When Google Went Public … (Twitter IPO)

Fittingly it was with a tweet that Twitter announced the filing of a S-1, the first formal step towards an IPO. The document remains confidential so debating their financials is nothing but a speculative argument at this point. Twitter has become my most important social messaging platform, a place where (as @hunterwalk) I’m able to share ideas, find new interesting voices, discover great content and get a snapshot of what the world is thinking. I use other products but I live in Twitter.

The reportedly 2,000+ Twitter employees must be thrilled about this next phase of their company. Besides generating incredible wealth for many of them, being a public company is both a symbolic step towards becoming indelible and a very real milestone with both benefits and costs.

I arrived at Google in late 2003, prior to our S-1 being filed in April 2004. There was already lots of internal and external speculation about our trajectory but until the document went public, no one understood just how powerful a business model the company had created. During my interview process Google HR was very secretive about the value of my equity. In fact they told me only the number of shares I had been granted. Without knowing the number of shares outstanding or the enterprise value of the company, a grant total was totally useless but they essentially said “trust us.”

What changed once we went public and how might these same shifts impact Twitter?

  • Data Got Locked Down: Before our IPO Google was notably open with its data internally. There were many ways to access near realtime revenue and other tools we could use in the course of managing daily business. With the public offering came regulatory requirements and many of these dashboards went behind authenticated logins, where only certain Googlers could access based on job needs. If you filed for access there was often a delay in approval. Larry, Sergey and Eric remained committed to being as open as possible but the days of our sales chief standing up at Friday meetings and announcing revenue for the quarter were obviously over. Google has done a remarkable job of remaining transparent internally but with a stock offering comes certain changes that are non-negotiable. If they haven’t already, Twitter employees will soon find themselves partitioning tools and data by function
  • Public Currency for Acquisitions, Hiring: Whereas all stock to this point as been speculative — it *might* be worth something in the future — liquidity in the public markets means Twitter will have a strong weapon for more acquisitions and hiring candidates. Not necessarily the employees who want the IPO pop (more on that below) but they can put together packages which match the current expected value of one’s current employer. From an acquisition standpoint it will be interesting to see whether Twitter uses cash or stock. Stock is cheap now but expensive later if you believe the share price will rise. Google historically pays cash, although there were notable examples such as the YouTube deal.
  • A Different Type of Employee Gets Hired: It’s silly to say that Twitter will no longer be a startup once they IPO. The reality is they’re not a startup now — risk is off the table, thousands of employees, hundreds of millions in revenue. Post-IPO though there’s a psychology that seems to impact potential hires — you start getting fewer risk takers applying and more careerists. This isn’t absolutely a bad thing — hiring more experienced leaders is important for a company’s stability and Twitter has certainly already raided lots of Google talent to build its management layer — but it does start to change the personality of the company. People would sometimes ask me if post-IPO did Google start hiring “B+” talent instead of “A” (the assumption being that the best people would no longer want to work at Google). My answer was a definitive NO. We still hired “A” quality people, it was just increasingly a different type of smart. More pragmatic, more about scale. Our founders worked hard to maintain the culture and I think much of Larry’s first few years as CEO has been about returning to what he remembers Google being in the early 2000s. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and his team will have the same challenges — some old timers memorializing “the old days” while also realizing that Twitter 2014 cannot be the same as 2008.
  • Flight of Talent: There’s usually a burst of departures in the six months after an IPO, then it kinda returns to normal levels. Lots of fully-vested “old timers” leave. Since many Twitter employees are sitting on heavily appreciated stock options, a public offering will finally give them the liquidity to sell shares. Important to note this isn’t just about getting cash in their pocket, it’s about getting cash to pay the IRS for the tax burden that would come with exercising previous stock grants.

Having many friends at Twitter I’m obviously happy for the company. As a Twitter user it’s bittersweet because while this IPO will increase the stability of the company, it also will continue to push them to seek growth which may evolve aspects of the product I love so much.

When Google finally went public in August 2004, after a long and weird registration process, there were a few minutes of clapping, high fives and private calculations of net worth. Then we all went back to work.

Welcome Aardvark to Google!

Very excited about Google’s Aardvark acquisition. We bring on board a very smart team and Max’s excellent hair styles.

Questions i ask on Vark have a pretty high success rate. I find the questions they ask me to answer are often not very well targeted so i hope that’s an area for improvement.

Here are some of the recent questions that Vark solved for me where traditional search struggled:

  • how would i go about hiring a dungeon master in the San Francisco Bay Area for an old school Dungeons & Dragons play session?
  • what’s the best android app for tracking flight status (via flight# or departure/arrival airports)?
  • looking for the name of the essay which discusses why things like cat picture blogs are important because they train people to use technology which can then be leveraged later for more important uses such as political protest. I thought it might have been clay shirky but can’t find it. Thanks!
  • what rap song has the line that goes something like “crazy grants and a couple of jacksons?” can’t find it anywhere! [referring to $20s and $50s]
  • Anyone have positive or negative feedback on the iD Computer Camps at Stanford [ http://bit.ly/5s2orB] ? My 12 year old nephew wants to go.
  • what’s a soft, public running track in San Francisco i can use to ease my way back into distance running after several years of chilling because of bad knees?
  • what hex color is the Zagat cover?

