter can help... strong growth in India, where it is SMS ubiquitous."

"Hard to define 'user' because you don't have to have an account to use Twitter... there's something on Twitter for everyone, but everyone does not know that."

"People have limited attention. We hope Twitter can better direct your attention."

#1 operating principle? "'Be a course for good'... open exchange of information has positive impact on the world. Another is 'pay attention.'... Our advantage will only work if everyone wins." Key to partnerships and why Evan says they haven't introduced revenue generating parts to Twitter yet...

"Dichotomy in traditional media and usage... it is an ecosystem and they get richer and pieces work together. It doesn't work for those who ignore the new species. For Twitter, it is even more clear to me that Twitter complements existing media."

Why be an entrepreneur? "For me, it's [about] creating things that didn't exist in the world before... your product should be the end of a sentence that starts, 'Wouldn't it be awesome if...?'"

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