Jealous it missed out on election fun, Twitter's Fail Whale makes a mid-morning cameo

By Sarah Lacy , written on November 13, 2012

From The News Desk

Back in 2007, I was having coffee in South Park with Evan Williams, and he was explaining why he sold Blogger, the allure of Obvious (the first iteration of it), and why he didn't want the already booming Twitter to consume his life.

He expressed jealousy for filmmakers who can pour their souls into a project for a few years and then it comes out, they are done, and they can move on to the next one. "You are never done with [Web companies], unlike a lot of other creative endeavors," he said.

What's wrong with a lot of tech press is that it misses that subtle, grueling reality of startup life. Ideas are considered stupid, then when they catch on broadly, the press acts as if the entrepreneur has won. As we detailed at length with ShoeDazzle's implosion, it doesn't matter how good a year you've had, doesn't matter how many users you have, doesn't matter how much momentum you have or how high your valuation is. When you are building a company, it can all be taken away. You are never done. Every time a reporter says a startup has "won" or some variation on that verb, be skeptical.

Case in point: On election night, Twitter stayed up all night. It was an amazing technical feat and a milestone showing just how far the company has come from the days when Fail Whales went up left and right at far less provocation.

It also showed just how far current CEO Dick Costolo has taken the company. Indeed, from what I heard inside and outside the company, he has painstakingly rebuilt -- and healed -- serious cultural rifts that result from three CEOs over just a few years. He's taken a strong stance against a sprawling developer ecosystem that was hurting the company's business prospects -- even if the communication around that was a PR disaster. And from everything we hear, the business is growing nicely.

Make no mistake: The product saved this company, which by all startup logic should be totally dead. But Costolo has made it functional. The press announced that he'd permanent slayed the FailWhale after the election night coup.

And then...this morning with no provocation and no big event, there were whales everywhere. Not for everyone, mind you. Probably for a tiny, tiny handful of people. But on election night, no one got them. I can't remember the last time I saw one. It was almost nostalgic. (Until it lasted 30 minutes. Then it got annoying.)

I don't say this to bag on Twitter: Just to remind everyone that startups are strangely human. You are never done; you have never won.

A lot of people are complaining about the "cult of the founder" in Silicon Valley, arguing that glorifying founders above everyone else who plays a role in building a company has gotten out of control. In a lot of cases, it has. But there's a reason we live in an ecosystem that has such a strong "cult of the founder." Because some 50 years into the maturation of Silicon Valley, so many people here have been in their shoes. And it's fucking hard. You never realize until you do it exactly how hard, how unforgiving, how unceasing it is.

One of my board members likes to say that being a founder/CEO is like standing in a disgustingly muddy room with one mop and one pail. There is no way you're going to clean the whole room, and a good board won't expect you to. Instead, you're graded on whether you clean up the right things.

You basically cannot be a control freak and build a company, because you will make mistakes constantly. What matters is not making the fatal ones. As Mark Zuckerberg told me back in 2007 about the decision not to sell to Yahoo, "I fuck up all the time. I fuck up all day long. But as long as I don't fuck up the big things, it's okay."

This is Costolo's triumph as the guy who has to actually turn Twitter into a company that could go public. It wasn't that he slayed the Fail Whale permanently. That will probably never happen as long as software is built with human hands. It was that he slayed it on the night he most needed to.