Will Twitter's Uncanny Luck Ever Run Out?

By Sarah Lacy , written on September 4, 2012

From The News Desk

This past week I heard two rational arguments on the fate of Twitter from two smart investors.

One was an argument that it'll likely fail in its bid to become a public company. The logic went like this: Facebook, Groupon, and Zynga have proven the private markets are fundamentally horrible at valuing companies. In the early stages, that doesn't particularly matter. But when you get into pre-IPO secondary shares being bought and sold, it does. Just ask the people who bought pre-IPO shares of all three of those companies.

Twitter -- with its relative lack of a business -- was always a more dubious growth bet than those other three, buoyed by the sheer strength of its product. And now, there's just no way it's worth anything close to the $8 billion it was valued at at the last round, this person argued. If Facebook, Groupon, and Zynga have all had a greater than 50 percent haircut -- Twitter can't even dream of going public now.

This doesn't mean Twitter is going under. The company has enough cash to grind it out and it could always raise more money -- albeit a larger valuation might prove a challenge until some of the questions around its business model are answered. But odds are, this person argued, in this new public market reality, with Twitter's business still very much TBD, the company will sell for less than its last valuation to a Google or a Microsoft.

The other argument was for why Twitter is in a far better position than Facebook. This had to do less with its current revenues or valuations, and more with future prospects. Twitter's ads -- while nascent -- just work better, this person argued. Twitter is a simpler product (or will be, now that it's asserting more control over how users interact with it), and when inserted in a stream responsibly, people don't tune their ads out the way they do on Facebook. Also, unlike Facebook, its audience transitioning from Web-to-mobile isn't a problem for its business. Twitter has always been heavily mobile. Its ad products can work equally well on either.

Neither of these investors had a clear agenda. One of these arguments was made by someone invested in both Twitter and Facebook, one was argued by someone invested in neither. Taken together, the conversations demonstrate something weird going on: Unlike the cases of Facebook, Groupon, and Zynga, Silicon Valley people in the know have no fucking clue what to make of Twitter. What's more, they haven't for years. Because no company has ever defied the odds quite like this.

Developers feel just as torn: While Twitter keeps smacking them in the face with potentially company-ending moves, there's still no other platform quite like it. Even some of Twitter's biggest fans feel split on what the product has become.

Part of that is circumstantial: The fortunes of the three horsemen of the IPO apocalypse have been so shockingly bad, after years of pent up enthusiasm. That hits everyone. Or put a better way: They have been shockingly bad relative to what everyone expected.

Had the private markets valued them more rationally, we'd be marveling at the size of Facebook's market cap -- even 50 percent lower than at its debut. We'd be stunned that something as seemingly frivolous as the many iterations of Farmville was worth anything close to the market cap of EA. And the fact that anyone in the hard to win local space had created any company worth $2 billion in just a few years would be impressive. These three would be successes, not failures.

But expectations matter. And like it or not, these companies are all considered goats now, which has to trickle down to other companies priced in that same mania.

But the uncertainty over what to make of Twitter goes well beyond recent macro events. Twitter has long defied all start up reason.

When this era of Silicon Valley history comes to a close, the most fascinating book will be written about Twitter -- not Facebook. If I didn't have a company to build and a baby to raise, I'd be tempted to spend the next year or so of my life trying to best Nick Bilton at this. 

Facebook was always an outlier -- a once in a decade success story by a young kid who came out of nowhere and built something huge. But while rare, we've seen those sorts of outliers before. Twitter is something even more uncommon: A company that has violated nearly every spoken or unspoken rule for how you build a successful company in the Valley. You hear it muttered everywhere in startup circles these days: This company should never have made it this far. And yet, here it is. Recent haters aside, it's still the most significant private company to watch in the consumer Internet space.

A short list of said violations:

  • Twitter shouldn't have even been started to begin with. It grew out of the failed podcasting company Odeo. Being spawned out of failure isn't so uncommon, but the way Odeo ceased doing business was. Founder Evan Williams just accepted this company wasn't going anywhere and bought out his investors. It was a rare "let's call a spade a spade" admission of failure in a Valley that has become obsessed with finding soft landings. Had Odeo followed, say, the Digg playbook, its staff and assets could have wound up a part of a lame company like Yahoo, where any ideas would have withered, and staff would have bided its time until they could leave. That would have included an unknown engineer named Jack Dorsey and a fledgling idea called Twittr. And when Williams did the uncommon nice guy move of buying out his investors at a far more generous price than what Odeo was worth, he managed to keep investors happy and keep Twitter from starting life with a totally screwed up cap table.
  • Revolving door of CEOs. If one thing has characterized this wave of Web 2.0 and social media companies, it has been slavishly holding to the belief that founder CEOs should never be ousted. Twitter has ousted not one but two. That's also led to a revolving door in senior management and a few waves of ousting and reconfiguring the board. People in the Valley like to believe that teams -- not products -- matter, or that it's all about execution, not the idea. But Twitter is proving the opposite. The product has been compelling enough to survive three teams. It's hard to come up with another example of a company that has not only survived that, but gone on to thrive.
  • Almost no product innovation. At all. The Web version of Twitter has changed remarkably little since its inception. Most of the innovation, has come from the developer ecosystem. Indeed most of the features like @s, #s, and the like came from the community, not Twitter. Most companies that survive on the strength of their product actually have product innovation from time to time or get passed by a competitor. Not the case with Twitter, so far.
  • Twitter's product visionary is the CEO...of another company. Okay, Twitter apologists say, so there's a revolving door at the CEO and board level. But Dorsey is still the chief product guy, and he was the founder. That'd be an important caveat in Twitter's favor, were Dorsey not also running the hugely ambitious Square. Plenty of smart investors have passed up on investing in both Square and Twitter because of concerns about Dorsey splitting his time. But so far there seems very little outward evidence that this is the disaster that it should be. The only model for someone doing this effectively is Steve Jobs, who was running Pixar and Apple for a time. But his focus and heart was clearly with Apple. And, that was Steve Jobs. If your entire company is being bolstered by its product, and you are expecting your product guru to be Steve Jobs, well, good luck to you.
  • Biting the hands developing for you. Every startup wants to be a platform these days, and every platform needs an army of developers. Twitter has it and is continually pissing it off. I totally get the business reasons for why. But the problem Twitter has is consistency. Early on, it was one of the most developer-friendly applications, flinging the doors wide open for development in ways most other platforms didn't. But that's what happens when you change CEOs three times. The entire company changes.
Pretty damning right? And yet, given how much my company relies on Twitter for distribution and how much I use it -- more than nearly any other Web app -- even I can't count them out.

The Facebooks and Googles are rare. But if Twitter can actually turn this legacy into a successful, lasting public company, if it doesn't flame out and become the tale of what could have been, we will have witnessed a singular event in the history of Silicon Valley.

Either Dick Costolo has sold his soul to the devil, or he will be considered a turnaround god.