Twitter co-founder Evan Williams' success doesn't surprise those who knew him growing up in Nebraska

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Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 12:00 am

CLARKS, Neb. — As the crow flies, more than 1,300 miles separate this town from San Francisco. Traveling by car, it takes about 25 hours to get from point A to point B.

It took Evan Williams 25 years.

The 42-year-old entrepreneur-turned-social media magnate is best known as a co-founder of Twitter and Blogger, but before the tech world knew Williams simply as @ev, the Clarks native was a member of the high school band and the choir and speech teams.

He was voted best actor as a junior in the drama club. He played basketball as a sophomore at Clarks Public School. And he worked on his father's farm to make sure thousands of acres of row crops were properly irrigated.

In the Merrick County farming community of 360 residents, like countless others across rural America, that's what kids do — they do almost everything.

Few, however, grow up to help create two of the world's most-visited websites and become a billionaire doing it.

Williams will be back in Nebraska this week for the sold-out Big Omaha conference for entrepreneurs. He deferred an interview until he could do it in person. But family members, friends and a former teacher shared their memories of Williams' younger years with The World-Herald.

His success has surprised none of them.

“The thing about Evan is that he was always ahead of the curve on everything,” said Matt Wibbels, a childhood friend and classmate of Williams.

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Williams had an enviable pop culture lexicon, and the bands on his mix tapes most definitely weren't being played on the local country radio stations.

Despite his “mental rebellion,” as one former teacher described it, Williams was an altogether polite and respectful kid. His parents describe him as the easiest of the four Williams kids to raise, mostly because he had a penchant for keeping himself entertained.

Not surprisingly, Williams “didn't really jive” with the people in Clarks, he wrote in a blog entry from December 2001. He sought stimulation and new influences, and that was especially difficult to find before the Internet era. “My sources were limited,” Williams wrote. “I often think how drastically different my life would have been had I grown up with the Web.”

Today, Wibbels still seems bewildered that his friend mused 30 years ago about networking Atari consoles together. That same idea, in varying iterations, is now worth millions of dollars to companies like Microsoft and Sony.

Of course, Williams' ambitions at age 12 were less capitalistic.

“He was like, 'Man, I wish we didn't always have to ask our parents to sleep over and play video games,' ” Wibbels said.

* * *

Born in Aurora on March 31, 1972, Evan Clark Williams by all accounts always yearned for something more.

As the third child of Monte Williams, a third-generation farmer from Clarks, and Laurie Howe, a substitute teacher who had attended country school near the Panhandle community of Mitchell, Williams telegraphed his intelligence from an early age.

He quickly resolved a stutter that developed soon after he began speaking at about 2½ years old. His parents say he would have talked sooner had his brother, Lincoln Williams, not appointed himself Evan's unofficial spokesman.

Once Evan Williams did start talking, the sentences rolled out. Legos and puzzles fascinated him. He loved to draw and paint.

Williams' parents divorced during Evan's senior year of high school and, following the split, his mother, now Laurie Taake, moved 30 miles away to Columbus. Evan and his younger sister, Allie, went with her. His mother assumed her son would be “terrified” to resume his senior year in a significantly larger school.

With 17,300 residents, Columbus “seemed like a metropolis,” Williams said in a June 2013 interview. But that didn't deter him from seizing an opportunity to broaden his horizons. “His actual words were, 'Mom, if I don't move, I'm going to die,' ” Taake said recently. She now lives in Des Moines, where she is retired.

In Columbus, Evan Williams had an aura of being “kind of the weird, mysterious kid,” said Craig Kohtz, who graduated from Columbus High School with Williams and remembers him hanging out with a younger crowd at school.

Far more conspicuous than Williams himself was the mustard yellow 1970s BMW in which he got around.

Paul Bausch, who first encountered Williams during his senior year at Columbus, also remembers the BMW. But he, like Kohtz, was taken by Williams' “different” persona. “I thought maybe his differences were related to coming from a smaller town.”

Really, though, Evan Williams was dying to be in the biggest pond he could find.

* * *

Evan Williams' persona is well-known throughout the Silicon Valley and has often been described in the mainstream media. A New York Times story on leadership shake-ups at Twitter in 2010 described him as “famously deliberate and cautious,” “ill at ease on the big stage” and “methodical.”

Jae Lynn Vyhlidal, who taught English for 29 years at Clarks before finishing her teaching career at Columbus, agrees with those assessments. Evan Williams, she said, simply preferred to skew from the center of attention. He could have been a straight-A student but wasn't, she said.

“He never needed to blow his own horn,” said Vyhlidal, who taught him and his siblings through their years at Clarks Public School. “They were all really, really nice kids and everyone fit in, but they didn't care if they fit in.”

Where the elder Williams brother was president of his fraternity at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has taken an ownership role in virtually every job he's worked in since graduating, Evan Williams abandoned his college education at UNL about two weeks before finals during his sophomore year.

He told his father in spring 1992 he had a mentor in Key West, Florida, for whom he could work writing direct mail marketing copy, so Monte Williams cautiously gave his approval. It didn't work out.

Evan Williams returned to Nebraska in 1994, where he finally began the entrepreneurial streak he has often described as a “painful (but educational) mess.”

One project led by his brother, who now owns a business in Lincoln that deals in water and wastewater management and automation equipment, involved documenting the history of Cornhuskers football on the then-popular CD-ROM format. Monte Williams provided some financing for the project.

“That was part of my demise in farming,” Monte Williams said recently, laughing, “in that I funneled a little bit too much money in that direction.”

At about the same time as the CD-ROM project, the younger Williams recruited friends from UNL to work as informal associates in an attempt to sell and service Internet domains for local companies. Both Kohtz and Bausch contributed some time to this project.

“I had various Web jobs around Lincoln, but it was always a tiny subculture of people interested in it there,” Bausch said. “Sometimes, I felt like Evan, Craig and I were the only people paying attention to that world.”

The Williamses were forced to jettison the CD-ROM idea and Evan Williams' subsequent Nebraska-based attempts at capitalizing on the Internet.

“We knew how many computers were out there and how many had CD-ROM drives, but we didn't know how many people didn't know how to put a disc in,” Monte Williams said.

* * *

Within three years, Bausch and Kohtz had accepted positions with a Lincoln-based technology firm, but Evan Williams remained cool on the prospect of working for someone else. Monte Williams declined to finance any additional business attempts there and his youngest son moved back home to Clarks.

Then, in May 1997, with “no degree or significant tangible skills,” Williams blogged, he went west. He accepted a job with O'Reilly and Associates of Sebastopol, California, about one hour north of San Francisco, working as a marketing coordinator for the company's software group. He was 25 and it was his first-ever professional job.

Seven months later, Williams quit the company, then was rehired as a contract intranet developer. Thanks to better pay, flexible hours and a chance encounter with a Massachusetts Web developer named Meg Hourihan, a fledgling Web startup was born in 1999.

Hourihan and Williams named it Pyra Labs, and Paul Bausch joined the team early on.

“I discovered he was really into the Web and excited about all these possibilities,” Hourihan said. “He was the first person I ever met that felt the way I did. My sense was he didn't fit in in Nebraska.”

The team would accidentally spawn Blogger, which was originally an internal diary to support development of a Web-based project management tool. Blogger, a term adapted from “weblog,” as the first blogs were known, was among the earliest and most popular tools enabling ordinary Internet users to self-publish personal Web pages.

About three years later, and following internal strife and the virtual disbandment of the original Pyra team, Evan Williams rebuilt and sold Blogger to Google for an undisclosed sum.

Not long after that, Williams would go on to co-found a microblogging service in which users could communicate what they were doing using 140 characters or fewer.

Today, Twitter has 255 million monthly active users around the world and trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Williams served as CEO for about two years, then moved on in October 2010. He has remained on the board and is one of the largest shareholders with almost 56million shares.

His main focus now is Medium, a new Web-publishing platform with the stated goal of making it “dead simple to write and present a beautiful story without having to be a designer or programmer.” The platform features a simple-by-design interface that focuses on reading and writing and has a feed that uses computer modeling and human decisions to curate suggestions for new content.

Questions linger over how Medium will be monetized, but a $25 million round of financing led by San Francisco Bay Area investment firm Greylock Partners in January shows monied interests still have faith in self-publishing.

“Media is still in the midst of a massive shift from print to digital,” Greylock partner Josh Elman said. “It's also been a challenge for readers to search for and discover things worth reading.” He believes Medium is a solution to that challenge.

* * *

Back in Clarks, Lincoln Williams and his father still farm about 100 acres of land. They travel to hunt wild game, including alligators and wild boar. In the foyer of Monte Williams' home are trophies: A stuffed mountain lion high on the wall faces a bear on its haunches and other mounts.

Evan Williams was never into farming or hunting, and has been a vegetarian for about 20 years. For these reasons and others, Lincoln Williams questions whether he had much of an influence on his younger brother.

“The biggest question was always whether he could focus on one thing long enough, which he did with Blogger,” Lincoln Williams said.

Both Lincoln Williams and Monte Williams recall a later conversation at Evan's bachelor party in Las Vegas in 2007 that concerned the potential sale of Twitter. He told his guests the company had been offered more than $70 million to sell out.

When asked about a figure he would entertain, Evan Williams responded he wanted to grow the company to $1 billion. His brother spit his drink out.

Twitter's market cap has fluctuated from a high of about $40 billion to about $19 billion today.

“Shows how much I know,” Lincoln Williams said.

Of course, it's unlikely Evan Williams will ever return to the Cornhusker State except for visits. He, his wife and two children live in San Francisco.

“I love it here,” he said of the city in a November 2007 blog entry. “Just being around the creative energy, the action, and the ambitious, smart people is reason enough for me, business advantages aside.”

But Williams seems to harbor no contempt for his roots, still evident by his tiny handprint in the concrete patio at his father's house.

He even impressed an unwitting love for Husker football on Hourihan in the Pyra days. Even though it's one of the lesser interests of Ev and Paul, she said, “I learned all about Nebraska football coaches, I got the oral history of important games, certain plays under various coaches and outrageous things that happened to deny them of their rightful bowl games,” Hourihan said. “It was fun.”

Williams has been “very generous” to his entire family, said Monte Williams, who is proud that Evan has “always been respectful” to his Midwestern upbringing. Though he lacked clear trajectory as an aspiring entrepreneur, he's always been driven to succeed — not at all unlike his father or brother.

“Lincoln and I talked about this from the time we did business together,” Monte Williams said. “We knew that Evan would someday be rich. We didn't know he'd be this rich this soon, but we knew he was driven to the point of success.”

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