Why did Jelly become famous? And Medium? What about Square? What do they all have in common? They are all great products, that’s for sure, but there is something else: as it turns out, behind each of these awesome companies there is one of the co-founders of Twitter.
Are new tech products more successful when tech celebrities are behind them? Is it really possible for the same people to keep having several billion-dollar ideas? Do some of these ideas become famous businesses due in part to previous successes?
All these questions were popping in my head as I was reading the book “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal” (I loved it by the way, although I’m not sure all that drama is actually true), and I would say that the answer is probably ‘yes’ for all of them.
I made the diagram above in an attempt to create a visual map of the amazing companies that came out of only 4 people’s minds: Blogger, Twitter, Square, Jelly and Medium. There were also Pyra Labs, AudBlog and Obvious Corporation, which were not so famous.
We could say that the first one to become a celebrity was Ev Williams (in yellow above), after he created Blogger. Noah Glass (in gray) happened to be Ev’s neighbor at the time. And once Google bought Blogger for millions of dollars, Ev met Biz Stone (in blue).
Without getting into many details, Biz, Ev, Noah and Jack Dorsey (in red) came together thanks to Odeo, a company that tried to be the pioneer of podcasting. And I say ‘tried’ because Apple and its iTunes killed it. Twitter was born from Odeo’s ashes.
All of the companies above provide a lot of value and are innovative in their own area, but I wonder if we would have seen them all flourish if they didn’t have famous people behind them. Everyday, new apps and websites are developed, but most of the times they vanish into oblivion as fast as they appeared.
Having a good idea is not enough to make an app successful, an almost-flawless execution is also needed. Otherwise, you need to be lucky and go viral; gaining critical through the viral process is a great way of becoming relevant (remember Flappy Bird?).
So, do you need to be a celebrity for your app to become famous and successful? Not really, but it certainly helps given the free marketing that you’d get with the tech press coverage. There are of course counter-examples: Facebook’s Poke had Mark Zuckerberg directly involved in its development and it never gained critical mass. The app failed to beat Snapchat, which went viral without any celebrity behind it simply because it executed on an idea almost flawlessly.
The problem is: ‘flawless execution’ can mean many different things in different contexts; it doesn’t have to mean that there are no issues (and it usually doesn’t). Sometimes, there are big issues (Twitter was extremely unstable when it launched, for example), but as long as they don’t stop the boom caused by the viral effect, they probably don’t matter in the short term. The challenge is to identify what ‘flawless execution’ means in each case.
All in all, this is a reminder of how crazy the tech world is: the chances of getting to a billion-dollar product are actually low. As Josh Constine wrote in one of his last posts for TechCrunch, “a common adage is that 1 in 10 startups succeed, but even fewer are true home runs. In consumer social apps, the odds can be even worse.“