During a revolution, perception is everything. That’s why rebels around the world always occupy TV stations first — so they can make clear to everyone they’re in charge. And that’s why Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey started acting like a leader in it for the long haul as soon as he became the company’s interim CEO in July.
Dorsey signaled at the company’s July 28 earnings call that he wasn’t just going to mark time until a permanent chief exec showed up. Calling Twitter’s recent performance “unacceptable,” he was deeply critical of the company, and went on to lay out an ambitious turnaround process — one that would surely take longer than Twitter’s CEO search.
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In the following weeks, he stuck to that plan, and began to restructure the company’s product team, which started to roll out new features at a furious pace. “There was no way in which he acted as an interim CEO,” said Twitter’s product chief Kevin Weil at Recode’s Code/Mobile conference in October.
What was surprising about Dorsey’s radical tone was that he wasn’t the early odds-on favorite to become CEO. He already had a job as the CEO of the payment-processing upstart Square, and Twitter’s board was adamant about finding an executive willing to commit full time to the position, after the company’s former CEO, Dick Costolo, resigned in June.
But Dorsey appeared set on running both companies. That wasn’t lost on investors, who rushed to his side, putting pressure on the board, which, earlier this month, worn down and without better alternatives, agreed to remove the word “interim” from Dorsey’s Twitter CEO title, while he remains in the leadership post at Square.
“We did not start the search with this scenario in mind,” said board member Peter Currie during the CEO announcement call. Twitter co-founder and fellow board member Evan Williams struck a similar tone in a blog post: “I honestly didn’t think we’d land on Jack when we started, unless he could step away from Square. But ultimately, we decided it was worth it.”
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But for Dorsey, whom Twitter reps declined to make available for an interview, getting the CEO title is only the first step. The real challenge will be to bring about real change at a company that’s ripe for a revolution.
Twitter’s fortunes looked bleak for much of this year. The company had 302 million monthly active and registered users at the end of June, which is just 2 million more than during the preceding quarter, and a far cry from Facebook’s 1.49 billion monthly active users. What’s worse, Twitter’s growth in the U.S. has completely flatlined, with 65 million monthly actives. Competing services like Instagram and Snapchat, on the other hand, continue their healthy growth.
This failure to grow, and waning investor confidence, led to Costolo’s resignation, and concerns about Twitter’s abilities to expand its footprint have sent the company’s stock tumbling, at one point falling $5 below its IPO price in August.
The problem is that Twitter can’t explain what it stands for, say critics — including Dorsey himself. “People all over the world know of the power of Twitter, but it’s not clear why they should harness it themselves,” he said during the company’s most recent earnings call.
Those harsh words didn’t sit well with some at Twitter. Three product executives announced their departures on the very same day, continuing a brain drain at the company that has seen it lose key employees to competitors like Facebook and YouTube. But that attrition was nothing compared with the layoffs Twitter announced this month, when it booted 338 of its roughly 4,200 employees. The downsizing, which also affected the company’s engineering and product teams, was necessary for a turnaround, argued Dorsey in a company-wide email: “This isn’t easy. But it is right. The world needs a strong Twitter, and this is another step to get there.”
Dorsey’s recent rise to power was just the latest twist in a long-simmering struggle over the leadership of Twitter: The messaging service was incubated out of a podcasting startup called Odeo that ran out of steam in 2006. Williams, a blogging pioneer who was then Odeo CEO, made Dorsey Twitter’s first chief exec, only to push him out and make himself CEO in 2008.
|Making his pitch: Jack Dorsey shares his vision for Twitter with attendees at the company’s recent #VideoNow confab in New York, his first public appearance after being named permanent CEO.
Bryan Thomas/The New York Times/ Redux
Two years later, it was Williams’ turn to be ousted by the company’s board, which hired Costolo to replace him, and soon after brought Dorsey back as chairman of the company. This summer’s CEO shuffle of Dorsey for Costolo brought things full circle. Twitter’s story since its inception has been so full of drama and intrigue that a book about it by New York Times writer Nick Bilton has been optioned by Lionsgate as a prospective television series.
