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Timing Lessons (bizstone.com)
165 points by dabent on Sept 3, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

Great post, but as a side note:

  "Twitter has 145m users in the same way @MikeTyson has $400m in career earnings."

I noticed this post from Biz (his first since July 7th) and compared it with this analysis of a post from Ev: http://social.venturebeat.com/2010/09/03/twitter-ecosystem-a...

It seems to me that a couple of people are trying to show how much value there is in Twitter, like a orphaned puppy looking extra adorable for possible new owners. Just saying.

Yeah I was wondering about this, surely they didn't have 145 million "users" as in "created accounts", which is typically the definition. I imagine someone who checked the website once is part of their "user" tally.

Twitter has been quoted claiming 176M unique visitors a few months ago. That stat makes sense for a site like nytimes.com, but not for a social network. The number of active users is close to a standard in the industry. When Facebook says it has 500M+ users, they mean people who have accounts and have visited the site in the last 30 days.

Thing is that everyone knows the right stats to publish. They only use 145M because is sounds better than (the more likely) 70M active. This doesn't come as a coincidence as Twitter is trying to start selling ads. Attractiveness to advertisers is directly proportional to audience size.

> Surrounding yourself with smart people you like to work with helps immeasurably.

I think this is one of the most important pieces of advice ever. Not many people are solo savants - almost everyone who is successful (in business, academia, life) is surrounded by other competent, like-minded people. We're all standing on the shoulders of giants here, and the romantic meme of the lone-wolf superstar maverick needs to be put away.

it makes setbacks tolerable, and day to day toiling a pleasure.

Not just on an emotional level, I think when a bunch of clever people get together a sort of super brain is formed which is greater than each of them.

This is so since the super brain has the combined knowledge but not the combined biases of the individuals. To give an analogue this is like these comment threads where knowledge gets added and incorrect statements promptly and strongly refuted, but on a much much higher resolution when you work with a smart person face to face for a considerable length of time.

I think if you were to plot it as a graph it has a curve though.

Sure adding that 2nd smart person, the 8th smart person, etc., can add benefit and yield a whole which is greater than the sum of the individual parts in isolation. But once you are in the organization size range where you're adding a 500th person, a 10,000th person, then the organization almost always takes on other qualities and conditions: bureaucracy, slowing down, middle management, rules, paperwork, gossip, insulation from consumers/competition, groupthink, aversion to risk, and so on. And these qualities dumb it down. The "group brain" becomes much dumber than a smart brain when left alone and unfettered as an individual.

Google is a bit of an exceptional case where despite having on the OOM of 20k employees they don't seem to have quite succumbed to Big Dumb Company-itis. Surely they have some aspects of it, but they've tried hard to fight it and stay like a smaller/younger org.

I once dealt with a startup that was around 12 people and already I could see symptoms of Big Dumb Company start to manifest themselves.

"Overnight success takes a long time." Paul Buchheit


I live and work in Hollywood, and the conventional wisdom here is that "overnight success" takes 8-10 years.

I like that quote/notion too.

However, I don't think the time aspect of his success story is about an overnight success taking 10 years as much as it is about refining one's product & market acumen over time, combined with having the luck to put something on the market (micro-blogging service) at just the right timing when a lot of people are ready for it (traditional blogging had become mainstream, but also lots of bloggers had become dissatisfied with the ROI and/or blog readers were looking for smaller/easier things to read and/or with more frequent updates AND smart phones were taking off with full web access on the go).

Enter Twitter. They executed well, but I think they also had very lucky timing.

"Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success."

Love this.

I'm having a hard time understanding why he thinks Xanga wasn't a success. He worked on Blogger as well, both of those sites are huge still, maybe not Twitter huge but they are big.

Though blogger was a big hit he wasn't the founder/co-founder of it. Evan Williams was credited with 100% success of blogger. I am not sure about his association with xanga though. But with Twitter he gets an equal footing. That's what I think he is referring to in this article.

does he say it wasn't a success?

That's true he doesn't say they weren't successes explicitly. He does say that it took 10 years to make you look like a succes in the last paragraph which I understood as the other sites not being successes to him.

well, with all due respect, you're not king of the world if you're the founder or co-founder of Xanga :)

Joel Spolsky (2001):

"Good Software Takes Ten Years. Get Used To it."

- http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000017.html

It's good to hear a "Sometimes things take time" point of view. The typical mental model of YC [1] can make one feel less than perfect for not having raised $5M by 19, made multiple angel investments by 22, then traveled around the world for philanthropy during your mid 20s because now, carefully managed, you're set for life.

