A version of this article first appeared on http://sarahpaddleswim.wordpress.com. Simon Cocking specialises in covering Dublin tech / start up / innovation events. You can find him on Twitter @SimonCocking
Nick Bilton’s 2013 book Hatching Twitter, is an entertaining read about the roller coaster experience of the original founders of Twitter. One after another all of them ended up becoming surplus to requirements and removed from the company.
Bilton managed to talk to all of the key players, to get their perspective on what happened to them and the company as it quickly grew. He has tried to show each of them in a rounded way. It’s good, and it’s crazy. Founders Noah, Jack, Ev, Biz, all eventually get sucked in, chewed up and spat out the other side, no longer part of the organisation. Steve Jobs, the founders of Twitter and many others have had the bitter experience of being displaced from a company they founded. It’s a difficult, strange and unpleasant experience. Reading this book, the almost Shakespearean inevitable fall of each Twitter CEO, it makes you wonder.
Was it avoidable?
When it happens to you, you look at what happened. Retrace events, and try to see if you could have played it differently. It seems similar to the way Stalin came to power. Trotsky was the brightest and the best of a talented group of individuals, the glamorous, successful leader in battle. Stalin the mere bureaucrat in the background, dealing with the paper work. However gradually, insidiously, he out manoeuvred the other lesser lights. Eventually reaching a point where he had enough of his own yes men in place, to finally take on and oust Trotsky. Trotsky finally meeting his grim end in the beautiful neighbourhood of Coyocan, Mexico DF. A lover of Fridha Karlo, but not safe from the henchmen of the KGB. The room where he died left untouched from that day and now a museum. At no point here should we advocate Stalin’s approach, but it does seem to be an early illustration of the transition from storming, to forming to norming, and how some are suited more to one than the other.
Is this always how it plays out?
With each step you believe you are doing the right thing, but you don’t want to be a complete tyrant to those you work with. You’re not that sort of person. Trouble is, in doing so, each time around, with Twitter, with Steve Jobs, by acting in a reasonable way, it leaves you open for being brought down by others more devious and less bothered by such principles. Jack Dorsey was able to usurp Ev Williams because they left him on the board in a silent partner role. Trouble was, he didn’t stay silent. Instead he plotted, planned, and connived until, against all the odds, he reached a point where he had enough momentum to successfully undermined the majority shareholder of the company, Ev Williams.
While each member of the team had enough leverage to undermine and overthrow the previous CEO, none of the original founders had enough of the skills to successfully discharge the role themselves. This suggests things might have run smoother if they had worked as a team, together, for longer. In Dublin at least, and Sillicon Valley too it seems, start ups suffer from role confetti. Team members rush to call themselves CEO, COO, CTO, or whatever the next Chief of something position is.
It’s clear from the experiences of Twitter and others, it is a massive challenge to remain the right person for the role when your company suddenly goes through the roof in terms of the numbers it is dealing with. Some companies ride it out, by managing the growth carefully, if they can, though sometimes it’s like trying to stay on the back of a bolting horse. It may look like you know where the horse is going, but that’s only because you haven’t fallen off yet. New investors often feel the original founders are too off the wall, too out there. While this was what initially caused the company to come into life and flower. Subsequently it is often felt there has been enough innovation and blue sky thinking. Time to knuckle down and focus on kpi’s, quarterly targets and all the other things, which, while useful, can also leave the original founders looking out of their depth or isolated.
This seemed to happen to many many people involved in Twitter and other companies too. The challenge for us is to try and keep learning from our own lessons and the experiences of others, and hope we can grow as our companies grow.
It would be really interesting to hear the thoughts of others on managing this challenge.