In his new book, Biz Stone, the Co-founder of Twitter, discusses the power of creativity and how to harness it through stories from his remarkable life and career.
Stone is known as the creative, effervescent, funny, charming, positive, optimistic, altruistic and yet remarkably savvy Co-founder of Twitter. His book Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind spans 224 pages and 18 chapters, and covers the pivotal and personal stories from his life along with lessons earned and learned the hard way.
Born in Boston in 1974, Biz Stone’s first startup was Xanga. He was recruited by Google in the early 2000s, and connected with Blogger founder Evan Williams; the pair later left to work on their own startup Odeo. Twitter was founded in 2007 after a hackathon when the original videocasting product did not pan out as materialised. Twitter’s dizzying global success led to Stone being recognised by ‘Time’ Magazine as one of the most influential persons in the world. His other books include Who Let the Blogs Out? A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs.
“Creativity is what makes us unique, inspired and fulfilled. This book is about how to tap into the creativity in and around us all,” Stone begins.
Here are my Top 20 Takeaways from his book, offering insights into creativity, ethics and global vision.
1. Create opportunities, don’t wait for them
“Opportunity is manufactured,” says Stone. Don’t wait for circumstances to align your stars, go ahead and make the opportunity yourself. He used this principle even in school days to create a lacrosse team since he was not good in other sports; he also landed his first job as a book cover designer by submitting a cover to the art director even though he was just interning as a delivery boy.
2. Start with an idea
Don’t dig into specifics first, start off with an idea. “If you take an idea and just hold it in your head, you unconsciously start to do things that advance you toward that goal,” says Stone. “Have confidence in your ideas before they even exist,” he advises. Sometimes even a sense of desperation that you will eventually get an idea will keep you going.
3. Invest emotionally in your idea
“If you don’t love what you are building, if you’re not an avid user yourself, then you will most likely fail even if you are doing everything else right,” says Stone. His startup Odeo did not go too far because he was not into audio podcasts himself, and therefore missed out on important features such as sound quality. Twitter, on the other hand, brought Stone much more joy and excitement. If you are not engaged, you cannot go on, there will be no gravity.
4. Creativity has infinite approaches
One thing Stone learnt as a book cover designer is that there are infinite approaches to frame, understand and solve a problem. If one of your creative ideas does not work or does not find acceptance, let go and move on to another one. Don’t take rejection personally. “Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and creativity drive us to make unexpected offbeat connections. It is these non-linear steps that often lead to the greatest work,” explains Stone. He drew on this principle while working at Google – full of PhDs while Stone himself was a college dropout; he advocated a focus on the human aspects of tools and not just technical.
5. Learn to harness constraints for creativity
“Constraint inspires creativity,” says Stone, drawing on a number of examples, including his own. Steven Spielberg had a limited budget for the movie Jaws – so instead of creating an expensive replica, he decided to shoot from the ‘shark’s point of view’ – which turned out to be even scarier. Harrison Ford had the runs while shooting The Raiders of the Lost Ark – and instead of dueling a swordfighter in one scene, he just proposed a gunshot – which became an iconic moment in the film. Due to resource constraints, ARM came up with chips which were just not good enough for PCs – but ended up being perfect for cellphones. “Embrace your constraints. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better,” says Stone. Detractors initially said Twitter’s 140 character limit was constraining – but that unleashed a new form of wit and creativity, and power for activists.
6. Tap the flocking and swarming nature of humans in social media
Social media are not just about content and connections, but flocking and swarming (see also my review of the book Swarm Intelligence and my interview with the author James Haywood Rolling Jr.). Tweets, re-tweets, follows and hashtags have the snowball effect of creating realtime swarms of humans, which can be harnessed for business, social and even political activities. Human flocking can even create a planetary ‘super-organism’ of like-minded supporters of a cause. Social media platforms should plug into this movement and support flocking instincts.
7. Treat failure as an asset, not just a lesson
You must be willing to fail if you want your dream to succeed. “In order to succeed spectacularly, you must be ready to fail spectacularly,” cautions Stone. Learn how to work with just ‘life-support’ systems during times of crisis. If you have product or service glitches, own up to them and show you are working to fix them. Dealing with failure shows you are committed to the long term and won’t quit. Twitter’s Fail Whale image of a whale being lifted by a bunch of tiny birds reflects this principle – with a touch of creativity, so much so that it created a fan club of those who overcame failures, and even led to a Fail Whale conference where Stone was invited as a keynote speaker!
8. Have an idealist on your team
“Every company needs an idealist,” says Stone. An upbeat, positive, communicative person who always focuses on the bright spot and the light at the end of the tunnel helps. It’s not about having fake rose-tinted glasses, but an open, curious and optimistic attitude. Always look for the small wins and successes and acknowledge them, keep the spirit of encouragement going. (Of course, in Twitter that utopian person was Biz Stone himself!)
9. Stay neutral in politics
It may be tempting for startups to openly support a party, government, country or ideological camp. But in the long term, it is best to stay neutral and focus only on universal principles. Twitter stayed focused for the most part on being an open realtime information sharing platform for all global users, and stayed away from openly supporting the Democrats during the elections, or the US government position on Iran.
