about this episode
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From the LAUNCH Festival 2013 stage. Jason sits down for an epic interview with Evan Williams of Twitter and Obvious
1:00 Thank you to ShareFile for sponsoring the show and providing such a great product!
3:30 Welcome Evan Williams!!
4:15 Was there a point when you were making Twitter that you knew what it would become?
6:26 Do you think that Twitter’s elegant simplicity was key to its success?
8:14 What does Vine mean for Twitter?
8:43 What is so special about Vine?
9:31 What is the thread between your ventures? What do you find so appealing about publishing?
12:05 Blogging was disruptive in its day, what is Medium trying to fix/disrupt?
13:25 Increase frequency, lower quality: do you think that’s collapsed on itself now?
16:03 How much of what Medium is, do you already know? How much did you know when you started?
19:02 What do you think of the Model S?
20:04 When you see a product like that as an entrepreneur, does it make you rethink your entrepreneurial process?
20:50 Talk about the collections on Medium
23:01 Is the ability for people to build a cohort of like-minded ideas the secret metric?
23:48 You hired a book agent to work on this project? What was the thought behind this?
25:45 Thank you GoToMeeting, I love it, it works flawlessly!!
28:20 Is Medium a reaction to the noisy, rabid page view addiction styled websites?
30:22 The economics of publishing is a big part of the problem today? Writers are incentivized to get more views not be accurate?
31:40 Are you inclined to think that native advertising and sponsor messages are not the future and paying some kind of subscription is more aligned with your vision?
33:03 How about the Huffington Post blended model?
33:46 What do you think of the Flipboards of the world? People aggregating stuff together? Is that a bridge like RSS readers were?
34:03 Do you use it?
35:11 What will success be for Medium?
36:30 What is it that you’ve learned as an entrepreneur that matters?
38:27 Thoughts about Google?
39:11 Thoughts on Apple?
42:37 Thoughts on Facebook?
46:55 Tell me about Beyond Meat
48:21 What do you think of the state of the affairs when people can deny things such as climate change?
50:27 Give it up for Evan Williams!
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JASON: I had a short list of people, I wanted to do the fireside chats with, at the event. One of them was Chamath Palihapitiya. Another one was actually, Mark Cuban, who could not make it. He sends his regrets. He is going to come next year. The other one was Evan Williams amongst the shortlist. Evan is a serial entrepreneur, as you know, who did Blogger, Twitter, and Medium. It is just a really insightful guy, who I got to know over the years. So, please join me welcoming Evan Williams to the stage. He likes to get two rounds of applause. It is a standard presenter trick. Please, welcome to stage Evan Williams. Hey, brother.
EVAN: Good to see you. I am just saying that this most casual backstage, I have ever seen. In fact, no one said, “Hey, you should go back on the stage.”
JASON: Yeah. Go actually on the stage and do a fireside chat.
EVAN: Good to be here. Thanks.
JASON: Yeah. Thanks for coming. Twitter came up in the last day and a half at the event, conservatively, ten times on every panel. When you made the product and you got it in the market, was there a point at which you knew it was going to become what it is become? It’s a cultural global phenomenon involved in so much of our lives. It is our identities; obviously, you know these things. It has become global in a way that I do not think anybody has ever anticipated. Was there a specific moment you can point to say, “That was the tipping point?”
EVAN: No. I wish there was, because I get asked that question a lot, and it will be great, if there is like right then. But I think these things happen over time. They sort of unfold, and you realize that is something different. I mean there is the one, everybody knows about it, like 2007 SXSW South-by-Southwest, which people called the Twitter’s launch, but it was nine months after we launched. Nevertheless, it was definitely a tipping point, and it was interesting, because it was the first glimmer of, “This is not just a social what-my-friends-are-doing thing, it’s a real-time information layer, which added a new aspect to this whole event.” Then, there was a thing after thing. Later that year, there were wildfires in Southern California, and the Delhi fire department and the Red Cross were using it to spread information. Maybe, this is a thing. I remember traveling to Chicago on a very late flight, arriving at a hotel, turning on the TV, and seeing Anderson Cooper telling people to follow @cnn, so they could be “Ashton Kutcher” to a million of followers, and the next morning I was going on the Oprah Winfrey Show. OK. That is a new sort of level that we were at, but it just kept going. And all that time, Chris Sacca would text me, “This is big.” That became as BIG. It is BIG. And we started to get a sense, that it was big.
JASON: And the product was so simple, you know, in its iteration, and it remains sort of very simple. Do you think that elegant simplicity was the key to success? Because when you showed it to me at brunch here in San Francisco, I do not know if you remember my initial response, but I think I said… The way you explained it to me, initially, was it is like a blog post, but without the post. And I said, “Ev, that’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
EVAN: We have never been good at explaining it.
