News Column

Twitter millionaire

June 22, 2014

Akshita Nanda Arts Correspondent

How does a college drop-out deep in debt end up seven years later holding a patent on popular social media app Twitter and having a net worth of millions?

"Hallucinogenic optimism," says Christopher Isaac "Biz" Stone, who co-founded the micro-blogging site in 2006 with other IT stars Evan Williams, Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey.

California-based Stone is on the telephone from London, where he is promoting his memoir, Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions Of The Creative Mind, published in April by Grand Central Publishing in the United States and Pan Macmillan in the United Kingdom.

According to the memoir - which the 40-year-old says he wrote in just two months - he remained in debt until 2010, when he sold some of his shares in Twitter to private investors. Twitter went public in September last year and today, Forbes magazine estimates his net worth at US$200 million (S$250 million).

Yet Stone still drives a Volkswagen Hatchback, a family car which he describes as "perfect for his needs" - he and wife Livia, a book editor and animal rescuer, have a son who is nearly three years old.

He has bought his mother a house. "I've bought several people houses," he adds on the subject of money. "That's the nice thing about making it, you can take care of people who need it."

There is no doubt that he has made it. He left Twitter in 2011 and he now runs a new start-up, Jelly, with Ben Finkel. Twitter co-founders Dorsey and Williams are on board as investors, as is former US vice-president Al Gore.

Jelly launched its first product this January, a social media app of the same name, which allows users to post and answer questions related to images and photographs. Using it is like playing an addictive quiz game with questions ranging from "What kind of lizard is this?" to technical queries about car engines, questions about books and what to order in restaurants. Users can send "thank you" cards to those who answer or positively rate others' contributions.

So how does Stone expect to make money from Jelly? He says: "In this business, it's a little cart before the horse to think about how you're going to build a revenue model. You need to prove there is value in the service model first. There really is no such thing as an app with 100 million users that doesn't make money. You really have to reach that scale first."

It is a business model that worked for Twitter and for him, and one of several ideas he delivers at an annual lecture at Oxford University. Apart from being a fellow at one of Britain's most revered educational institutions, he has an honorary doctor of laws from Babson College in his hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts.

When he dressed up in cap and robes to deliver a commencement address at the college in 2011, it pleased his mother no end.

"I'm pretty sure my mum thought I was graduating," he says, laughing. "When I was a little kid, I told her I wanted to be an inventor and a businessman. I hold the patent for inventing Twitter and I'm currently a chief executive and I've got an honorary doctorate of laws from Babson College, so I did what I said I would do."

In addition, he was named Nerd Of The Year by GQ magazine in 2009 and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people that same year. Was his nickname "Biz" a self-fulfilling prophecy?

"When I was young, I couldn't say 'Christopher', I said 'Biz-ah-bah'. My mum thought it was funny and started calling me that," he explains. "She used to tell people 'Biz' was short for Elizabeth."

He had worse problems in his growing years. His parents divorced when he was a child - his father is an auto-mechanic and Stone stopped seeing him in high school.

"We were very poor, we were on welfare," he says. "My mum didn't have a career. I worked starting at age nine. Every few years, she would sell our house and buy another one in town, a slightly lesser house, until we got to high school and our house had a dirt floor. It was a horse stable we were living in."

In the book, he writes about how he told his teachers he could not do homework because his after-school job at a grocery store helped his family make ends meet. He graduated and won enough scholarships for a year at Northeastern University. He dropped out to design book covers for publisher Little, Brown, then left that for his own design business and eventually the start-up review site Xanga.

After leaving Xanga, he got into Google on the team of its then newly acquired blog utility Blogger. He had the job of

"humanising" the application for its users, and making it easier for laypeople to use.

Blogger was the brainchild of Stone's future Twitter collaborator, Williams. Stone's use of it - in the faux online persona of a multi-millionaire angel investor named Biz Stone, Genius - caught Williams' attention and led to a job offer.

Stone and Williams later left Google to form start-ups Odeo (an audio-sharing platform that could not match the popularity of iTunes and podcasts) and then, software company Obvious, which was the parent of today's Twitter.

The early job changes sunk his finances - he went into debt to pay for a car to drive from Wellesley to Google's headquarters in California. He and Livia could not afford a bed, so they slept on the carpet of their rented apartment.

From 2006 to 2010, he remained stone broke. Today, every author, artist and actor, not to mention politician and major corporation, has a Twitter account but, at the start, the micro-blogging site was plagued with software crashes. Stone's shares in Twitter meant little in real money terms.

The social media utility gained traction with the 2008 US presidential campaign, as candidates such as current US President Barack Obama used it to reach out to voters.

Hollywood celebrities jumped on the bandwagon too. A year later, Twitter hit the headlines again as political uprisings in Iran and Egypt were reportedly co-ordinated via the social media app.

In 2010, as Twitter gained 100 million users, Stone cleared his debts by selling some of his shares in Twitter to private investors, even before the initial public offering.

Money is a great by-product of his career but Stone makes it clear that it is the "creative process" that fascinates him. That is why he left the job security of Google to start Twitter in 2006 and then five years later quit Twitter on a high to start again at close to the bottom with Jelly.

Optimism carries him forward, the same attitude that led him when flat broke, to create a fake online persona in his blog as the owner of "Genius Labs", a whim that caught the attention of Twitter co-founder Williams.

"It's just better to go through life being nice to people and having a positive attitude," Stone says. "If you're sleeping on the floor, at least there is a carpet. Positivity is a good thing."

Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions Of The Creative Mind by Biz Stone retails at $24 before GST and is available at all major bookstores.

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Source: Sunday Times (Islamabad)

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