10. Define your company’s culture – and indoctrinate all new employees into it
Be passionate about your product – but also about your company’s culture and ethics. Build the compass for your company – and stick to it. Twitter defined a set of six assumptions for all its employees, based on humility, openness, respect, equitable partnerships and holistic vision. (i) We don’t always know what’s going to happen. (ii) There are more smart people out there than in here. (iii) We will win if we do the right things for our users. (iv) The only deal worth doing is a win-win deal. (v) Our co-workers are smart and they have good intentions. (vi) We can build a business, change the world and have fun.
11. Listen to your customers
When customers complain, respond to each and every one of them. An honest and empathetic answer can even win them over. When they offer good feasible solutions, accept them. Most of the Twitter nomenclature actually came from users and not the company’s team – such as tweets, retweets, @ replies, hashtags and Twestivals.
12. Zoom out
Periodically step out of the daily grind and zoom out. “Take a high-altitude view of what’s going on in your life and start thinking about where you really want to go. See the whole geography,” advises Stone. Don’t let others programme your life GPS. Think of where you want to be, the kind of people you would be surrounded with, and what they would say about you. Search for emotional engagement.
13. Give back to society – start now, no matter how small it is
Doing good for others is not just good for them but for you, it gives you the joy of empowering others. Twitter helps charities such as DonorsChoose.org for student support. You can give not just money but in kind and with energy and time via volunteering. Starting now, no matter how small, unleashes the ‘compound interest of altruism’ – the results multiple earlier, you learn how to give better, you build a bigger network, and when you make it big you know how much more to give and to whom. The flocking nature of social media makes it that much easier to connect with causes and amplify contributions to them. The biggest power of social media is to help create a global culture of good and solve the world’s problems.
14. Have a sense of humour
The book is full of examples of humour and quirkiness which not just keeps you happy in life, but opens up new insights. For example, if you have insights and conviction, call yourself a genius. Sometimes you may have a great idea, at other times you just have the supreme confidence that you can have an idea. You have to begin somewhere, so call yourself a genius and you will start thinking like one! Stone in his earlier days had a blog called “Biz Stone. Genius.” – and whenever he got stuck in his career path he would put on his ‘genius’ hat. His proposed offer for sale to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was five hundred million dollars, which he just made up as a joke – but eventually raised Twitter’s own valuation!
15. Investors help – but can also take over your company
The end of the book offers sobering lessons to founders on what happens when they become so successful that investors pump in money into the company – and then take control. The board of directors of Twitter eventually fired the Co-founder CEO and brought in a career CEO who could scale the company with more robust infrastructure. This kind of upheaval can destroy friendships, cautions Stone. (The book Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal by Nick Bilton offers more details into this troubled chapter of Twitter’s history.)
16. Look at the world through the lens of infinite possibility
Startups can be a triumph not just of technology but of humanity. There are good people everywhere. Use tools not just for mundane activities but recasting nations as part of a larger global community, solving planetary problems and not just personal issues. Build a company with a big vision powered by empathy, altruism and humanity – and the revenues will eventually come. Many founders frame problems of a local and national nature, but some of these can be scaled up to tackle much broader issues.
17. Think humanity first, then technology
“The true promise of a connected society is people helping one another,” says Stone. “I’m a guy who believes in the triumph of humanity with a little help from technology,” he adds. These principles helped navigate through the turbulent years when social media principles were yet being formulated, and later helped the company forge alliances with HIV/AIDS campaigns and NGOs for online fundraising and advocacy.
18. Redefine old problems
Just because some problems are being tackled well now does not mean they can’t be reinterpreted and solved in new ways. Google may be the kind of search and artificial intelligence, but the game is not over – new kinds of socially-mediated search are possible now. “Technology is the connective tissue of humanity,” says Stone, explaining how new kinds of search are possible via a network of mobile phone users. “Phones are the hyperlinks of humanity,” says Stone. The whole idea of how to get help can be reinvented by ‘actual intelligence’ instead of artificial intelligence.
19. The key to global citizenship is empathy
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone knew that there is always someone in the world to help them? “The best swing you can take at global citizenship is to cultivate empathy,” says Stone. This may start with being informed in realtime about other people and events, but goes beyond to understanding their viewpoints and helping them online and offline.
20. When you succeed, start over again
“Starting over is one of the hardest leaps to make in life. Security, stability, safety – it’s scary, if not downright irresponsible, to leave these behind,” says Stone. But that’s exactly what he did a number of times, and his current venture after Twitter is called Jelly, a tool for people to help one another via collaborative search and thereby build ‘global empathy.’ There is more to success than a Lamborghini, he wraps up in the book.
In addition to these 20 insights, the book offers an engaging peek into the life of Stone: his challenges of growing up with separated parents, overcoming the fear of darkness as a child, climbing over the school wall to get into the final dance party though he was late, the difficulties of living ‘on the edge’ with his mother being on welfare stamps at one point, being broke in New York, having hangovers in San Francisco, interacting with the geniuses at Google, learning from his spouse about empathy for abandoned animals, the joy of seeing Twitter first emerge into a success story at SXSW, seeing the emergence of hashtags and meetups, and witnessing the birth of a new global phenomenon.
In sum, the illuminative memoir offers insights into the behind-the-scenes lifestyles and deals of Twitter, and will particularly appeal to Twitter fans as well as aspiring entrepreneurs.