JASON: That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. The blog post is the important part, not the headline. Do you know what your response was? You do not remember, do you?
JASON: You said, “Not everybody can write the blog post.”
EVAN: It’s true.
JASON: It was almost like reductionism, in a way, I mean.
EVAN: Yeah. I give a talk at Web 2.0 [Summit], a couple of years ago, about how after working on Blogger for many years, it was always, “How do we add more features? How do we have more features?” Then, this was only in retrospect, it occurred to me, like, that was the same thing minus all the features. The simplicity is, you know, just one aspect. I do not think you can say that is why it was successful, and go out. Like, here is the simplest thing ever, it is a button. It is a holistic system. Moreover, if you can accomplish a lot, while staying very simple, that is amazing, but usually, there is complexity on the other side of simplicity. Many people still tell us Twitter is hard to use, it is too confusing. Therefore, the simplicity is sort of a bit of a Red herring, I think, in terms of what made it successful. It could be simpler, but yet, it also needs to get more powerful.
JASON: Vine [@vineapp] has been an amazing, I do not want to say, second act, but it is an amazing second complete new experience inside of the company. I see you use it a lot. What does that mean for Twitter? I know you are not running the company, but what kind of impact has Vine had? What does that mean for the future of the company?
EVAN: That is super early for Vine, and I am not running the company, I am on the board, but cannot really speak on behalf the company. Vine is super exciting. I am a fan of Vine. I cannot claim any credit for Vine.
JASON: What is so special about it?
EVAN: I think, in many ways, why I like it, is it captures the essence of what Twitter did in some ways for video. It is one of the first forms, which actually said, “OK. We are not just duplicating what we have before, which is the process for the discovery of every new platform, every new medium. What uniquely make sense here, everything from the creation interface to the six-second limit. It is a new way to tell stories, and it is a perfect complement to Twitter, because it allows you to tell a story about what is happening right now in a way, you did not have before. It expands the palette.
JASON: And so, now when you look at your career from Blogger to Twitter and, now, you are doing Medium and Obvious Corp, what is the thread? I mean, you have built, now, three publishing platforms, what is it about publishing and individuals’ publishing that you find so appealing? Why is that your skill on this planet Earth?
EVAN: I sort of stumbled on to it. I was always interested in publishing, and I think, if not for the Internet and computers, I made a better writer. I always love magazines. I think Medium illustrates that the best, because we started Obvious Corp a couple of years ago, when we restarted Obvious, and we did not really have a plan, but in the back of my mind, I had. I really wanted to do what is now Medium, but I had told myself and my partners, “You know what? I am just stuck in a rut. All I can think about is publishing platforms, so let us explore other things for a while.” And we did that. And we incubated some companies and invested in some companies, they all are really exciting projects, and it was intellectually stimulating, but I learned two things, one was that I really want to focus on building the company and a product, so that’s mostly what I am doing. And I came back to Medium, because it was the intersection of three things. At this point, it’s so in my wheelhouse, in what I think about, I thought I could do it well, which is important, and, two, I saw a market opportunity, which is very big and will exist in a window of time, and, three, it seemed like it matter. I mean at this point having an impact is at the top on my list of criteria in deciding what to do. And I just think that information that we consume that, in facts, are the discussion of society, “How we make decisions? How we live our lives?” I have always gotten a tremendous amount of information from reading the web, reading magazines, reading books, and I think there are so much more to be done. It is just, “I can’t not focus on it.” And Medium incorporates ideas that I literally had in 2000, and wanted to build in Blogger, and prototyped, and I still have not seen done. That could mean they were terrible ideas, but I cannot help but explore them. And it is just something about helping people share knowledge and information, I find inspiring. It feels like it’s fundamental to all kinds of other things that we do, because people learn from it and do new things.
JASON: Blogger was incredibly disruptive, and blogging overall as a category, to traditional mainstream media, and obviously Twitter with people reporting the news themselves and citizen journalism. You know we would talk about citizen journalism, but then Twitter actually manifested that. What is Medium manifesting? What is it correcting against? Because you are sort of alluding to something is broken right now in media. Is something broken and what is it?
EVAN: Well, we can do better. I would put it that way. And I think there are some trends that are not necessarily encouraging in terms of the professional side of media. The Internet has dropped the cost of distribution, which has caused a flood of new information, and the incentives reward frequency and keeping costs low, when it comes to creating content, and therefore, we see more stuff faster and faster, and sort of a disincentive against investing in any particular piece of content. So just the way we have decided to organize the web, which is put the new thing on top. If volume increases that means things disappear much more quickly. And so, that rewards particular type of content.
