Twitter Rocky Road to social-media stardom

17 Apr

Twitter Rocky Road? Twitter hates being lumped in with Facebook as a social network, but comparing the two companies helps illustrate why Twitter finds itself stuck in neutral. Not long after founding Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped talking about the company as a social site and started telling people he was building a digital phone book for the new millennium, and he never wavered from that grandiose vision. He brought in seasoned executives to manage the company early on, and although he still dabbles in writing code, he spends his time refining the product and strategy. He’s been criticized for being ruthless, ambitious, and single-minded in his quest to build Facebook — a common knock on the few founders who stay atop their companies. (Exhibit A: Bill Gates.)

The Twitter trio took a quirkier, more meandering path to social-media stardom. In 2006, Evan Williams was striking out with Odeo, the startup he’d founded to help people discover and create podcasts. Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes had rendered his idea irrelevant. Trouble was, he still had venture capital funding. Williams encouraged employees to experiment with new ideas, hoping something might stick. Jack Dorsey, a young engineer with a deep understanding of the tech behind taxi-dispatch services, suggested a service called Twttr (the vowels came later) that would let people answer the question “What are you doing?” by text message. The idea resonated, and so, with help from Biz Stone, Odeo’s creative director, Dorsey built a prototype in two weeks. When the company was incorporated a year later, Dorsey, the brains behind the product, became CEO, and Stone was chief creative officer. Williams, who grabbed the title of Twitter chairman, didn’t join Twitter full-time until the spring of 2008.

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