Twitter co-founder and career entrepreneur Evan Williams said Friday in Omaha that he remains unshaken by this week's falling stock prices for the social media company.
The company, with more than 255 million active monthly users and worth more than $18 billion, saw its stock price lose more than half of its value this year and drop to new lows this week as early investors and executives were allowed to sell shares for the first time Tuesday.
Williams holds almost 10 percent of Twitter's outstanding shares and did not relinquish any stock.
He told The World-Herald he has a “very long-term view” of a company that he's spent a lot of time building. He served as CEO for two years and continues to serve on the board.
Detractors of the company's growth prospects might look to the social media platform's role as something more than user numbers, Williams said, considering, for example, its role in helping Arab Spring protesters communicate during civil upheaval in the Arab world that began in late 2010.
Twitter's role in movements that led to the ouster of heads of state was the “biggest surprise” Williams witnessed since the company's inception. During Iranian election protests in 2009, the social media service even captured the attention of the U.S. State Department, which urged the company to delay scheduled downtime during the protests.
“There's a very superficial understanding of any company from the outside and people have this illusion of knowledge, but what they really have is data,” Williams said. “In a rare number of cases do people actually have a nuanced understanding.”
Williams, who grew up in Clarks and returned to Nebraska for the annual Big Omaha conference on entrepreneurship and innovation, shared with attendees Friday two critical rules: aim to make things easier for people, and start simply.
The web creation Blogger that he co-founded and later sold to Google didn't make it possible to post thoughts and ideas in the web, he said, it just made it easier.
The project itself spun out of a more complicated, web-based project management tool he and his team members at Pyra Labs were using to communicate.
Eventually, Blogger “ushered in millions of new voices and ideas into the world,” he said.
Later, Twitter proved the power of writings limited to 140 characters.
So there's a certain irony about Williams' latest venture, a web-publishing platform called Medium, that he says is designed to simplify the process of writing, reading and discovering valuable content on the Internet. Discovery of that content is obstructed by a deluge of information that grows stronger every day.
“People say that is partially my doing,” Williams told The World-Herald after his lecture Friday.
But the goal with Medium is to make it easier to publish and discover good stories and ideas and not to create media for the sake of creating media, he said. “It's for people that really have the need to put something out there.”
At Big Omaha, Williams recalled picking up the second-ever issue of Wired magazine at Walden Books at the Conestoga Mall in Grand Island more than 20 years ago. He said that even though he was still living in Nebraska, his mind was elsewhere.
“Wired was writing about the future and that's where I was living at the time,” Williams told the sold-out crowd of 750 Big Omaha attendees at Kaneko.
It would be about four more years before Williams would finally land in San Francisco, and even longer before he found real success.
The 42-year-old evoked many laughs from a rapt audience, but his message was often serious.
One thing he's learned, he said, “There's always more to do and more to learn. But (my family) has led me to a more balanced approach to work than I've ever had before.”
His message resounded Mike Coon, 50, a Big Omaha first-timer who grew up in a central Iowa farming community nearly identical in size to Williams' hometown.
Coon left the corporate sector years ago armed with a Harvard Business School MBA and a passion for entrepreneurship. He's now the CEO of an Ames, Iowa-based precision technology startup called dataTHRESH.
“One doesn't have to reach (Williams') level of success to reach their goals, but it's very inspiring to see people who have done it,” Coon said.
He related to Williams' desire to get out and explore a bigger world, and liked his humility.
Williams described how, even after selling Blogger to Google in 2003, he had to ask for an advance on his salary to buy a car to commute to the company's Mountain View, California, headquarters.
At that point, Williams said he “came from a world (at Blogger) where I was just trying to pay rent and that made it difficult to think about these hugely unreasonable things” the team at Google was trying to accomplish. He also said he felt he was one of just a handful of employees working at the Google campus that didn't have a college degree.
“I felt like an impostor, but I was excited to learn new things,” Williams said.
There, Williams also met his future wife. They now have two young boys.
Even though both Williams and his wife have made a living in the tech industry, he said their children take in only sparing amounts of media and technology.
“Like everything else, that needs to be moderated,” Williams said. “But if they have a passion or a thirst for knowledge, they'll have more than a kid on a farm that got to go to the library once a week.”