JASON: Increased frequency, lower quality. You built the tools to enable that, in a way. I mean, Blogger and Twitter were tools to go faster and to go cheaper. Do you feel like that collapsed on itself, now?
EVAN: I think there are other things to do. If you look at the web very generally, what we have always measured the web by, is unique visitors and page views. That is useful information. It’s much more information than you ever got as a publisher of your print magazine, but we can know so much more, like, “Did someone not just look at this, but did they read it? Did they get all the way to the end? What did they think about it?” Now, we would pay attention, if they shared it, but we have mostly cared about that, so it gets distributed more, so we get more page views and unique visitors. And so we wanted to figure out what the meaningful feedback is, that not only rewards quality, but also helps people, who are publishing things, writing things improve. And that is one aspect of it. Another big one for Medium is that I was personally motivated, because I want to work with other people in creating, and exploring ideas, and presenting them. And this is what media organizations do. Although, you know, they have pressure on their cost, but the Internet has historically been fantastic in bringing people together to create something better than they can do themselves. Two huge examples, of course, are Wikipedia and all open-source software. The Internet does that uniquely, but we do not apply that really to this category of content: article typed, knowledge sharing. It has been tried with news, but news is probably not ideal for it. How can we do that? The very simple things we can potentially do, like getting another set of eyeballs on your piece. There are some efforts, but it is not the default. The default is, if you are going to publish on the Internet and you are not part of the media organization, you write something yourself, you edit it yourself, you publish it yourself, you market it yourself. It’s great that you can do all that, but that’s not going to lead to the best-quality product. If we have all these other people in the world, who can potentially collaborate with you, let’s make that happen. Those are a couple of the ideas behind Medium, and it is just, like, saying, “What is the Internet good at?” It is lowering cost of distribution and increasing speed is one thing, we done that. Now, let’s work on the other things.
JASON: How much of what Medium is do you already know? And how much did you know, when you started? Because having known you now, through two companies, and you know, both being involved in blogging, you feel very intuitive in how you build products, but I do not think that you build a five-year plan and a road map, am I correct?
EVAN: You are correct. Yes.
JASON: On this Medium journey, you know, how you have explained it to me today, here on stage, there is a lot more than when we first talked about it.
EVAN: It will be different in six months I am sure. The long-term vision will not change, what we are going for, I do not think it will change, but how I describe it, will change, and what I think the really important elements are, will change. This is the way I developed products, and you discover them over time. Even going back to that Twitter story, the really key huge insight we had around 2009, I think, when we… Remember, when we changed the question from, “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” That was after we realize, you know, Twitter is not about status updates to my friends, it is an information network, not a social network. It is also a social network to a degree. And that is where a lot people use it for, but what you really want to emphasize was this real-time information, that came after a couple of years in. Then we started tweaking the product in that direction. We had a search, we put more emphasis on trends, the way we design Retweet button, and all were about maximizing the efficient flow of whatever information is important to you. It was a very different than if we would have maximized for making interpersonal connections. So with Medium already in the last six months, we have changed how we approached the idea of what publishing is. At first, if people check on Medium, right away, we had these big images, full-page images, we get rid of those, because we realize, if we launch with that, we would just be a photo-sharing site, but these things evolved slowly for me. Matt Mullenweg said, “Usage for your product is like oxygen for ideas.” I am paraphrasing, and I believe that is true. I do look at what people do with the product, but it is not about data analysis or listening to feedback and saying, “They should do this.” It is just you realize in real time, as you are doing and you are like, “Oh! That thing is not important, this thing over here is important.” Then, you nudge in that direction, and then, in retrospect, you look back and like, “Oh! Yeah. We really planned, we were doing that all along.” That’s what it is.
JASON: The collections to me seem like a key part of this. I put an article up there. It got added to other people’s collections. I added to a collection. It forced me to say, “What is this piece? What is the bigger narrative of this piece you are writing? Was it a piece about the Supercharger network for the Model S, the Tesla’s?” You have one.
EVAN: I do. Thanks to you. Well, not that you give me the Tesla, but you encouraged me to give the Tesla a try.
JASON: I took you for a test drive, as I got it.
EVAN: Yes. It is amazing. Should we talk about the Tesla?
JASON: Let us talk about it for a minute. People care about it. What do you think of that? You are a product builder. What do you think of the Model S?
EVAN: It is amazing. It’s the best car ever made, in my opinion. Not that I have tried all the cars, but if you consider from a practical perspective, something you can drive around town, and it is an amazing experience. And just technologically, a leap beyond everything before. I think it’s amazing.
