The first episode of HBO’s new series “Silicon Valley” made a running joke out of tech entrepreneurs’ starry-eyed talk of disrupting industries and “making the world a better place” through "integrated multi-platform functionality" and "minimal message-oriented transport layers."
If the repeated jokes--and the show itself--are based on caricatures, then people like Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, are the models for those stereotypes. “We can build a business, change the world, and have fun,” was one of the tenets Stone put in place for Twitter employees as he tried to shape the company’s culture.
Except that in Stone’s case, the lofty world-changing visions have turned out to pack more punch than punchlines (though there has been no shortage of jokes about Twitter). In his new book, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind--released last month, just days before HBO’s show--Stone recaps how Twitter came to be, how it exploded in popularity and even became a 140-character-at-a-time tool for protest and revolution in places like Moldova and Egypt. That's not to mention its current $19 billion market valuation.
Stone, now CEO of startup Jelly, sprinkles anecdotes and life lessons throughout. As a Silicon Valley success story surrounded by other freshly minted multimillionaires, Stone, 40, describes how having a lot of money amplifies who you are as a person: “If you’re a nice person, and then you get money, you become a wonderful philanthropist. But if you’re an asshole, with lots of money, you can afford to be more of an asshole: ‘Why isn’t my soda at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit?’”
Mostly, though, Stone celebrates the virtues of confidence, creativity and idealism, sometimes in ways that are ready-made for an HBO send-up: “It isn’t about how many servers you have or how sophisticated your software is. Those things matter. But what really makes a technology meaningful--to its users and its employees--is how people come to use it to effect change in the world.”
The Fiscal Times spoke with Stone about idealism, the power of technology for good or evil and why his Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey isn’t the “bad guy” he was made out to be in New York Times reporter Nick Bilton’s telling of the startup's story, Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): You write that every company needs an idealist and you describe yourself as playing that role at Twitter. Do you really mean every company--not just startups or tech companies?How do you see the role of the idealist working in business?
Biz Stone: Every company [needs an idealist]--not just startups. I mean nonprofits, big companies, etc.
That isn’t to say that they all do have them, but from an aspirational viewpoint it would be great if every company had a person as optimistic as I am, always looking for the bright spot, always looking for the better way to go, the more positive solution to challenges.
TFT: But are you worried that the idealism you talk about in your book and in your personal history clashes now with some creeping cynicism about technology, especially since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA?
Stone: Idealism for me is, ‘How can we turn a boom time for tech into a good time for everyone?’ If we’re having massive success and there are jobs being created and the city is coming to life, then that should be good for everyone. Unfortunately, this is not happening right now. There is a gap between the haves and have-nots and there’s friction and growing tension. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to work this out and solve this puzzle. It doesn’t conflict with idealism. The idealistic, optimistic viewpoint is, ‘There’s got to be a way to sort this out so that everyone wins.’
That doesn’t happen overnight, obviously. This takes many different groups working together and trying to figure it out. It has to be at a city level, a nonprofit level, a tech leader level. I am just now getting educated and involved in this space. Now that I’m the CEO of a tech company in San Francisco, I can’t help but be drawn into this challenge. I’m meeting with technology leaders, with nonprofits and to a certain extent with city officials, although I try to remain as neutral as possible when it comes to political situations. But I am trying to learn and just get people together, because if there is one thing I can do its reach out to my contacts. My phone calls and emails get answered, so I leverage that my advantage.
TFT: How much do you need to convey that vision of the possibilities of technology, whether it’s Jelly specifically or tech in general, at a time when people might be worried about the dangers of technology?
Stone: A hammer can be used to build a house or it can kill a man. It comes to this, really, to what I refer to as my ordered list: No. 1, people; No. 2, technology. All change that occurs in the world is driven by people who reach for the most available, easy-to-access technology to do whatever it is that they want to get done. And if Twitter is that or Jelly is that, they’ll use it if it’s easy enough. It’s about brave men and women thinking it’s time to make a change and leveraging technology to their advantage.
Then, of course, you’ll have bad actors who are going to use technology to go the other way. However, this goes back to my idealism, and in this case my idealism is backed up by real science: People are fundamentally good and they are wired to cooperate and help each other. If this were not true, we wouldn’t have cities, we wouldn’t have buildings, I wouldn’t be talking to you on a phone. We would just all kill each other constantly. One thing that I have learned over 15 years of building collaborative systems is that more than 95 percent of people on these systems are good. That is a microcosm of the entire world: There’s far more good than bad.
TFT: You’ve been summed up the nice guy, the good guy, in the Twitter story. Generally that’s been written as a positive thing, though sometimes it hasn’t. Having gone through everything that you have gone through--before, during and after Twitter--how does that sit with you?
Stone: This is what I have believed all along: Everyone involved in Twitter was honestly acting and doing things that they thought were going to benefit the company. Even if it might have been at odds with someone else or it clashed with someone else’s idea, everyone had the best of intentions. And while certain meeting and facts and so forth [in Nick Bilton’s book about Twitter] are true, it’s absolutely not true that Jack [Dorsey] is the Count of Monte Cristo holing himself up for years in a cave plotting revenge. Jack is one of the nicest, sweetest persons I have ever met and he is an extremely valuable friend.
Basically, was happened was there has to be the bad guy. Unfortunately, Jack got that role and that is not who he is. He is a quiet, soft-spoken artist and really a very thoughtful person. He is on my list of favorite people in the world.
TFT: Has it struck you at all that sometimes "nice guy" has been used not in the most complementary or positive way?
Stone: Not really. The only thing I was worried about was that maybe I would come across as being too naïve. That maybe this positivism and idealism was just naiveté. But I don’t mind if some people think that because I decided that I am going to live my life this way and it has worked out really well for me, so I am going to keep doing it.
TFT: You’ve done books, movies, companies, a whole bunch of stuff. How do you stay focused?
Stone: I left Twitter and I noodled for a while. That’s when I decided to write a book, that’s when I directed a show, that’s when I started doing some investing, and that’s when I helped Evan [Williams] start Medium. But once I came up with the idea for Jelly with my friend Ben [Finkel] and once we decided to make a company out of it--everything else fell away.
Now I am completely focused on being the CEO of Jelly. That’s my job now. The thing I like best in the world is helping other people and Jelly, at its most fundamental, is a system that allows people to help each other. It’s just the perfect project for me to be working on and developing. Even if it fails--even then I would look back and say that was the right thing to do.
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