Biz Stone represents different things to different people, most famously he is known for co-founding Twitter with Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Noah Glass. Not content with only one global smash, Biz again teamed up with Evan Williams to co-found Medium. Repeated success has rightfully led to Biz being viewed globally as a startup legend. He is now CEO and co-founder of Jelly, an author, filmmaker, prominent philanthropist and a fellow at both Oxford and Berkeley Universities.
He has received recognition from the likes of TIME magazine who named him as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World and the even more impressive accolade of being named by GQ as Nerd of the year. However, putting his many amazing achievements and repeated success aside, for those who have had the opportunity to meet Biz, the thing which strikes you most about him, is his authenticity and humility.
I met Biz for the first time when he was in the UK, and spent the day with him, during which he gave a fireside chat. I also took part in a workshop with Biz and Jelly co-founder and CTO Ben Finkel. I pride myself on being a very good judge of character and the conclusion I arrived at very quickly was Biz is a very humble, honest and sincere guy, who (unlike many who have achieved such a high level of success) has stayed true to himself and remained very grounded. There are many things about Biz’s background and career that I relate to and it’s been a pleasure to stay in contact with him. Taking time out of his busy schedule I caught up with Biz earlier this week for the following interview.
Biz, Thanks for taking the time for this interview, How how has life been treating you?
I’m always happy to help you, Life is wonderful. I have a lovely wife, a bright young boy, I enjoy my work, and I have wealth such that I may help many others who are not as lucky as myself.
What is your knowledge and opinion of the Irish Tech Ecosystem?
My knowledge of the Irish Tech Ecosystem comes mostly from my friend Eoghan McCabe—a very bright and savvy entrepreneur. Many years ago when Twitter was just getting started, Eoghan sent me a note saying that he and some friends were going to visit the US and would I like to have a beer with them. I said yes. Many years later, Eoghan came back to San Francisco and I was the first to invest in his company, Intercom.io. Which, today, is a powerhouse and doing extremely well.
Do you believe that it is possible for globally successful startups to scale from Ireland or do you believe a pre-requisite of being a global success is relocating to SF Bay Area?
My friend Eoghan is proving that it is possible for Irish startups to be a global success. A large part of his team is in Ireland (the most important part—engineering) while he also has offices in San Francisco.
Your first startup was Xanga in 1999, which was shortly before the dot-com bubble burst. Do you believe we are approaching another bubble burst?
No, I don’t believe we’re in a bubble. We do have some overvalued companies. But, I believe that enduring companies eventually settle into their authentic value. I believe that if a company offers value, that is, if a company offers a service that is used in a way that people come to depend on for a good amount of time, then profits and long term business will follow.
You worked with Evan Williams at Google on the Blogger team, how was that?
It was a dream job. I felt like Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory. Joining Google in only it’s third year of operation, being there during their IPO, and staying for a year after allowed me to see what that was like—it was quite the introduction to Silicon Valley coming from Boston.
Working with Evan, an intellectual peer with a different approach was also a fantastic experience. I learned much from him and continue to do so as a member of the board of directors of Medium, his latest startup.
In your book “Things a little bird told me” you talk about the power of creativity and how to harness it. Would you advise the 20-year-old Biz to do anything differently or would you prefer he did everything the same?
Whenever I’m asked if I could go back in time and give my former self-advice, I always say that I would abstain from doing so. My life has worked out so well despite the many mistakes I’ve made that I fear any change to the chain of events might cause it to turn out not so good.
Twitter gave a voice to the voiceless and news became real time. As a Twitter Co-Founder, what are your thoughts on fake news and attempts by social networks to stop it?
I’m proud of the fact that both blogging and Twitter gave voice to the voiceless. In many cases, these tools have made a big difference in people’s lives. However, as with any tool, it can also be used for ill purposes—the spread of fake news and hate speech in particular.
While these large-scale systems, to a point, become self-policing like society itself, that is not enough to stop those who are determined. In the early days, it was only spam we fought a never ending battle with using algorithms and a very large team of people.
The attempts to stop Fake news and other negative aspects social media tools is in their early days. It seems that social media and social networks are using spam fighting techniques to battle fake news. I don’t think this will work because it is reactive rather than proactive.
I invented the Follow Model at Twitter so that people could decide for themselves what content they would like delivered to them. At Jelly, we have implemented a more proactive system for combating fake news called the Trust Model. People earn the trust of others on our network only when they have proven themselves helpful and therefore worthy. This could be the beginning of a larger answer to the problem.
Did you get the gift of Google Home? Add some Jelly! pic.twitter.com/97AkZA7r0w
— Biz Stone (@biz) December 26, 2016
Can you explain what Jelly is and why people should use it?
Jelly is a search engine with the core assumption that for certain questions, a person can help better than a web document. We index questions as they come in, and we index the people who sign up to answer. This allows us to route a question to a person who knows the answer. People should use Jelly when their questions are of a more subjective nature.
When revitalizing your startup Jelly, You famously coined the term “Unpivot” can you explain the reason why you did that?
When version one of Jelly failed to gain traction, we “pivoted.” This is a common term in Silicon Valley. It means we decided to work on something else. But then we realized we were no longer working on what we loved. I knew we would get ridiculed for changing our minds yet again. I made up the term un-pivot as a diversion so people would have a laugh and more importantly, take a look at us again.
I have been amazed how precise the question targeting on Jelly are, it’s almost like Jelly reads my mind, have you had lots of feedback like this?
Thank you for saying that. The targeting gets better with every question and every answer. We have built a system that learns every time people interact with it. It’s called, “human in the loop AI.” A kind of machine learning where we use people to teach the machines. It’s working very nicely.
— Biz Stone (@biz) December 17, 2016
When I was last with you, you mentioned you have “an almost hallucinogenic optimistic aspiration for humanity in the next 1000 years” can you share that vision with our readers?
Sure. In a nutshell, it’s global cooperation. If we didn’t think of ourselves as citizens of a certain country, If we tolerated one another religious beliefs and other personal preferences. Then we might consider ourselves citizens of Earth. If we were to cooperate on a global scale, humanity would move forward positively very quickly. If we could just manage to drop knowledge instead of bombs, we’d be in and infinitely better position to make the dream of global cooperation possible.
Thank you Biz, I really appreciate you making time to talk, it’s been a pleasure to interview you.
If you would like to learn more about Biz, I would totally recommend reading his book “Things a little bird told me” in which Biz discusses the power of creativity and how to harness it, through stories from his remarkable life and career. You can order “Things a little bird told me” here.