Designing Media - Ev Williams

This is the fifth interview in Chapter 3 in my new book, Designing Media

Ev Williams, December 2008

Ev Williams is a serial entrepreneur. He’s famous now as the cofounder of Twitter, but he started a whole series of new ventures before that. His first was a family business to develop CD-ROMs in Nebraska during the early years of the Internet boom. Next he headed for California in search of opportunities, and cofounded Pyra Labs to develop Web-based collaboration tools for project and task management, with ideas about connecting email to tasks and making events and messages task-related. Weblogs were being talked about in 1999, and Ev wrote a script to let him publish messages to his personal Web site. He found that it really changed the dynamic of having a personal site. Soon Blogger emerged as a brand name for the tool that he was developing.

Original Blogger in 1999 and Current in 2011

In 2003 Google offered to purchase Pyra Labs on the condition that Blogger would be focused as a mainstream product, so Ev spent the next twenty months at Google making that happen. He was not comfortable in a larger organization for the long term, so he left Google in October 2004 to cofound Odeo, with the idea of combining streaming audio with blogging. For six months he and his team worked on a podcasting idea, but Apple beat them to the punch, so they needed something else to focus their attention on.

Twitter Proved to be Surprisingly Interesting

The first ideas for Twitter came from Jack Dorsey, an engineer at Odeo. He had the idea of creating a social-status broadcast system. The Odeo team toyed with some new ideas and decided to build a prototype using SMS as a transport mechanism for real-time connections. They found their prototype surprisingly engaging—another example of an innovative design idea emerging from a group of creative people prototyping solutions for themselves! The Odeo team were rigorous about simplicity, so whenever a new feature was requested for Twitter they would only add it if it was possible to avoid complex interactions. In late 2006 Ev created a new company to combine Odeo and Twitter. He then sold the Odeo part of the enterprise and focused his energies on developing Twitter with his cofounder Jack Dorsey and the design team that they had by that time assembled.

Twitter Office in San Francisco

The Twitter offices are located on a handsome office block in San Francisco. Ev Williams sat on a couch for the interview, with a series of rooms behind him giving on to the main corridor and light streaming through from the outside windows. It was around lunchtime. The kitchen was the first room, so we saw people coming in to pick up a cup of coffee and a snack or returning from a trip out via the elevators. It felt like a friendly community of cheerful young people enjoying their opportunity to develop new software together.

Twitter on iPhone

Ev has been surprised by the growth of Twitter and tweets—initially it struck him as odd to reduce the capability of blogging so drastically, but it seems that the very simple structure has been a remarkable asset. Ev sees Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger as all being about making connections on a one-to-many basis. The dramatic success that Ev Williams has enjoyed has, like so many other Silicon Valley start-ups, been based on a stream of creative ideas, which have been quickly prototyped and tried out. The most interesting ideas stick, and deserve another iteration.