But the back-and-forth didn’t just make for a good story, it also led to serious structural problems within Twitter. Insiders interviewed for this article describe the company as one long plagued by the inability to make decisions on key issues. That especially has hampered development, to the point where new products and features were built, then quietly buried because leadership changed its mind. A former employee tasked with creating some of these never-launched products described the atmosphere as “Kafka-esque,” saying that developers were constantly struggling with mixed messages about their work and the decision-making process within the company. “I don’t know who was running the place,” he says.
On paper, that person was Costolo, the former standup comedian-turned-tech executive who had successfully sold a startup to Google before joining Twitter in 2009. Costolo has been described as very well liked within the company. But many of his former employees say in interviews that he had a hard time making decisions on his own, and was prone to changing his mind based on advice from his confidants.
Twitter’s primary ray of hope has been monetization, an effort led by chief revenue officer Adam Bain, a former Fox executive high on the CEO candidate list, who will continue under Dorsey as chief operating officer. Revenue grew from a mere $28 million in 2010 to $1.4 billion in 2014. This year, Twitter expects to bring in at least $2.2 billion in sales, and the company’s most recent quarter exceeded the market’s expectations, with a healthy 61% year-over-year growth in revenue.
That’s why some analysts aren’t buying into the doom and gloom. “I still feel good about Twitter,” says Scott Kessler, equity analyst at S&P Capital IQ, whose company put out a strong buy recommendation on Twitter in August, just as investors were abandoning the stock in droves. “Revenue growth has been very healthy. I look at it as a growth story, with a very sizable platform.”
One of the reasons Kessler remains bullish is Twitter’s growing video business, which happened to be the topic of the day during Dorsey’s first public appearance a few days after becoming permanent CEO. Dorsey, Bain and other execs were touting the company’s ability to find audiences for media and brands alike at an event earlier this month dubbed #VideoNow in New York.
Twitter has been expanding its advertising business to video since it introduced an ad platform dubbed Amplify in 2013. This month, it expanded the program to automatically serve ads against the content of select partners, making it possible for those like Fox, MTV and Univision to simply publish video content and reap the rewards via a revenue-sharing deal, without the need to first strike agreements with advertisers. It’s what has turned YouTube into a big money-maker for Google, and it could do the same for Twitter.
|“I honestly didn’t think we’d land on Jack when we started, unless he could step away from Square. But ultimately, we decided it was worth it.”|
And then there are Twitter’s other video elements, Vine and Periscope. Vine in particular has seen huge growth, and an unexpected evolution. It started as a social-video platform, giving anyone the ability to quickly shoot and share six-second clips. Those constraints proved perfect for a new generation of entertainers in search for brevity. “Six seconds is just enough time for a quick setup and a punchline, so Vine is a great platform for comedy,” says Tyler McFadden, co-CEO of Collab, a multichannel network for Vine stars.
And those jokes are finding an audience: Vine videos are being watched by 100 million users every month, and looped more than 1 billion times a day, which translates to more than 1.7 million hours of video footage viewed daily, according to data recently released by the company. Twitter isn’t serving any ads to those eyeballs yet, but analysts like Kessler believe that the company could add a significant revenue stream once it does start to monetize Vine.
Periscope, launched in earnest in March, is Twitter’s foray into mobile live streaming. Its 40 million registered users collectively watch 350,000 hours of content each day. That number is expected to skyrocket once Twitter integrates Periscope into its parent app, allowing users to watch live streams within tweets. “There is a lot of opportunity,” Kessler says of the live-streaming startup.
But Twitter has begun to embrace radical change outside of Vine and Periscope. A first big step was the launch of Moments, a curated Twitter experience that the company unveiled the day after Dorsey’s CEO standing was stamped in full. Moments are collections of individual tweets, often accompanied by photos or videos, curated by an editorial team at Twitter to best capture news events and current trends.
At launch, some of these Moments have ranged from a collection of media clips about the “Fear the Walking Dead” finale to curated tweets about the European refugee crisis. Twitter is cooperating with select partners on the curation of Moments, with the Washington Post, Major League Baseball, Mashable and a few others contributing at launch. The company wants to eventually open up the product to other media brands as well, and even turn it into a revenue generator by allowing brands to participate with sponsored Moments.
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Moments is significant for Twitter because it represents a bold new move just as the company needs to show it’s capable of change. What makes the offering so revolutionary is that it uses Twitter’s data and algorithms, but doesn’t feel at all like Twitter. This could help win over users who get overwhelmed
by the service’s never-ending maelstrom of tweets, as well as those tempted by Snapchat and other more visual platforms. Twitter wants to promote Moments with a significant marketing campaign, but has yet to share further details of those efforts.