JASON: When you see a product like that as an entrepreneur, does it make you rethink your entrepreneurial process?
EVAN: I thought you were going to say, “Does it make you rethink while you’re helping people to put their words on the Internet?”
JASON: No, words are important historically. Yeah. And so is transportation, but words are somewhat important. But I mean, just as an entrepreneur to see Elon Musk take that huge leap of cars and new cars.
EVAN: It’s very inspiring.
JASON: It’s kind of mind-blowing.
EVAN: It is super mind-blowing. You know Elon well, I know. I do not know him as well, but to see that kind of ambition and just “going for it” in Silicon Valley, is inspiring to me I’d hope they do fantastic.
JASON: Yeah. Talk about the collections on Medium, because it did ask me to say, “What is this? What collection is this?” Right?
EVAN: Most people, probably, not that familiar with it, but I explain what we are trying to do. We are trying to give context to what people publish, and create a system where the whole becomes more than some of the parts. The collection model is basically a bucket, it is kind of like a tag, but it is more structured than a tag, and things can live in more than one collection. What it does, is it frames content. So you wrote your Tesla thing and what was the question? Do you remember? Whatever!
JASON: Four-five months ago. Yeah.
EVAN: Say, it’s like transportation.
JASON: Yeah. It is transportation. No, mind-blowing ideas.
EVAN: Mind-blowing ideas, so there you go. The mind-blowing idea is free transportation for life. Therefore, that is a mind-blowing idea, so that makes me think what are the other mind-blowing ideas? Oh! I got the mind-blowing idea, but that can also be posted to a collection, I created, called ‘We live in the future.’ The fact that does exist. So I created that collection, because I was looking at my iPhone, I was thinking about the maps and the fact that we always know where we are, and it’s completely foreign to us to be lost now.
JASON: It is kind of mind-blowing. I cannot remember the last time I was lost.
EVAN: We do not get lost anymore.
JASON: We used to get lost all the time.
EVAN: Absolutely. It was scary.
JASON: We do live in the future.
EVAN: We live in the future.
JASON: And now, you got me thinking about my ‘We live in the future.’
EVAN: Exactly. So there are all these things that, and so, it frames ideas in a way that creates more ideas. That is what we are trying to do with the collections. So in every collection, there is a prompt for writing something, it is also a prompt for another collection, which is a new way to frame it, which is a prompt for writing more stuff. There are also discovery mechanisms and also collaborative, so if I write about my mind-blowing idea, you write about a mind-blowing idea, and someone else inspired, then people are in a mind-blowing ideas collection, instead of all these just be in our blogs or wherever, can get the mind-blowing ideas.
JASON: Is that your secret metric, the ability for people to build this cohort of like-minded ideas and be inspired? Is that what you are optimizing for? How many more collections and stories came from your story about “We do not get lost?”
EVAN: We do not have a secret metric yet. I’ll consider that one.
JASON: Well, and then getting to the bottom of the page is also an interesting metric. You are recording that one how far down the page people get, aren’t you?
EVAN: We are recording a rough heuristic for “reads.” I do not know if you check your stats, but you get page-views, and you get what we called “reads,” which is, “Were they there long enough and did they get mostly through it?” And then we record “recommends,” as we called it, which are versions of “like.”
JASON: You hired somebody who is a book agent to work on this project. That got a lot of press. Who was the person? What was the idea there?
EVAN: Yeah. I heard that fantastic woman, named Kate Lee, who is heading up our editorial team in New York, and doing something different with this publishing platform, than others, and where we have an editorial team. So instead of just opening the doors and hoping that good stuff shows up, we are actually making sure good stuff shows up by having a team of editors. We do not have paid writers on staff, but we have a team of editors, whose job is twofold: it has to commission and solicit good stuff from the world that might not otherwise show up. Bret Easton Ellis, for example, wrote a post last week about his new novel. It was through these literary connections in New York, and then, their job is also to curate the good stuff that is coming in, organically. You can see there is a bootstrapping strategy. Obviously, the payout of Medium, it works best, if it is a marketplace and there are lots of consumers coming there to get the good stuff, and there are creators coming there, because that’s where they can more easily get attention, and so we need to bootstrap that. And it is not as easy, it is not like a tweet, people are not just going to do it, it is not as easy, and we do not expect the ratio of creators to consumers to be the same as something like Twitter or Instagram. The point is not to lower the barriers far as possible to get everybody creating, it is to get the maximum audience for the really good stuff. And so, that is why we have an editorial team. We will see, how it goes. It is fairly experimental, but if we are trying to create something big, so it should pay off.