[1]: How the press likes to portray YC: get unknown kids, accelerate them towards terminal funding velocity, stir for three years, and bam instant millionaires.

while I can't say I personally admire twitter as a business, I have some serious respect for his message: 10 years of hard work make an overnight success.

I am glad that he purposefully calls out the balance between perseverance and a seemingly overnight success. This balance (or differentiation) is quite significant for anyone who is starting off. A week on TC and one would assume that raising money and releasing products is a matter of weeks if not days. But all good things (including wine) takes time to blosom.

Back to hardwork.com

Very interesting! Its great to know that it takes years/decades to get to systems like Twitter. The media makes it look so much like a "it-happened-overnight" story.

Twitter's real founding story. The not so famous version.


More specifically, it seems you have to do basically the same project for 10 years too.

(wasn't intended to be snarky, I don't think there's anything wrong with doing the same project for 10 years. That's how long it takes to hit the home run. Maybe the whole "10,000 hours" thing is more finely targeted than people initially assume)

Er, he personally launched Xanga? I think not from what I have read elsewhere.

More like he learned how to code/design from being given work to do on Xanga.

Rewriting history there eh?

I also like how his tale shows a progression over time in startup ideas that almost kept getting simpler and easier with each new iteration. The core feature(s) of Twitter is pretty darn simple to build out -- scaling it up is harder, sure, but that's a Maserati problem and the kind you may never have the privilege of having anyway. But it was a neat idea, they executed it, nailed it well, and lots of other people loved it. The lesson here with them is you don't have to build something that's very big or hard or complicated, you just have to build something people want and ideally love and tell their friends about it so you don't have to advertise -- if people learn by word-of-mouth your cost-of-customer acquisition approaches zero.

It's called luck

True. But skill also. Luck let's you roll a 6 if you need one. Skill makes sure you get to the roll the die 10 times.

Skill and perseverance.

A "lucky break" is more likely to come along if you keep at it for a decade than if you give up after the first non-successful year.

I think skill comes in two forms: The skill of making something that people want to use, but also the skill of recognizing and making the most out of "lucky breaks".

Bo Peabody's 'Lucky or Smart?' is relevant here. Good short read, decent synopsis from Bo here:


Twitter's emergence from Odeo is pretty similar to Tripod's switch from an advice site to a homepage builder.

Interestingly: RT @ev: @biz also, don't forget LUCK

There is an element of being at the right place with the right idea when people are ready to embrace it. But certainly there would be plenty of startups where the stars aligned for them in terms of this and they never managed to make it big.

good luck to you then with having as much luck, if all you think it takes is luck...

Luck is not all it takes, but these sorts of self-congratulatory stories (and the hagiographies written about such people after they succeed) always seem to downplay this particular element of the story. Having a great idea and a great team are not enough and sometimes those who "get lucky" can make do with substandard ideas or teams. It is hard to admit that the most significant determinant to success is completely out of your control, but if you accept this fact and plan accordingly you will be better off than someone who things that their superior team and idea are all they need.

A lot of the success of agile businesses and the whole mvp product strategy could be explained by the fact that it embraces the possibility of randomness and unexpected outcomes rather than ignoring it completely.

A lot of scientists, interestingly, are willing to admit a luck factor, especially when it comes to doing something Nobel-Prize-level world-changing. Some really did know exactly what they were doing, and it worked. But a lot of scientists frankly admit that the big career-making thing they did wasn't even something they thought was important at the time--- and sometimes nobody else thought it was important either, and it languished in a journal for 10 years before someone else noticed it had big implications. Of course, that's not purely luck, because they'd never have had that opportunity to get their work belatedly discovered if they hadn't done good work on interesting problems, and published it. But there does seem to be some element of luck in the work turning out to be huge. There are plenty of people in exactly the same position who do good work on interesting problems, write a good journal article, and it doesn't turn out 10 years later to have unexpected but important implications, winning them the Nobel Prize. Just sort of how it happens; you can't always predict what is going to turn out to be important.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that wealthy businessmen are somewhat less willing to admit the role of luck than famous scientists are. Due to real differences in the role of luck in the two areas? Due to political considerations (the implications of admitting that wealth disparities aren't all due to merit are more political than the implications of admitting that scientific fame isn't purely due to merit)? Due to the self-deprecating scientists being humbler personalities? Dunno. And I could be wrong on the aggregate difference; I haven't done a survey or anything.

Luck is important, no doubt. But a)first you must follow your heart; b)you must do great work; and c)then you probably deserve some luck, too, and/or create your own luck.

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