Some have argued that Twitter is taking some very liberal cues from Snapchat and other competitors for Moments, but that doesn’t bother senior Fortune writer and longtime Twitter critic Mathew Ingram. “It suggests there’s a demand out there for that kind of thing,” he says. “The question is whether it’s really going to be enough to move the needle for Twitter.”
Dorsey is contemplating even more radical tweaks to Twitter’s service in the coming months. One reported feature would allow users to publish content that’s longer than 140 characters, eliminating the need to split and slice more complex thoughts to fit them into tweets. And on a recent investor call, Dorsey said the company would continue to question the reverse-chronological order of tweets — a mainstay of Twitter that leads to most recent messages being displayed on top, but doesn’t invite users to go back and look at what happened in previous hours.
Dorsey is expected to lay out some of those changes on Oct. 21 at the company’s Flight developer conference in San Francisco, where he will speak before more than 1,000 developers who make use of Twitter’s services and tools for their own apps. The relationship between the company and third-party developers has been contentious in the past; Twitter initially allowed developers to access much of its service, then started to enforce much stricter rules.
Ingram thinks Dorsey should use the opportunity to build bridges and gather allies for his revolution. “He needs to be unequivocal about how Twitter wants and needs the help of third-party apps and services, and make some concrete statements about what Twitter is prepared to do to make that happen,” Ingram says.
All of these changes won’t go over easily with Twitter’s existing users, and Dorsey and his team will have to find a delicate balance between attracting new customers and retaining existing ones — otherwise, it might find itself confronted with a counterrevolution, or worse: mass defection.
A product like Moments is meant to minimize the threat to Twitter of losing out to Instagram and Snapchat — but even if successful, it won’t pay off overnight. Chief financial officer Anthony Noto told investors in July that it will take considerable time before Moments and other new initiatives have a significant impact on Twitter’s user growth.
|Public Presence: Dick Costolo, Jack Dorsey, Mike Gupta (background), Evan Williams and Biz Stone on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Nov. 7, 2013, as Twitter’s IPO begins trading.
EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT VIA NEWSCOM
That puts Dorsey and his team in a bind. Twitter’s next big litmus test is coming up at the end of this month, when the company is scheduled to report its third-quarter earnings — and investors are fickle.
Any further sign of bad news could again send Twitter’s stock downwards, and could have dangerous consequences for the company: A low market valuation comes with the real risk of takeover bids. Facebook tried buying Twitter once before, and may be willing to spend some significant cash to once and for all get rid of a competitor. Google has struggled to find a social strategy of its own, and may want to buy Twitter to jump-start those efforts.
To keep investors patient — and users from defecting — Dorsey may have to once more do what he did so masterfully with his own company’s board this summer: Let perception shape reality. Act bold to be successful. Be revolutionary to show the world that things really are changing at Twitter.
In the past, Twitter has had a hard time shaping its own image. It didn’t exactly help that the company twice fired its head of communications in the midst of corporate crises. But in many ways, Twitter’s image problems can be boiled down to a single, overriding concern: a fear of embracing a point of view that could offend some of its users.
Over the years, Twitter has welcomed political leaders from countries around the world, and users with a wide-ranging spectrum of beliefs. To grow its service, executives decided early on that it was best to remain neutral, and stay out of the spotlight even as the service was being used to organize student protests in Iran and overthrow governments across the Middle East. Twitter may have been enabling revolutions, but it tried hard not to look revolutionary itself.
That could be changing with Dorsey at the helm. “We stand for speaking truth to power,” he proclaimed with revolutionary fervor just hours after getting the CEO job this month. In his time as interim CEO, he has been retweeting calls for gun control, welcomed Edward Snowden to Twitter and sent out a number of tweets with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag.
And last year, when he was still just leading Square, Dorsey took an impromptu trip to his native St. Louis to stand with and tweet in support of protesters against police brutality. That raised eyebrows in the tech community, with some questioning whether Dorsey’s time wouldn’t be better spent leading the startup. But at Square, it earned him the admiration of his employees, who knew their boss wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in.
A man of conviction, with fire in his belly: If anyone can win the revolution for Twitter, it may just be Jack Dorsey.