JASON’S AD: Hey, everybody. What a great episode, we are having here. And it’s so easy and delightful for me to tell you about GoToMeeting, because I have been using it for six-seven-eight years, I cannot even remember, when I first got my GoToMeeting, but I can tell you that, when I am on a meeting that’s not GoToMeeting, I freak out, because nothing ever works. And when I am on GoToMeeting, it is just “meeting is believing,” because everything works flawlessly. I use it all the time. And one of the things I love to do with it is to switch, who is the presenter. Alternatively, I can request the keyboard and the mouse, and I can do actions on the other person’s computers. Therefore, they could be showing me their deck, but I can be controlling their slides. Or I could say, “Hey, let’s have this person control the meeting for a little bit,” then I could switch it to another person, and we can be in the chat room taking notes together. I have been on board calls, where I am putting my notes into the chat room, other people are chatting, so one person is giving a presentation, the rest of us are piling up our questions for the board discussion. Therefore, it is really just super effective, and works great. It is the solution for people with clients and co-workers in different locations or on the go. Hosting online meetings with GoToMeeting, launch or join meetings from anywhere, and you can use your computer, smart-phone, tablet, any of those devices, and I used my iPad Mini the other day as a secondary device, so I was logged in twice, on my laptop using my camera there for me, and then, I took my iPad Mini, and I used that as a camera, that I could show an iPad. I was using my iPad camera to show an iPhone demo, which is crazy. I have multiple inputs of video and stuff like that, going on on GoToMeeting, is brilliant. And it all works flawlessly. They really focus on making it actually work. So, you do not have those moments during the meeting whether technology is getting in the way of moving you forward through the meeting. That is the thing that makes me crazy, when the technology is holding you back, not enabling you. And the beautiful HD faces work on Mac and PCs. Visit GoToMeeting, click on the “Try It Free” button, and use the promo code TWIST. Go to GoToMeeting. Click on “Try It Free.” Use the promo-code TWIST. GoToMeeting: meeting is believing. And you can get a free thirty-day trial by going to GoToMeeting, clicking on the “Try It Free” button, and using the promo-code TWIST. Let us all take a moment to thank @GoToMeeting on our Twitter accounts, Facebook, et cetera. And when the sponsors are here, you thank them. I know some of you have already bought your account. Some of you are saving up money to pay for an account, whatever it is. You need to go just thank them on Twitter, because when they see that, they are like, “Oh! That is great! Jason is got a great audience, who is super loyal.” And then, they renew, and that we can do more bigger things. And GoToMeeting has just been with me from the beginning of this show, three-four years of them as a partner. And boy, they have been supportive. And I really do appreciate it. Let’s get back to this great episode.
JASON: When you look at stuff like the Huffington Post and Business Insider, which have become, you know, very SEO-driven and headline link baiting driven, overly social in a way, like in a Mashable kind of way, like, “Social is the focus,” to get the pages. When you see that rabid page view addiction and the sloppiness, I mean, it feels to me when I first saw that this was a reaction to how sloppy, and fast, and noisy those things are on the design sort of perspective.
EVAN: I mean, most of the web is really ugly and a terrible experience from a consumption stand point, and so, you know, we wanted to design something modern, which works beautifully on any device, and it is clean and focuses on the content. Yes. I mean, Business Insider is a lot of trash in my experience, not entirely, but it is terrible in many ways. And they are optimizing for page views, probably, whatever it is. Medium is not really a reaction to that exactly, although I have to use that as an example of something bad. This system is broken. If that succeeded, the system is broken. Can we do better? I do not know, maybe, it is naive to think we can do better. Maybe, it is naive to think that accuracy matters. Or if you build the right system, that quality will actually get more attention, but I think it is possible to use the network, and use great design, and build the system that produce a better product. I was going to design products for myself, so what I want to read, is not that. And we’ll see.
JASON: Commerce is a big part of the problem in publishing today, you would agree? The ability to pay writers, the economics, just writers need to get paid. They seem to have somehow linked the page views to writers in such a direct way that it is almost… I do not know if you saw the piece in the New York Times, where the writer trashed the Tesla, because he couldn’t do the charging stations, when he actually, maybe, fudged the numbers a little bit, and did what was not in instructions, so it almost felt like he was making the story more sensational to get page views, at least that was my reading of it. It’s almost like the journalists are now charged with the performance of their piece and not the accuracy or the readability.
EVAN: Yes. I think it goes back to incentives in what is being rewarded. I mean the economics of journalism is a very tough problem. And I do not know that we will have a solution of that, and we are mostly not focusing on news per se, but maybe, I think, building an economic model that supports journalism is a worthy goal, and something that we are definitely going to experiment with.
