Online Exclusive: Profile: Biz Stone, co-founder, Twitter

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is still enjoying the phenomenal success of the social networking site but is under no illusions about the challenges ahead, finds Arun Sudhaman

Biz Stone: co-founder, Twitter
Biz Stone: co-founder, Twitter

For a man credited with revolutionising the way people communicate, Twitter co-founder and creative director Biz Stone appears almost preternaturally relaxed.

That may be because he is ensconced in Cannes’ legendary Majestic Hotel, ahead of a highly anticipated seminar at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, in conjunction with Hill & Knowlton.

Even a volley of questions about Twitter’s continued inability to generate revenue fail to disturb his equilibrium.

‘I don’t get sick of it. It’s good to talk about it as it is something we need to address,’ says the 35-year-old. ‘We’re still working on it and that’s one of the reasons I’m here.’

It is easy to forget that Twitter is less than three years old. Since making the leap from underground phenomenon to mainstream media darling earlier this year, the UK’s fastest-growing website has attracted coverage and devotees in droves.

The corporate world has been quick to recognise Twitter’s potential as a comms channel. Stone admits this development was unexpected, but hardly unwelcome. He points to Dell, Whole Foods and JetBlue as three of the site’s notable brand-building successes.

‘Twitter can be a force for greater corporate transparency,’ says Stone. ‘JetBlue started simply and humbly – it used Twitter to monitor mentions of its brand. Then it found out it could send out rain delays. It experimented with press releases but nothing really happened. We’re seeing companies using Twitter to communicate more effectively and to gather feedback – everyone becomes a little bit smarter and more efficient.’

Stone notes that it is worth brands making ‘a few mistakes’ in the search for an effective Twitter presence. It is an unsurprising comment from a serial entrepreneur, who launched social networking platforms such as Xanga, Blogger and Odeo before teaming up with Jack Dorsey to start Twitter.

‘The idea was to see whether this was a worthwhile, compelling new form of communication,’ he explains. ‘Certain things began to happen that showed us it was. What we did, and what we continue to do, is allow Twitter to tell us what it wants to be.’

Stone expounds on these themes at the H&K seminar later in the day, which attracts a standing-room-only crowd. He explains how Twitter played a critical role in disseminating information during California’s wildfires of 2007, and its earthquake in 2008. He also draws an ovation when he remarks ‘I’m not a good judge of what’s cool’, in a typically self-deprecating aside.

If his social media track record is any guide, Stone must certainly count as an eminent judge of how to communicate. Last month, Twitter became the focal point of the popular opposition to the Iranian election outcome, playing a pivotal role in organising widespread demonstrations.

‘It’s not just Twitter,’ he protests. ‘We’re basically entering a new realm where information is shared in real time.’

When pressed, Stone admits Twitter’s growing clout as a socio-political platform is not entirely unexpected. ‘I’m not going to claim we knew how big an impact Twitter would make in such a short space of time,’ he admits. ‘But I have been working in this field for ten years. I’d seen already how access to information and information-sharing can be very impactful.’

Twitter’s rapid ascent has changed Stone’s life. He seems reasonably unperturbed by this, perhaps recognising it is the price that must be paid if Twitter is to progress beyond an online flash-in-the-pan to a legitimate long-term business. But it does mean he has to classify Sunday as a ‘bonus work day’.

‘I spend my time reflecting on the week and put together an email that sums up the events, and send it out to the team, contractors and board members,’ he says. ‘I think of them as extended family.’

It is a family that is extending rapidly. Twitter has multiplied from a workforce of 12 to 50 in the past six months to keep pace with the company’s growth in traffic and attention. Stone is painfully aware, though, that those questions about revenue need concrete answers if this growth is to be sustained.

With that in mind, he is aiming to generate money from corporate activity on Twitter, via verification of official accounts, and through providing statistical information for commercial clients. ‘What we want to do is start showing monetisation this year,’ he explains. ‘We’re not hurting for money but we want to prove Twitter can be a sustainable and profitable entity on its own.’

After turning down a reported offer of $500m from Facebook, Stone appears to have his eye on a longer-term prize. ‘We really feel like we’re one or two per cent into the journey that is Twitter,’ he says. ‘We’re coming off a year where all we did was fight fires and try to get ahead of the growth from a technical perspective. We’re just entering a phase where we can finally start thinking ahead about the features and services people want from Twitter.’

By then, presumably, the Twitter backlash will be well under way. ‘It’s natural to have that happen,’ says Stone. ‘It seems like there are a lot of people watching every move we make. To some extent that’s intimidating, but we think it’s an opportunity for us to take a crack at some issues beyond just a great product and work environment. It’s a blessing and a curse.’

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