Entrepreneurs in for a Tweet

Who knows what Twitter really is? A “microblogging service,” an “information network,” the “SMS of the Internet”—all are terms that have been employed to describe the company.

In any case, now that Twitter has had an initial public offering and its founders are billionaires, perhaps it’s time to consider what Peter Drucker said about success being a better teacher than failure. Because whatever Twitter is, it seems to be working.

If we want some clues as to why, an interview that Twitter co-founder Ev Williams gave to Inc. suggests that, time and again, the companys leaders have acted according to principles that Drucker espoused.

Image credit: MKHMarketing
Image credit: MKHMarketing

First, and perhaps most important, Twitter’s founders have never stopped asking, “What business are we in?” “Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility,” Williams told Inc. “It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network. That led to all kinds of design decisions. . . . All this came because we were thinking deeply about the question: What is the essence of this product?”

Such probing of what a business is all about might seem natural, and certainly crucial. “But there are reasons why managements shy away from asking the question,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “The first is that the question causes controversy, argument, and disagreement.”

Second, the founders of Twitter understood the importance of focus. Williams told Inc. that “do fewer things” is a piece of advice he likes to give entrepreneurs. “It’s true of partnerships, marketing opportunities, anything that’s taking up your time,” Williams said. “The vast majority of things are distractions, and very few really matter to your success.”

Amen, would be Drucker’s reply. “No other principle of effectiveness is violated as constantly as the basic principle of concentration,” Drucker wrote in People and Performance. And, as he warned in Management Challenges for the 21st Century: “If what looks like an opportunity does not advance the strategic goal of the institution, it is not an opportunity. It is a distraction.”

Finally, Twitter’s founders allowed the company to evolve and change itself, capitalizing on unexpected successes. “There was this path of discovery . . . where over time you figure out what it is,” Williams recalled, noting that Twitter had started as a side project of another company, Odeo. This didn’t prevent Williams from shifting his focus and energy to Twitter once the company took off.

Again, this sounds simple enough, but, as Drucker often pointed out, entrepreneurs throughout history have rejected unexpected success again and again. “I’d say that the majority of new inventions or products don’t succeed in the market for which they were originally designed,” Drucker said in a 1996 interview with Inc., and entrepreneurs reject the new market “because it’s not what they had planned. Entrepreneurs believe that they are in control.”

So give up a little control. It might make you a billionaire.

Do you use Twitter—and, if so, why? What value does it provide?