Silicon Prairie News

Evan Williams: A play-by-play of his journey the last 20 years

Omaha May 9, 2014 by Jordan Pascale

Evan Williams thinks the name "Big Omaha" is a little redundant.

That's because Omaha is synonymous with big, from his childhood point of view, he said.

Clarks, his hometown was only 379 when he lived there in the 70s and 80s. Clarks is 100 miles west of Omaha and "one of the towns every ten miles on Highway 30." 

But he grew up outside that town on a farm. The field to the west of the farm, he points to a satellite image of the farm on the screen, was the one he was in charge of irrigating as a teen. 

He shows pictures of his younger self: him and his sister on modded John Deere bikes. The shed with the slanted roof that he would ramp off of with that modded bike. 

So to a young Evan Williams, Omaha was big. And terrifying when he did occasionally visit. 

But Williams, now in San Francisco said it's amazing that he can drive from Omaha to San Francisco and never leave I-80. And he's done that a couple times. 

"I want to show you that journey — not the drive — but the journey between then and today," he tells the 750 people at Big Omaha.

20 years ago 

Williams is telling a story. He's in Grand Island's Conestoga Mall, "where we get our duds."

At the bookstore, he's looking at a magazine rack with the neon colored second issue of Wired in 1993. 

"I wasn't a programmer yet, but into computers," he said. "There was one article about Dave Hughes and it said his life mission was to hook up all 5.5 billion brains on this planet.

"I was mesmerized by that. It blew my mind... this article painted a future that I wanted to be a part of." 

The Internet was where he should be, he said, but what could he do that was important and successful?

Fast forward a bit to his basement in Lincoln. He's in college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and talking to his buddy about how the Internet was going to be huge, but also how hard it was to use.

"Let's make a video to teach them how to use it," he said.

A slick-backed hair Williams talks about how many people are using it and how information about the Internet has grown.

"Indeed the Internet has finally come of age," his friend says.

That gets huge applause from the attendees.

“The Internet did finally come of age,” Williams laugh.

"I'm less convinced than I was in 1994 that the Internet has truly come of age," he would say later in the talk. "It's more complicated now." 

They sold the VHS "mostly through spam on Compuserve" 

"And that's how I started to be an Internet entrepreneur," he says. "My first lesson (in entrepreneurship) was just start." 

15 years ago

Williams has moved to California where he's busy at work with three friends on their first startup, Pyra. It was a productivity management app, but they began to track their changes on an internal weblog. 

They wanted to turn that change tracking app into something that became known as Blogger.

"No one had blogs at this time," he said. "We thought maybe others would want to use that, but the important thing was it just had to work."

It started to grow and grow quickly. Blogger co-founders were on a panel at South by Southwest. 

"We felt like rockstars... we were six months in at this point, but people at SXSW were into it," he said. "It made it easier to publish your thoughts on the web.

"It didn't make it possible... that was possible as long as there was a web."

But it made it easier. 

"We focus a lot on innovation being about new things, but people don't want to do anything new," he said. "They want the same thing they've always done. We have the same desires we've had for millennials: love, recognition, wanting to impact the world, create, express themselves. 

“We were just making it easier."

Williams dedicated five or six years to Blogger and the idea of personal expression. 

That theme continues throughout his life.  

Ten years ago

Williams is in Mountain View, California on Google’s campus. It's 2003 and Google had bought Blogger.

He calls Google a miraculous playground for geeks. They were smart, intimidating and had Ivy League degrees.

Half of Blogger's six workers — including Williams — didn't have degrees at all.

"We doubled the number of people in this 1000-plus person company that didn't have degrees," he said. 

But while Williams felt out of his league professionally, he also had felt that way socially for most of his life.

It was at a Google party where he was walking out when a beautiful woman was walking in.

"I was like 'whoa...' I started following her around the party... we both worked there so it wasn't creepy," he said jokingly. 

In the past he'd likely just follow a girl around and would think, "eh, maybe someday I'll get her email."

Instead, he said to his friend, "watch this."

He talked to her. Later, he married her. 

"So act fast (in life)," he said. "Walk up to that girl."

Fast is better than slow in other places, too, he said. He pointed to Google and they're obsessed with speed from how fast servers return search queries to how fast they innovate. 

