Twitter is proof the idea is more powerful than the creator

Founder-led tech companies are so closely associated with the leaders’ image that it becomes impossible to separate the platform from the innovator, until they leave

AFP filephoto
AFP filephoto

By Gopika Nair

Published: Sun 5 Dec 2021, 10:48 PM

Love or hate Twitter, no one can deny Jack Dorsey went out in style.

News about the Twitter co-founder’s resignation wasn’t leaked to the press or circulating on unverified social media accounts; it came directly from the horse’s mouth on a platform of his own creation.

Posting the resignation email on Twitter is almost a power move when you consider the fact that Dorsey’s stint as the company’s CEO has been a publicised on-again, off-again affair.

He first assumed the title in 2007. A year later, co-founder Evan Williams and prominent Twitter board member Fred Wilson ousted Dorsey, deeming him unfit to lead the company. In 2015, four years after acting as interim CEO, he resumed the throne once again in a permanent role. But this time around, he maintains his decision to leave is by choice.

The abrupt announcement left much of the tech world shell-shocked, with many wondering about Twitter’s future. The brief curiosity saw the company’s stock spike by 3 per cent, but it deflated shortly after. For Twitter, this is almost expected. The social media platform has never quite kept up with the pace of Facebook and Instagram, both of which are far more popular among a wider range of users.

For years, news outlets and analysts only used one word to describe Twitter’s user growth: stagnant. That changed this year when the platform registered 211 million active users in October, a rise from 187 million in 2020. The company’s revenue increased to $1.28 billion in the third quarter, up 37 per cent compared to last year.

Twitter’s ultimate goal is to double its revenue and reach 315 million by 2023, and if the platform manages to sustain its momentum, the target seems achievable. But if 2021 has been kind to the company, why is Dorsey choosing to leave now? Despite his vision for Twitter Inc. to be the most transparent company in the world, he doesn’t give a concrete answer in his resignation email. But one point stands out.

“There’s a lot of talk about the importance of a company being founder-led,” he wrote. “Ultimately, I believe that’s severely limiting and a single point of failure. I’ve worked hard to ensure this company can break away from its founding and founders.”

As Dorsey himself acknowledged in the same email, “there aren’t many founders that choose their company over their own ego”.

The line might be a dig at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has often been called the company’s biggest problem. When he announced the rebranding of Facebook to Meta while the company was embroiled in a slew of crises, critics were quick to point out that a name change wouldn’t save the company from its past, especially not with Zuckerberg at the helm.

Founder-led tech companies are so closely associated with the leaders’ image that it becomes impossible to separate the platform from the innovator — until, of course, they leave.

The founding faces of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter invoke images of celebrity that are hard to shake. At the mention of Apple, one might think of Steve Jobs rather than Tim Cook, while Microsoft conjures up a picture of Bill Gates, not Satya Nadella. And yet, no one can discount Cook or Nadella’s contributions.

When Cook took over as CEO of Apple a decade ago, the world was dubious. How much more successful could one of the world’s biggest tech companies be? Under Cook, Apple’s value increased to over $2 trillion, which is more than some economies of entire countries. Nadella, on the other hand, has been hailed as the man who resurrected Microsoft when it was on the verge of irrelevance.

While Microsoft was floundering when Nadella became CEO, Apple was at its peak. But under new leadership, both companies shouldered new initiatives, explored different trajectories and thrived as a result.

Dorsey, too, has said that Twitter needs to stand on its own two feet, “free of its founder’s influence or direction”. A similar sentiment was echoed by Twitter’s ‘forgotten’ co-founder Noah Glass a decade ago.

Glass, who came up with the name Twitter and whose bio on the platform still reads “I started this”, was fired from the company in 2006. He has largely been erased from Twitter’s history, and in an interview with Insider, he said the exclusion “was hard to swallow” because of the love and labour that went into creating the platform.

“But when I realised what was happening to the product, this thing I helped create, the thing’s not about me. The thing’s about itself,” he said. “Twitter is a phenomenon and a massively beneficial tool and it’s incredibly useful and it helps a lot of people. I realised the story’s not about me. That’s okay.” Dorsey’s resignation announcement was followed by a fair amount of speculation. Some wonder if he will truly leave Twitter for good, while others are hung up on the ‘why’ of his sudden departure.

We may never get a conclusive answer from Dorsey himself, but maybe he, like Glass, accepted that the story of Twitter is no longer is about him. And that’s okay. While it’s still too soon to say, the new Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal, might just be the person to revive Twitter before it lapses into inertia, just as Nadella did for Microsoft.

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