Speaking to a crowd of unalloyed capitalists, Ev Williams and Biz Stone had a message to deliver to the assembled entrepreneurs, wannabe entrepreneurs, and inventors: Stop stressing over how your business will make money. The money will come.
It takes a lot of moxie to deliver a message like that when the microblogging network you built is known nearly as much for its longtime dearth of revenue as for its celebrity users. But it was something Twitter co-founders Williams and Stone clearly needed to get off their chests.
The pair are now focused not on Twitter but on their tech investment, development, and incubation firm, Obvious Corp., whose projects include a new online content platform, a web-based internet discussion network, and even a fake meat company called Beyond Meat. Asked whether Obvious is paying more attention to business models in the wake of the pair’s Twitter experience, and whether there are “cases where the reach of a startup outstrips the sustainability,” Williams answered with a resounding “no,” particularly if you exclude startups who run afoul of copyright law or add users through tricks.
“I think that idea is completely overblown in the industry,” Williams told the crowd at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco Wednesday. “There aren’t things that are incredibly popular that can’t make money, and that have to shut out the lights, saying, ‘Oh shit, we can’t figure out the business model but everyone loves our thing.’
“You can’t name a company that was actually popular and unique and solving problems legitimately [and not able to stay in business]…. There aren’t any examples I’ve been able to think of, and [the misconception] has always driven me nuts. I don’t think we’ve ever looked at an idea and said, ‘That’s amazing … but it won’t make money.”
Stone went so far as to say that a 12-person startup “can’t afford to put four people on figuring out” how to make money. Better, he said, to wait until the startup’s product idea has been validated as “an awesome product” by attracting hundreds of millions of users.
At the moment, Obvious Corp.’s internet products are focused on filtering the avalanche of posts now available on the web to highlight the best-quality material. Their most recently launched product, Medium, arranges posts based on quality — as determined by a set of algorithms — rather than based on which items are the most recent. In a way, Williams and Stone are trying to solve problems they themselves created with Twitter and with Williams’ prior product Blogger (bought by Google).
“We live in a world where there’s too much stuff to pay attention to,” Williams said. “The web is focused primarily on putting the newest stuff at the top — ‘help me catch up with what I’ve missed.’ But you’re never going to catch up on what you’ve missed any more…. We need to reorient our tools to recognize the fact that you’re not going to see everything that’s potentially interesting or useful.”