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Entertaining Entrepreneurship

How Evan Williams turned side projects like Twitter into huge successes

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Today, Evan Williams is most well-known for being the billionaire co-founder of Twitter, Medium and Blogger. But back in 2005 when this episode was recorded, Twitter hadn’t even been conceived of yet. When we spoke, Ev had just raised about $2 million in venture capital money for a hot new podcasting company he was about to launch called Odeo. Spoiler alert: Odeo didn’t make it. But a little side project had promise, and about a year after this interview was conducted, he and his partners decided to shift their focus to it. That side project was Twitter. 

This episode takes us back to Ev’s mindset as he was gearing up for the launch of Odeo. It’s also a good reminder that failure is part of the entrepreneurial path. On a personal note, I have to say, this interview changed my life. Getting to know Ev and becoming one of the first users of Twitter ultimately gave me the idea for my first big success as an entrepreneur, The Shorty Awards. And that led me to start up my software company, Muck Rack. You never know where your journey is going to take you.

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Show notes:

Unusual places to build Internet companies

  • Referring to Dick Costolo’s remarks on our show about Chicago being a challenging place to start a technology company: “[Chicago] pales in comparison to Nebraska in challenges.”

Moving to California

From employee to entrepreneur

From geeks to general audience

  • Launched BlogSpot to host blogs.

Google acquisition

  • “Until Blogger was Google-sized, it just wasn’t interesting at the corporate level.”
  • “To Google’s credit, they didn’t screw it up, which is what a lot of companies do with tiny companies when they buy them.”

Odeo thinking big

  • Met co-founder Noah Glass.
  • First developed Audioblogger together.
  • Adam Curry and Dave Winer were first to develop podcasting.
  • Used Audible to pass time while commuting to Google.
  • “It seems like there are a hell of a lot more people in the world who don’t spend their days in front of a computer than there are that do…The potential for audio content is possibly much greater than that of blogs as far as reaching a really mainstream audience.”

Odeo’s funding

  • Until a day before this interview, Odeo was angel funded by Ev and one other person.
  • Just closed venture funding that would be announced later that week.

Podcast industry

  • “I think there are definitely gonna be people who make a living creating podcasts, or more generally, related to podcast in a bunch of different ways.”

Next six months

  • “It’s all about helping people when they come in the door go away with the stuff that they’re most compelled by and interested in.”

More quotables from this episode:

“I was in the wrong place at the right time. Trying to build an internet company in ’94 in Nebraska was mostly explaining what the internet was to folks.”

“Like I said, I always knew I was going to start another company. So after a couple years, or I guess is about a year and a half of doing development and learning more stuff and being sort of in the middle of Silicon Valley during the boom, I decided that I finally, you know, kind of got rested up and decided it was time to do that new venture.”

“So I kind of put [Blogger] it on the back burner, back my mind, for a few months. And then I just finally decided to build it sort of on a whim.”

“Originally, we designed it for web geeks, really. It was for ourselves and people who we thought were like us…it was originally designed for a slightly technical crowd who just needed a little content management system.”

“It wasn’t that putting up a site or designing a site was the hard thing or the thing we were trying to solve. It was just the maintenance or posting to it on a regular basis.”

“At the time of the Google acquisition, we were about four years in to Blogger. And I had been, you know, up and down a roller coaster during those four years, from early starting out during the boom, bootstrapping till we launched, raising a little bit of money, running out of money and laying everybody off but me, and then building it back up again.”

It was late 2002 when Google came knocking. At first we didn’t even know why they wanted to talk to us. But of course, they were Google. So we went to talk.”

“You never know what could have been. I mean, it’s hard to say. I think it was developed differently than it would have otherwise. We got a lot of luxuries from Google that there’s no way an independent company would have ever gotten. The priorities changed a lot.”.

“It was actually more efficient to get rid of that income stream than it was to maintain it, because until Blogger was Google-sized, it just wasn’t interesting at the corporate level. So we got to do a lot of cool things and make everything free. But at the same time, blogger wasn’t the highest priority in Google, so we also had to compete for things that we never had to compete with before.”

“It wasn’t a no-brainer decision to do the acquisition for me, exactly, because I’d been so independent and it had been such a long road with Blogger and I thought things were looking up. I went to Google specifically because I thought it was the best path to reach Blogger’s potential. And secondarily because I knew I’d learn more at Google and from the people at Google than any other path.”

“I was always impressed with the speed…the way they tackle the question was always at a higher level or thinking bigger than most people dare to think.”

“The ability to think audaciously huge ideas…changing the metrics on people is a fascinating discipline to have and something that speaks to their phenomenal success.”

“Audio is everywhere. It’s the most ubiquitous medium there is.”

“I thought, well, we’re all about publishing, we’re all about personal publishing and helping people get their voice out there, and we do this with audio, but why does it have to be trapped on the web?”

“I think it’s going to be a rich ecosystem with a lot of opportunities.”

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