Twitter used to be a crappy idea - 3 lesson learned.

twitter.com - Site Info from Alexa-3

The attached graph from Alexa is really interesting on many levels. It shows twitter.com traffic for the past few years. Twitter started in March 2006 and although the graph only starts in 2008, it’s fair to assume that the traffic was flat from 2006-2008. So what can we learn from this?

1. There are two ways to get market-fit – both require lean companies.

a) you can either keep on innovating your product until you nail a set of features that users like today, or

b) you can keep your product alive for long enough for the market to change û making your product relevant.

Lesson learned: Keep it lean.

If you look at the graph it’s clear that that from 2006 to 2009 Twitter was a pretty crappy company by all traditional measurements. The service had very little market traction/traffic and people didn’t really seem understand what to use the platform for. They could have led the company along either of two paths. Had Jack Dorsey read Steven Gary Blank‘s book he might have attempted to change the product into something that had more ‘market-fit’ by using customer development . This is the idea that you keep your company lean and continuously iterating your product until you find something that your users really like and this results in great market traction. Jack didn’t do that. He kept the product pretty much as is. So if the product didn’t change it seems the market changed around it  – resulting in dramatic growth in the start of 2009. The secret to this change is probably found in various places: from Facebook teaching the mainstream audience about the power of status updates, via Twitter’s role on CNN during the Iran election conflict, to increasingly developers understanding the use of apps making Twitter available on mobiles, desktops and websites. What’s key however, is that Jack and his team kept the service alive long enough for the market to adapt to their vision. This could only be achieved with endurance and some kind of secondary revenue stream for the team who worked on Twitter.  So if you are doing your own new innovative start up, make sure you keep the cost LOW û it’s the only way for you to have time to change your product if it doesn’t work right away,  or for you to keep working on it for the market to change so your vision is aligned with the users.

2. “Invest (your time/money) in products that you enjoy , and with people you like to hang with”. (quote Martin Varsavsky at SeedSummit)

Lesson learned: Build cool stuff with awesome people (both staff and investors) because you are likely to be stuck with them for a while.

It’s very seldom that projects are successful from the start. If you look at most companies that today are considered hits, they all had long initial periods where people didn’t ‘get’ what they were trying to do and more often than not ran for years with little traction. It’s stressful and emotional building a company, especially in those period, where your company narrative and product is not locked down. As an entrepreneur, you often fear that you will run out of money and lose respect from your peers/friends if you can’t make your start up successful. The truth is that your start up is more likely to fail than it is to succeed. So make sure you enjoy the journey. This is very much easier if you are around nice, funny, intelligent people with passion and empathy. Find those and the journey, no matter if it leads you to success or not, is better. Think of that, when you’re hiring/partnering, or choosing people to finance you. I don’t know the Twitter team and have only met Jack once. However, from what I read and hear from friends who know them, they seem to have gathered a fine selection of staff and investors that are likely to build a solid company as well as being nice to hang with. This is most likely part of the story that kept them going during the 3 years where few thought highly of Twitter.

3. Your timing is as important as your product – and people really dont know what will work a few years in the future.

Lesson learned: Don’t worry that much about what the blogs say about your newly launched product – they are probably wrong and things online can change very rapidly.

The web is really a great place on many levels. Small things change and suddenly a bad idea/company becomes a great idea/company. Admob.com was not really that big a hit – until the iPhone came around; many felt that Playfish could never build a real business as a ‘plugin’ to a site like Facebook – until they did; and Twitter was widely considered a silly idea when it came out – until 2009 when it really kicked off. Changes in the internet ecosphere create disruptions all the time – and companies become big on the back of those. So when people doom your product/business to success or failure, take it with a grain of salt. The web changes all the time and what was a silly idea one day can very easily be a great idea the next.

Any other lessons ?

@werdelin