He also told the audience to think big. He saw Google begin projects to scan books, but not just some— they were scanning and uploading all of them digitally. 

"The brilliance of those guys is that they take on crazy unreasonable things," he said. "I come from a world where I just tried to pay the rent. 

"Even if you’re not Google, you can think big as long as you remember to start small."

Five years ago 

Evan Williams is in Chicago almost five years to the day. It's April 17, 2009.

He's in his hotel room and tweets: “I forgot to pack socks. I’m going to meet Oprah wearing dirty socks.”

Williams is tweeting one of the most popular women in the world how to use this newfangled publishing platform called Twitter.

On live TV, he shows her how to use the 140-character platform. 

She tweets: "HI TWITTERS THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. FEELING REALLY 21ST CENTURY."

The caps lock is on. She doesn't hit the right key to send the tweet. 

Instead, she hits the button to refresh the page. 

The tweet is gone.

Panicked, he grabs the computer and types it out again and hits send.

"So I typed it over again and I don't know if I changed it or what happened in that moment," he said.

Oprah joined that day. So does 400,000 other people, one of the biggest days in Twitter history.

But still, at about three-years-old, people don't understand Twitter.

So much so that he shows a slide of a Google search page at the time.

“I don’t get…" autofilled with "I don't get Twitter” as the second result.

"So Twitter was the number two thing in the world that thing people didn’t get," he said.

Now people get it. Oprah has 24.1 million followers. Evan has nearly 2 million followers.

The platform has more than a billion users. 

But Williams was surprised at how Twitter was being used: organizing protests in the Middle East, an alert system and communication tool during emergencies, changing journalism.

"You have to be open about what you're doing and leave room for use cases you don't anticipate," he said. 

Today

Medium is Williams' latest endeavor, another publishing platform like Twitter and Blogger but with a different goal.

His first companies' goals were to take down the barrier and make it easier to publish.

"The Internet has done that," he said. "We've enabled sharing to the world. Maybe not every 5.5 billion brains are connected, but of those connected, it can’t get easier to share ideas or thoughts or pictures."

But the next challenge was taming the ever-flowing stream of info, with more and more stuff on top of the reverse chronological order timelines. 

With Medium, he wants the cream of content to rise to the top. 

The other thing he has going on today — his wife and two young boys and learning to stay balanced.

He said he's getting a lot done but working way less hours.

"There's still some romance to that and if passion drives you, that's awesome," he said. "Sometimes you have to make up for wisdom and experience with brute force."

But he feels he would've been more effective had he focused on balance earlier in his life. 

"I'm loving life today and happy to be here."

Paraphrased Q&A 

What’s most surprising use case of any of your products?

The Arab Spring and people using our products in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran to organize protests. A few weeks after Oprah, we had scheduled maintenance, but the State Department asked us if we could put it off. We did move it, but throughout we never wanted to take sides. We didn't know if these were good things or bad things that could end poorly. I just didn't know enough about it. But we always did believe in the free flow of information so we did move the maintenance back. 

You have a good track record of companies. What's your process for choosing what to work on and how do you validate your ideas?

I was talking to my brother about this last night. He reminded me that focus used to be my main problem. I had too many ideas. I counted that I had 32 projects in one year at one point. That's too many. 

I realized I needed to be passionate about an idea if I'm running with it. That was one lesson about Odio (an audio company he worked on). I made the mistake of investing in a project that I wasn't personally passionate about. It was a good idea and we were asked to launch at a Ted conference, which was great, but I wasn't into it.

How do you create that life balance?

There's a spectrum. I think what Darya (Rose) talked about yesterday is important at any stage in a career. If you do work you need to think and be creative, but that really important stuff comes from within. 

I get enough sleep. I meditate. I get deep thought and creativity from it.

I build and maintain personal relationships. You can work 16 hours a day if you have that stamina, but if you can cut out those things, that's alright, too.

 

Check back in with Silicon Prairie News to read and watch an exclusive 40-minute interview with Evan Williams. We talk about his Huskers CD-ROM, what he likes to write, what's on the front page of his iPhone, if he's an unfollower and what he thinks about wealth. 


 


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