Ev Williams: Do as He Says, and as He Does

We launched Found|READ a year a go with a post about serial founder Ev Williams, and how the things he’d learned as CEO of Odeo were informing his then-nascent startup, and now-raging phenomenon, Twitter. (See, Do as I say, not as I did.)

This month Inc. magazine has wonderful profile of Williams, called Anything Could Happen, which explores his uncanny ability to cultivate ideas into companies, to build something of value out of nothing — even that which is “useless, in a sense”, as Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey put it to Inc.

Ev’s gift isn’t so much genius, as it is genius-execution. This means you can not only learn from him, but probably replicate Ev’s methods to your own benefit (if not to Ev’s level of success). Writes reporter Max Chafkin:

…unlike many of the most successful, he’s no genius when it comes to programming. [Ev’s] specialty is taking a tiny, almost nonsensical idea and turning it into a cultural phenomenon. “He’s like a master craftsman,” says Naval Ravikant, a serial entrepreneur who is an angel investor in Twitter. “There are entrepreneurs who are financial geniuses, and there are raw coders. Evan is the master of creating a product where there wasn’t one before.” If Williams’s art is the conception of inconceivable products, then Twitter is his chef-d’oeuvre.

It’s a long story, but one filled with important insights. We offer some highlights.

1) Ev believes that small ideas are almost always better than grand visions…

“I think features can make great companies,” he says… “Applying constraints can help your company and your customers in unexpected ways. [The] default thing we do is ask how we can add something to make it better. Instead we should say, What can we take away to create something new?”

2) Paul Graham believes in small ideas, too:

there are smart people, like start-up financier Paul Graham, who argue that technology start-ups are undergoing a fundamental change, becoming smaller, cheaper to start, and more numerous–in short, commoditized. We may be entering an era of the little idea, a time tailor-made for Evan Williams.

3) Practice makes perfect and Ev has failed plenty. Let this hearten you:

Williams grew up on a corn farm in Clarks, Nebraska (population 379). He’s a self-taught coder, having dropped out of college after only a year to start a company…the companies–there were three failures in five years–were unambitious, money losing, and admittedly dopey. Williams’s most successful product was a CD-ROM for fans of the Cornhuskers football team. Finally, convinced he still knew little about how to run a business, he cut his losses, took a Web development job in California, and started writing about it. [This led to Pyra Labs, which led to Blogger]

4) Ev really struggled to get Blogger off the ground. It forged a core principle: Patience.

The experience of shepherding Blogger through growth, then hardship, until he finally turned it into a real company cemented Williams’s philosophy of business. He would be an entrepreneur who looked for value in things that seemed worthless. Faith–in one’s ability, in one’s chosen path, and, above all else, in the fact that there are always opportunities ahead–was a company’s greatest need. Stick to your product, forget about scrambling for deals, and good things will happen…“[Ev] has a tendency to wait just a bit longer than everyone else would, to give an idea more time,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, says. “It is patience and perseverance and hope–all those things rolled up into one.”

5) Ev sold Blogger to Google, and wrote “my best blog post ever”, a founder’s opus: Ten Rules for Web Startups

6) Then at his next gig, podcasting startup Odeo, Ev broke them all (Hey, nobody is perfect!):

…He wasn’t even podcasting. As Odeo sputtered, struggling to gain new users, Williams began to see his problem as one of corporate structure. He had accepted millions of dollars in investment capital, built a team, and worked the media before he knew what his company was.

7) When in doubt, hold a “Hack Day”:

[Ev] broke the company into small groups and told them to spend a day experimenting–not just with podcasting, but with anything that struck their fancy. It was [cofounder Jack] Dorsey’s project that struck Williams’s. Dorsey had long been fascinated by the status function on instant message programs: the short, pithy postings that allow you to tell your online friends what you are doing. He built a prototype of Twitter in two weeks.

8) From this experience Ev built Obvious, a kind of incubator where ideas can get hacked and where he can offer them the patience they need to germinate:

The goal is to separate the creative environment of the start-up process from the regular work-a-day of running a business. “It’s all theory for now,” Williams says. “But we’re hoping that by setting up an environment with multiple projects at once, these happy accidents [like Twitter] can occur.”

If you have the time, read Max’s whole story, it is far more thorough than even these many highlights suggest. And for more of Ev Williams’s wisdom,. see: *
Do as I say, not as I did

* ‘Will It Fly?’ – Ev Williams, on Idea Evaluation
* And again, his classic: Ten Rules for Web Startups