SXSWi keynote 2010, an interview with Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter

Photo credit: Randy Stewart

The big name keynotes at SXSWi were a mixed bag. The conference organisers understandably like to get headliners on the roster, but once given the platform there is a tendency for them to be treated like gods and given a soft interview, and often without the chance for any questions from the audience. Two years ago Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook left the audience angry as the interviewer avoided all the big issues. Back channels like Twitter gave people a place to complain, but as it was not being monitored it did nothing to rescue the on-stage embarrassment.

Twitter’s CEO Evan Williams was sadly given the kid-gloves treatment and took no questions from the audience but the discussion was nevertheless still quite interesting for me as I had never seen Williams speaking before. I certainly learned more about Twitter and their approach, but would no doubt have learnt a lot more if the audience has been able to ask one or two challenging questions.

Williams defines Twitter as an information network which gives you a place to discover and share stuff you care about. “We want Twitter to reach the weakest signals, we want it to be inclusive, and [by using] sms we can reach anyone.”

Depending on who you follow you will have a vastly different Twitter experience, and one of the key things they are trying to improve is the signal-to-noise ratio, but no information was given on how. Surprisingly he said “we want to help people spend less time on twitter”

In the last year Twitter has experienced immense growth, both in terms of users, usage and in media attention. (The number of daily tweets has increased by 1400% in the last year to 35 million per day). It’s no wonder Williams identifies their ability to scale as a key challenge. Despite that Williams says that he’s splitting his time between dealing with cultural and operational issues at Twitter. They have therefore now developed a set of operating principles.

Some of Twitter’s 9 operating principles:

  1. Be a force for good
  2. Believe that the open exchange of info has a positive impact on the world.
  3. Experimentation is what leads to innovation
  4. Assume there are more smart people outside of the company than inside. don’t close off the outside world.
  5. Only do win-win deals with partners

Williams and his team, now around 200 people has clearly spent a lot of time thinking… “How do we define then adopt those characteristics, of openness and transparency as it is a key value for the product and company”. By the way, openness is their preferred term, instead of transparency: a window is “transparent” but a door is “open”.

“Openness is a survival technique” through which people can approach you, and throughout the development of Twitter users and third-party developers have been able to interact flexibly and as a result they’ve generated loyal users as well as spawned a whole ecosystem of businesses. The recent deals with search engines to provide the “fire-hose”, as well as providing revenue to the company reinforces the open aspect of the service. “We don’t know the best use of the fire-hose, but we put it out and see it as letting 1-000 flowers bloom.”

No doubt one of Twitter’s future revenue streams will come from monetising business users by providing extra tools and insights. Already Williams believes they are helping to build better companies by opening up the black box, destroying lack of responsibility and transparency and letting users providing feedback and insight to the business.

In response to the question, “What makes you tick?”, Williams said there are two types of entrepreneur. “I am driven by creating something that didn’t exist before. Your product or service your should be the end of a sentence that starts “…wouldn’t it be awesome if”. We knew if [Twitter] was awesome people would want to use it.”

Turns out, he was right.

[Update: afterwards @ev answered some questions on twitter in response to the lukewarm reception of the above keynote interview. There was also an extensive BBC World Service interview around the same time.]


3 Responses to SXSWi keynote 2010, an interview with Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter

  1. Excellent blog, wish I had been there

    “I am driven by something that didn’t exist before” priceless!!’ excellent closing!

    Only the mad and genius feel this!!!

    See you soon


  2. […] a soft interview, and often without the chance for any questions from the audience. While I found the interview of Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter interesting, it did fall into this […]

  3. […] Keynote Interview with Evan Williams, CEO, Twitter […]

%d bloggers like this: