Peter Kafka

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Twitter CEO Dick Costolo on Platforms, Reliability and Independence at D@CES

Twitter has crossed the threshold from Web novelty into something substantial. Now Dick Costolo’s job is to turn it into a business–one big enough to justify the sky-high valuation investors have given the messaging company.

He’ll talk to Kara Swisher about the company’s efforts to sell advertising on the service, and if we’re lucky, he’ll give us a glimpse of his improv comedy roots, too. Don’t be shy, Dick!

Dick starts off by insulting Kara’s vest. “Matador casual,” he calls it. Good one! Kara responds by asking him why he’s hanging out at CES.

The same reason everyone else is, Dick says: To talk to industry people. For example, he’d like to get device makers to preload some features like “Fast Follow.”

Kara wants to know if Dick would like a “Twitter button” installed on phones. No, says Dick. But he’d like Twitter to work the same way on different platforms.

So how do you make that happen?

Dick: We’re assigning a product team to make sure that this happens.

Kara: And you’re talking to TV people, too? What’s that about?

Dick: Yep. Because mainstream TV viewing, more and more, they have a device in their hand when they’re watching TV. Like on “Glee.” The characters tweet while the show is on. [This baffles Kara.] When “Glee” starts, tweets per second for “Glee” shoot up, and stay up 100 times that level until the show ends, and then they drop.

That has interesting implications. Like, it takes the DVR out of the mix, because you have to watch in real time to make it worthwhile.

But we don’t know if all of this means Twitter while you watch TV, or Twitter actually on your TV screen.

Kara: Is it important for you to be on the screen?

Dick: We’re already on the screen. But we don’t know if that will be the mainstream experience.

Kara: We had Steve Levitan from “Modern Family” talking about how the Web doesn’t help him, but that he and his team like Twitter.

Dick: Sure! “I was having a conversation with Conan O’Brien, as one does” and he was talking about the importance of Twitter to him, and how the 140 character limit is the right length for a joke. It’s definitely the case that network TV people like Twitter, because it gives them feedback, like they’re in the theater, watching how the shows play out.

Kara: Keep talking about celebrities! I love celebrities.

Dick: Sure! The folks that we’ve hired to work with talent and agencies, etc., we think of those people has high-value publishers. They have a huge following. A lot of people are on Twitter just to hear what those folks have to say.

The interesting thing about the top 200 to 300 tweeters–a lot of them are musicians, actors, etc. LeBron James, etc. I think Lady Gaga is number one. But! They’re not all celebrities. There’s CNN Breaking News. And the New York Times. And other brands like Gary Vaynerchuk, who aren’t really that known outside that world.

And Twitter is disaggregating some of those businesses. Like a third of all the players in the NFL playoffs are using Twitter actively. And many players have more followers than their teams. [Here Dick explains football to Kara.] That’s fascinating.

Kara: Let’s go back to phones. Whats the most important device? Tablet? PC? Phone?

Dick: Mobile is a more and more and more common use of Twitter–40 percent of all tweets created on mobile devices. That might seem low, but it was 25 percent a year ago. 50 percent of active users are also active on mobile.

But Twitter ought to work platform to platform. We want to be agnostic.

Kara: What about what’s coming out from Palm? Working with them?

Dick: Not yet.

Kara: What about games? Talking to those guys?

Dick: Yep. Like with Microsoft on their Xbox, you can see integrating tweets into people who have discussions on Xbox.

Dick: You lost interest in the answer to your question. [True!]

Kara: You’re so annoying.

[Some laughter. Not a lot, though!]

Dick: Anyway, the important thing for us is consistency across device to device to device.

Kara: Speaking of working consistently, how’s that going for Twitter?

Dick: Right. So, we raised a bunch of money. We’re hiring “tons of engineers and operations engineers” in the last year. We hired 100 people in Q4, out of about 350 total. And we’re working very hard on erasing our “technical debt.”

Kara: “That’s a great word for fuck-ups”

Dick: Anyway, we’ve got a guy assigned to this pretty much exclusively. And there used to be a tolerance for this, and now there isn’t. If someone fires a pistol next to your ear every hour, after a while you stop flinching when you hear it. It’s crucial that we do this, both for our users and our engineers, who shouldn’t have to get up at 3 am all the time.

Kara: Time for a vision question, which stumps Yahoo. What is Twitter? What is your vision?

Dick: “We want to instantly connect people everywhere to what’s most important to them.”

See, that’s a good statement. We’re not just a social network that’s connecting people. It’s connecting for a purpose.

So some people meet girlfriends on Twitter. And other people get tickets to shows they like on Twitter. Etc.

And you don’t have to tweet to get a lot of value out of it.

Kara: What’s the percentage of people who just read Twitter, and don’t tweet themselves?

Dick: Rising. And we have to make that easier to do. “We’re going to spend a lot of time making that consumption experience much better.”

Kara: What’s your business plan?

Dick: To continue to raise money!


Dick: I’m going to steal Jeff Weiner’s line. We’re a technology company that’s in the media business. Our business model is an advertising model [cough, cough, that’s familiar! You’re welcome!] So we’re selling ads, and we’re letting people promote their accounts, etc. And we really don’t have to do anything else. Our engagement rates on these ads are ridiculously high. When we saw our stats this last spring when we launched, the numbers were so big we thought we were measuring it incorrectly.

Kara: Is that a big enough business to be a standalone company and/or IPO?

Dick: It’s enough to be a standalone company.

Kara: Sell or IPO?

Dick: We want to be a standalone company. It’s my sincere hope. We’ve accomplished 1 percent of what we want to do.

Dick Costolo of Twitter

Kara: You like to sell companies, though.

Dick. Yes, I had two companies that I sold. But that doesn’t mean we’ll sell this one. I’ve had two kids too. But I shouldn’t get a reputation for having kids.

Kara: What’s up with people buying and selling secondary shares of Twitter. It’s an issue for Facebook. What about you?

Dick: We keep an eye on it, and talk to employees about it. But I just think that there are other people that are focusing on it and paying attention, and I’ll let them talk about it. But I just don’t think about that stuff on a day-to-day basis.

Questions and Answers

Q: [sorry missed it].

But answer seems to be about whether Twitter is a platform company or not. Dick quotes Ev Williams by saying they’re not a platform company–they’ve had an API. They want people to be able build off Twitter and build into Twitter. Which requires a more robust API.

Kara has more questions. How do you look at yourself as a leader?

Dick: As a very bald leader.

Kara: But you’re very different than Evan.

Dick: Right. Two components. Three founders at company: Ev, Jack, Biz. They all come at it from a different angle. Jack thinks about simplicity and elegance and the mobile experience. Ev thinks about the user. Biz is “the protector of the brand and the guardian of the culture.”

Kara: He’e the guy who goes on Colbert.

Dick: And he’s great at it. Anyway, those guys are great. My focus is on operational greatness. I try to emulate operators like Ben Horowitz (Opsware) and Susan Wojcicki (Google).

Q: What’s up with that internal page rank for each user? asks Ben Parr from Mashable.

Dick: Your’re not exactly right. We play around with stuff like that. But there’s nothing robust that we would think of productizing anytime soon, and we don’t use it for things like resonance, which we use in ads.

Q: [Sorry, couldnt quite understand.]

Dick is talking about WikiLeaks in general, says there was something specific about WikiLeaks today that he can’t talk about. In general, he hates government mandates to keep things quiet. And he hates that a woman in China was punished for retweeting something. He reiterates Twitter’s desire to connect people with useful information. “We’re going to lash out at things that prevent us from doing that, as aggressively as we can.” The proof is that we’re banned in China. “We’re not going to sacrifice what we’re trying to do to, you know, get into this country over here.”

Q: How will you work with brands in the future, vs. advertising?

Dick: Our promoted suite of stuff doesn’t simply let advertisers use a giant bullhorn. This stuff has to be organic. “It almost is like a quality-assurance program.”

[Some context for what Dick wouldn’t talk about: Feds Subpoena Twitter Seeking Information on Ex-WikiLeaks Volunteer].

Dick is now talking about Twitter and international growth and language. Twitter is growing fast in the U.K. but not in Germany. Why is that? Because German has really, really long words. “There’s a bunch of stuff we want to do, and have to do” just to make things usable in those languages.

Last question, from Kara: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen at CES?

Dick won’t give a one-word answer. CES is a “quantum conference.” Some years are transformational, some are incremental. “This seems like it was an incremental year.”

And we’re done! Thanks all for your patience. We’ll have video up over the next few days, which should help fill in the gaps left by my lousy note-taking.

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What has a record company ever done for me but humiliate and torment and drag me down?

— Iggy Pop, on why he decided to sell his new album himself