JASON: If you were going to experiment, or when you do the experiment, are you inclined to think that native advertising and sponsor messages are not the future, and Andrew Sullivan’s model in paying some kind of subscription or token donation is more aligned with your vision?
EVAN: I do not know. I think it is too early to say. I hope all of that works to some extent and I think it is all worth trying, but I mean, if you can build a content platform, it is very different from building a publication. The economics are different. I think that Twitter, for example, has a form of native advertising working very well. I think any time you build a content platform, you will have commercial usage of that platform. And if it is sizable audience, there is money to be made, which is different than solving the New York Times’ problem. And it relies on a lot of people creating content, who do not need to be paid, and that is not why they are creating it. I do not think that is exploiting those people. It’s just the motivations for most people is not necessarily to be paid, but hopefully the whole system generates enough money to get those paid who need to be.
JASON: And how does the Huffington Post’s blended model, they said, “Let’s put a couple of George Clooney stories on the front page, and then hire some people in New York to boiler-room it out and write short SEO style social pieces.”
EVAN: Well, it seems to work for them, but I do not know, you probably know more about than I do. There are some very sophisticated people at all these places, who were blending these things and looking at the economics very carefully. I am mostly a software guy and Internet experience guy, and I want to create a beautiful tool that lets people express themselves as well as possible, and create a system that gives them the attention they deserve.
JASON: Interesting. What do you think of the sort of Flipboard’s of the world and these people, who are aggregating stuff together, that’s not on their site, but trying to display it, do you think that’s a bridge like RSS readers was or…?
EVAN: Yeah. I think Flipboard is really well done.
JASON: Do you use it?
EVAN: Sometimes. Do you use it?
JASON: I want to, but I do not find myself doing so, I feel like we might be similar in our usage pattern. Once in a while I see it on my apps, I am like, “Oh! That is beautiful looking,” and then, I use it and then, I go losing interest. I didn’t really get so much out of it.
EVAN: I do not know it is a tough problem, but the ones are more suspicious of… I think Flipboard is very above-board in their deals with publishers.
JASON: Yeah. They are very permission based.
EVAN: And then, there are some that are not, that I think they are pretty sketchy. I do not believe in the whole approach of, “You know it’s a new world, let’s take all the content and deal with that later in the ramifications.” And I think that is not good for anybody, except maybe, the people who are stealing the content for a while. So Flipboard is not that. I think they are probably the best of the bunch. We’ll see.
JASON: What will success be for Medium? I mean, when you look at a firm in five years from now, ten years from now, do you know what to expect? If you had a vision in your mind of what success was, you wake up one day and the New York Times has been replaced by Medium, or it’s like that a person can make a choice between the New York Times and Medium, and have an equal experience, or choice between Vanity Fair and Medium, and have a comparable experience? Is it Condé Nast Publications, or is it New York Times, or is it something in between?
EVAN: I do not think it is either of those. We think of ourselves as a platform, not a publication, even we are doing some editorial work, we’re primarily a platform, so the success would be millions of people who are sharing knowledge, ideas, and stories, that are impacting other people, where the good stuff is floating to the top, where it’s a significant force, significant source of quality information, and that fills the void, and does innovative cool stuff. That is the success. How big that is, is hard to say, but as long as it’s good, I’ll be happy.
JASON: What have you learned about entrepreneurship now? I mean, you do not need to be working anymore, you have done pretty well for yourself. You keep at it, and you are still a young guy, so what is it that you have learned over these last three companies, three journeys, and investing in some, and seeing a lot? What’s that you have learned as an entrepreneur matters? What matters for the young entrepreneurs here who are starting?
EVAN: Do something that you really want to exist in the world and focus on it entirely. Something good will probably come of it.
JASON: It seems to work pretty well.
EVAN: The focus part is hard, especially, as you get older, I think. Not just because you might have family and other responsibilities, but also because there are so many more opportunities. I do this project over here, or go on this trip, or whatever. The only way I can manage it, and feel like I am really doing my best work, is if I say, “No,” everyday, tons of times and via email to intriguing opportunities, because I know. I think, that’s the bigger difference between first-timer young entrepreneurs and those older entrepreneurs, especially, if you have had some successes early on, if you think back to your career, you worked entirely focus and besessed on one thing. You just did not have any choice, but to make that successful, and so you pull through. And I think once you start having choices and it becomes not as important to make it successful, it’s not.
JASON: You can float from project to project, or idea to idea, or vacation to vacation, or whatever it might be. Let us go through some of the companies out there and people out there, and get your sort of word on them. This is the part where you have to give your insights on the industry. Google. You sold your first company there. It is trading at an all-time high, the stock…
EVAN: Is it?
