Blog Post

Do as I say, not as I did

Last September, Ev Williams gave a speech about some of the mistakes he made as CEO of Odeo.

Since then, a lot has happened. We turned out to totally wrong about one thing: “So what’s he doing to fix these mistakes? Not refunding the VCs their investment, that’s for sure.” That’s exactly what Williams did just a month later , refunding his VCs and angels their $5 million stake.

Williams’ fortunes have changed radically since then, as Obvious Corp, which he formed to buy Odeo, has also developed the smash hit web product of the season, a casual blogging tool called Twitter.

Williams said he created Obvious to pioneer “a new model for building and running web products,” one that uses cheap and rapid development to test an idea before turning it into a company. So far, it appears to be working.

This week, Williams indulged us by reviewing the list of Odeo-screwups we covered last fall and, importantly, shared with us what he’s doing differently this time at Twitter.

Mistake #1: “Trying to build too much”
Retake: Where Odeo had a mess of products, Twitter is singularly focused on the short-form shout-out. Tell your friends what it is that you’re doing in 140 characters or less. The thrift and simplicity of Twitter posts are comparable to the site, which simply takes the messages from SMS, IM, web form, or third-party application and sends them back out. Says Williams via email, “ It does very little. (In a good way.)”

Mistake # 2: We weren’t the target users of our product
Remake: The makers of Odeo weren’t podcasters and didn’t listen to many podcasts themselves, so they lacked intuition for their users’ needs. Twitter is the opposite, according to Williams, because it’s a product his team uses and loves. “[Obvious employee] Jack Dorsey introduced the idea of Twitter to us, because he’d been wanting it for a long time. We built a prototype and started using it internally and, based on that, decided to invest further.”

Mistake # 3: “Not adjusting fast enough”
Remake: Odeo couldn’t compete when Apple introduced a competitor, but Twitter has tried to be more agile. Rather than stay bound to long-term strategic visions, Twitter has made many adjustments to its product over the last several months, aiding its astronomical growth this March.

Says Williams, “We didn’t have the formula right for Twitter at first. We liked the app, but for the first few months, it wasn’t clicking with users. We changed the positioning, the relationship model, and other things until it started working. I think we could have been faster, but we got there. Now we’re trying to adjust to the scaling requirements.”

Mistake # 4: “Raising too much money too early”
Remake: Williams’ new theory is “Some things are perfectly worthwhile but don’t need to be a company” in the “hits-driven” consumer web business , where anything less than a 45-degree trend on the growth chart considered flat-lining. Due to the pressure of responsibility to its funders, Odeo had to be a company before it had proved it was a successful product. Twitter hasn’t raised any outside funding yet, though Williams says “It’s likely we’ll need to before long, but we’re past the point where I think it would be too early.”

Mistake # 5: “Not listening to my gut”
Remake: Williams says, “This has a lot to do with who I’m working with, what we’re working on, raising money, etc. Safe to say, we’re doing better in all departments.”

9 Responses to “Do as I say, not as I did”

  1. supersan

    wow, is this a gem of an article.. thanks so much!

    Though the article touches on this, I think it is really important to emphasize the K.I.S.S principle. One always needs to remind him/herself that users are somewhat lazy (no offence, I am too) and want to avoid any learning curve so the less the input, the less the buttons to hit, the better the overall product and the more the happy users.
    It is something that you really understand fully as you go through the process yourselves I guess :)}

  2. bhoecht

    I agree with Patricia. Go with your gut. In software use rapid development, test, revise cycles.

    Avoid scope creep. Do lots of mini-upgrades. It is better customer service & gives you a relevant message to engage your users in a conversation around.

    Keep your product roadmap fluid. Don’t let your developers take things to the 95% stage then move on. I always picture Steve Jobs insisting on perfect aesthetic design (my gut says the iPhone still needs work).

    There are lots of mistakes you can make in business. What is your value innovation? Aim for ones where you have no competitors and are able to effectively capture its value. What is your sales + marketing plan?

    Only then do things like managing development come in to play. As for VC, either they believe or they don’t. If you overwhelm them with product info, assume they’ll say no.}

  3. patricia

    I always listen to my gut. Always. It never fails. Great article! I agree on raising too much. Agility is the #1 thing, in my opinion, to surviving internet business.}

  4. Mistake #2 is a pretty big one to avoid.

    If you aren’t a target user, you’ll need to hire people who are. This increases cost, decreases your ability to advise, strategize, and manage the business and development effort, and also means you can’t effectively employ an organic, fluidly moving product development method.

    By this, I mean that many products are created by teams of 1-2 people who are developing constantly on the fly and on instinct. They modify, tweak, add and delete from the product as they are developing. No product plans. No schedule. Just instinct. It’s the fastest way to getting to first release of a cool product. You add people, you slow down, increase discussion and arguing time, and increase the risk of a competitor trouncing you with faster development.}

  5. bluelines

    Mistake #2 is really the one to avoid, although it goes hand-in-hand with #5. I’ve had that nagging feeling in past ventures that I’d be a skeptical buyer, and it’s hard to recover from that position.}