Hey! Get Off My Name. Username disputes are the domain squatting of the future.

On the heels of WIPO‘s announcement that domain disputes increased to a record 2,329 cases in 2008 (8% increase from 2007) a much more interesting question is starting to be raised. What rights do brands have to their usernames on social services such as MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube. As most of the major companies have already secured their URLs, the most valuable real estate for them to cultivate these days is their persistent space within these social communities. And today it’s the wild west with each service arriving at its own set of principles mixing various legal arguments with their own business objectives and user protection.

Take Apple for example – one of the world’s most powerful and loved brands. Of course Apple.com is their corporate website but what about their social presence? Let’s see what the username “Apple” yields on these four prominent social spaces:

MySpace (/apple) = DJ Apple. Brand Fail.
Twitter (/apple) = Squatter. Brand Fail.
YouTube (/apple) = Some user named Apple. Brand Fail.

Wow, so Apple fails to occupy the real estate associated with their brand on three of the most important social publishing and community tools of the Web2 era. You think they’d want to address this, yes? But how? There’s no clear WIPO-like rules in place for service usernames. And none of these users are violating Apple’s trademark or creating brand confusion so it’s unclear that Apple has any legal right to the usernames since “Apple” is a generic term. For clear trademarks or impersonations it’s easier to claim your brand.

Basically in this case brands are left with two choices:

1) Negotiate directly with the user and try to purchase the namespace a la buying a domain name.

2) Contact the service provider and try to get them to reclaim the name on behalf of the brand, sometimes using the carrot or stick of advertising spend. This often happens under the cover of darkness when the user account is inactive but what happens when the user has a vibrant community around them? Does the service provider really want to set off blogosphere shitstorm and be accused of selling out their users?

So what’s a potential best practice for this new reality?

A) Free market + easy account transfer. Service providers such as MySpace could support the ability to transfer an account and its history to a new user name along with a payment to the account holder negotiated between the brand and the user. Make the transfer option available with a minimum payment of $5k in order to minimize the number of account transfers. Once transferred on the legacy account, support a ” has relocated to ” for a 90 day period.

B) Separate official namespaces for brands – /brand/name as opposed to /user. Is this part of the Twitter revenue strategy?

Does anyone know of services or communities that are elegantly handling the username issue? (I’ll offer up that it’s a challenge for us here at YouTube).

Note: I haven’t included Facebook because as a Real Name system there really isn’t a /apple equivalent. The issue of whether user-created fan pages are being embraced by brands or shut down is a separate post. Coke at least did something very novel with their user-started fan page.

Tim Armstrong – You’ve Got Mail

Really happy for Tim Amrstrong and his new challenge at AOL. I’ve had the opportunity to work with him in both my AdSense and YouTube roles since 2003. He’s a visionary, honest and strong leader. His AOL team will now get to hear the details of the AOL and MySpace ad deal negotiations. Both of which were classicly awesome gets on his part. One of which involved running to a helicopter if i recall correctly.

This past summer I had the chance to join Tim and his sales leads in an offsite to discuss how to best organize their teams against the growing display advertising business. There were lots of viewpoints in the room but Tim let the group reach a consensus via setting clear goals, facilitating discussion and holding people accountable. It was a masterful job of leadership and one of the touchstones I’ll remember after Tim is gone.

Google’s Interest-Based Advertising. Finally!

So i’m thrilled that Google has finally jumped into the interest-based advertising space. Because of the great respect Google has for user privacy it’s been a long time coming, but as an internet user I’m excited. Why? Because this is going to make ads more relevant to me at a time when advertisers seem too willing to interrupt or distract my web experience to otherwise gain my attention. Earlier this week web publishers committed to even bigger ads to try and do away with banner blindness. Groan, what a race to the bottom.

A few weeks back i got the chance to look at my individual interest-based profile on an internal demo. It was really accurate – i like basketball, rock music, politics, and a few other categories. It gave me the option to opt-out of any of those categories or remove my profile all-together. There were no “OMG” moments where something i had read or done on the web now was exposed for everyone to see. It’s just machines talking to machines. Anyway, if this info can be used to help personalize my web experience I’m all for it.

And if the result is better ads that i’m more likely to click on, well that’s one important way to support websites who deliver incredible value to me for free each day.

Why Google Lively is good for Second Life

Google’s announcement of Lively, a 3d virtual room product, generated a few “So long Second Life” blog headlines. I’m going to take the contrarian view and claim Lively is actually GOOD for Second Life (SL’s own usability issues aside).

Why good? Because it’s all about training wheels. Power-user products such as Second Life feed off of consumers who are familiar with similar experiences and hungering for “what next.” Second Life’s original user base was trained by VRML, The Sims Online, Photoshop, Maya, etc. Basically users who are developing skills or hitting limits in other applications and looking for a place to evolve into.

So Lively can succeed on its own merits by attracting millions of users hungry to get into more immersive chat and expression, and Linden Lab benefits by a % of those users eventually graduating into Second Life, which is likely to be more freeform and open than Lively. And I bet those users are more likely to understand Second Life than folks who are completely new to virutal social environments.

[my bias here is that i work at google – although i had nothing to do with Lively – and was previously an early Second Life team member – so i’ve managed to dream up a scenario where both win. Of course, if Lively causes some company to want to buy Second Life, that’s cool with me too :)]