JASON: Yeah. Every day, it seems like it hits a new high.
JASON: Larry Page now is running the company. Sergey is doing the Project X’s stuff. When you watch that company from the time when you sold it to now, what do you think?
EVAN: Amazing. I am a huge Google fan. I think everybody, who has worked at Google, always has a fondness for Google, and their values are real. It has been eight years since I left Google, eight, or nine. So it is a completely different company, but I am a fan of Larry, I love his making big bets. I think they’re going to continue to take over the world.
JASON: Yeah. They are doing pretty well. Apple. What do you think? I mean, now, with Tim Cook running Apple and…
EVAN: I do not know Apple as a company very well. It is funnier. It is, here in the Valley, employing tens of thousands of people, and yet, I do not seem to know any of them. It is strange to me. I do not know, they probably drive around, they fly in their special teleport cars. Whatever they’re working on, we’ll know about it later, and it’s impressive, I use their products, but I do not know the company.
JASON: Yeah. What do you think of their recent performance? You know. Are you using all their products? I take it.
EVAN: Oh! Sure.
JASON: Yeah. On the software level, they do not seem to be able to get anything right. I mean, the Maps, the email product, obviously, the backup, you know, whatever the iCloud is, is terrible. Everything seems to be terrible, except for the hardware and iOS. Why is that? What do you think that means for the Valley? Do you think they’re going to be buying up those apps?
EVAN: I think it is about the focus. I mean, it is really hard for a company to be excellent at completely different disciplines. And we have not seen it happen very much in the history of the industry. This is why every wave of a new technology brings gushers in new dominating players. For some reason, it’s hard to analyze, because you think they have all the smart people and all the money, they should rule the next thing, because they have an advantage, but it never happens unless, I mean, Google’s things, many of their most important things have, of course, come through acquisition: YouTube, and Android, and Maps. I mean they have built a lot of maps internally and body Android very early, but it is… What they found is, it is hard to do that stuff internally. And so, that is a part of the beauty of this industry. I mean, when I was at Google, shortly after I sold my company, I have realized why there is going to continue to be opportunities for entrepreneurs, when I got inside. Because you are outside, well, it was back in the day, when before Facebook, and before Apple was as dominant, Google was the big scary/admired company. And any field you are in, the thing the VCs would say, “What if Google gets into this?” And there is no good way to answer that question. But when I got in there and I was like, “Oh! We do not have to worry about that at all.” There is plenty of room, not because they are incompetent, but because that is not what they are thinking about, it is not what they are optimizing for. And even once I get in there, it was much harder to operate Blogger, which was still very startup sized, and they have to do different things. That has well known about the problem, but it is a kind of the beauty of the industry. That they are all fall, then they mature, they slow down, and so we can create new things.
JASON: What do you think of Facebook? I mean, famously, Twitter had opportunities to sell. I think you have been pretty up there talking about that before.
EVAN: I do not know what you are talking about.
JASON: What do you think about Facebook? Not a fan?
EVAN: I do not know, I am giving boring answers, because…
JASON: Oh! Do people ask it a lot?
EVAN: No. I mean, Facebook is super impressive. I do not really use it that much. I am highly biased. I had talked to a lot of people, but most of them work at Twitter, or had worked at Twitter. It seems like there are Facebook people and Twitter people. You use both, probably?
JASON: I barely. I set my Twitter to Facebook.
EVAN: Yeah. And I realize after talking to someone who was a Twitter person and became a Facebook person, that is just what you get used to. And so, if you used to scanning the Twitter feed, the Facebook feed feels all noisy and foreign. And if you are really used to Facebook feed, you go back to Twitter, it is all condensed and cryptic. It is just habit. And you get used to whatever. And the other thing feels foreign and weird, and you do not really understand it. So Facebook feels foreign and weird to me, but obviously, they got a ton of stuff right, where they go next…? I mean, I think all the worries about they will not be able to make money on mobile and all that, obviously, were completely silly. I always thought that was silly. They are incredibly smart. They are strategic as hell. They think out there away and think we want to get that thing out there. They are not just like iterating. Although, sometimes they iterate and just copy something, and it seems dumb.
JASON: Why would you copy Snapchat in two weeks and then, make a big deal about it in the press? That was an odd announcement.
EVAN: Yeah. It is odd, but you know, on the…
JASON: That is not something that Ev Williams would ever do. You would never as an entrepreneur… I mean, I respect you did as an entrepreneur, you know that, but like, I kind of wonder about Zuckerberg as an entrepreneur, that he would say, “I am going to find the most successful thing out there, that people are talking about, which is Snapchat, as the Snapchat is going to replace Facebook or whatever. I am going to make a point of rebuilding it in two weeks with my team, and then do a bunch of press about it. And, look! How quickly we can destroy that little startup and do something as quick as they can, and steal the entire UX [User eXperience].” Would it ever cross your mind?
EVAN: I would not, but Zuck is so much richer than me. So, maybe…
JASON: But if somebody came to you with a concept in your own company, you would be like, “Why would we do that?” As opposed to doing something original.
EVAN: Although, I notice there is such respect for originality in Silicon Valley that does not necessarily always service. And I think, because when you go to the party, you do not want to run into the person, whose product you ripped off, at a party.
JASON: That would be bad.
EVAN: Yeah, that is why MySpace came from LA. I forget other examples, but I have thought of other examples before, that were kind of copies of things. And they were started outside of the Valley, because here it is uncouth and is little… And I think that will change as the industry matures. And it is maturing a lot. And so, there’s a lot more cutthroatingness than there was ten years ago for sure.
JASON: Yeah. Now it seems like, Larry Page is like, “Yeah. Just make something better than Facebook as quick as possible with Google+, and put it in the menu bar.”
EVAN: Maybe, perhaps, I do not know.
JASON: Tell me about the other investments. I know Branch is one and Lift.
EVAN: Branch is conversations, trying to be a better way to do conversations. They are a company, which we helped start, and is now in New York. Lift is a habit-tracking app, which I am on the board of it. We helped start it from Obvious Corp last year. It is great. It is one of my favorite things. It’s just simply track. It is an iPhone app currently. And you track what you wanted to do or not do. And it changes your behavior, which changes your life. Those are the two companies that we were most actively involved in, and then we have a handful of investments. Beyond Meat is an alternate meat company.
JASON: Yeah. Tell me about that. That is fascinating. Is that in Hakkasan, the restaurant? Somebody told me that was the meat they were serving. The faux meat.
EVAN: I do not know. Yes. It is possible. I think they have it at the Food Source, which is right near here. Then, it is in Whole Foods. It is not in the product section. It is not in packaging yet. So it is in the Deli. That’s super interesting one.
JASON: Why that is interesting to you?
EVAN: Because meat is a huge problem. If you just look from an environmental perspective, the world population eating meat is not sustainable. So this at scale will be much more efficient in terms of energy and produced to create the protein. That is a big interest of mine is “energy and climate.” And it is a huge industry and opportunity. So, these guys have great technology that they have currently used to produce the most chicken like chicken substance.
JASON: Mark Bittman, I think, of New York Times, got absolutely duped as to. He could not tell the chicken from the faux chicken.
EVAN: Yeah. It’s weird stuff.
JASON: But it’s taste awesome.
EVAN: It is science. It is great. Yeah.
JASON: We do live in the future.
EVAN: We live in the future. Yeah. Chicken is not growing…
JASON: When the chef from the New York Times cannot tell the difference, we do live in the future. And what do you think of all the climate change? You mentioned that climate is a big passion of yours. What do you think of the state of affairs discoursed in a way, when people can deny climate change.
EVAN: It is amazing. It is maddening. And that actually goes back to Medium and reason that I focus on this sort of project. I mean, as an Internet technologist’s utopian fifteen years ago, I believe the Internet is going to make us all smarter and society would make better decisions, because the truth would be out there and everything would be fact-checked and all this stuff. If you look at that issue in particular, the amount of BS and press manipulation that certain industries have been able to propagate to completely BS the entire nation, and make them make really bad long-term choices. It is like, “Really? How is this possible?” This is something about our information systems are incredibly broken and political systems, of course, but one fuels the other.
JASON: Yeah. When hundreds of scientists definitively signed documents and say, “This is a specific disturbing trend, which we witness. And the cost of ignoring it could be cataclysmic.” And people can go on television or broadcast and just say, “No. That’s false.” They are with no science degree or research.
EVAN: Yeah. And it is also human nature. I mean, if two people are telling me two different things, and one of them causes me a lot out of anxiety to believe, and one of them gives me a lot of relief, my brain is going to want to believe the second one, if I can find any excuse to do so, the one that’s not cause me anxiety. That’s a really hard problem to combat, and it’s been brilliantly manipulated though by the conservative faction.
JASON: Interesting. I think we understand Medium now. We have come full circle. This has been an amazing forty-five minutes, wow! Give it up for Ev Williams, everybody.
JASON: Well done. Awesome. That is good.
Special thanks to the members of the TWiST Backchannel Program!
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