A GENIUS ENTITY
On October 7, 2003, a “Boston-based blogging entity” called Genius Labs announced it had been acquired by Google. The press release was picked up by various news outlets, and soon Genius Labs was added to Wikipedia’s “List of Mergers and Acquisitions by Google.” Once something makes it into Wikipedia, it is often repeated as fact. And in a way, it was fact. Genius Labs was an entity. It was me. The tale of how I got acquired—that is, hired—by Google says a lot about how I’ve made my way in the world.
A year earlier, the future wasn’t looking bright for the entity of me. My first startup, a site called Xanga that began with me and a group of my friends having the not-quite-refined idea that we wanted to “make a web company,” wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be. Tired of being broke in New York City— of all the cities to be broke in, it’s really one of the worst—I quit. My girlfriend, Livia, and I retreated to my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts, with tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt in tow. We moved into the basement of my mom’s house. I had no job. I tried to sell an old copy of Photoshop on eBay (which is probably illegal), but no one bought it. At one point, I even asked for my job back at the startup—and my former colleagues said no.
The only bright spot in my so-called professional life was blogging. At the startup, we had used a piece of software from a company called Pyra, and I took an interest in the work of Pyra’s co-founder, a guy named Evan Williams. I started writing my own blog and following Evan’s, and in 1999, I was among the first to test-drive a new product Pyra had released: a web-logging tool called Blogger. To me, like lots of people, blogging was a revelation, even a revolution—a democratization of information on a whole new scale.
Xanga was a blogging community, but having left it, I was peripheral to that revolution, broke and directionless in my mom’s basement. But my blog was another story. My blog was my alter ego. Full of total, almost hallucinogenic confidence, my blog was a fictional creation. It all began with the title, inspired by an old Bugs Bunny cartoon guest-starring Wile E. Coyote. In one scene, the ultrarefined coyote says, “Permit me to introduce myself,” then presents a business card to Bugs with a flourish. It reads WILE E. COYOTE, GENIUS. By announcing himself as a genius on his business card, Wile E. Coyote epitomizes the spirit of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. When you’re starting a company, you sometimes have nothing more than an idea. And sometimes you don’t even have the idea— just the supreme confidence that one day you will have an idea. You have to begin somewhere, so you declare yourself an entrepreneur just like Wile E. declares himself a genius. Then you make a business card and give yourself the title FOUNDER AND CEO.
I didn’t have a company… yet. But in the spirit of Wile E., I christened my blog Biz Stone, Genius. I made up business cards that said the same. And in my posts, I made sure to play the part. Genius Biz claimed to be building inventions with infinite resources and a world-class team of scientists at his headquarters—naturally titled Genius Labs.
One of my posts in July 2002 read, “The scale-model of a Japanese superjet that is supposed to be able to fly twice as fast as the Concorde crashed during the test flight… I may have to sign various paperworks that will flow millions into further development of hybrid air transit.”
Real-Life Biz was not investing in hybrid air transit. I did, however, manage to land a job as a “web specialist” at Wellesley College; Livia found a job, too. We rented a place near campus so I could walk to work. It wasn’t so much an apartment as the attic of a house, but at least it wasn’t my mother’s basement.
My alter ego, Genius Biz, meanwhile, continued to exude confidence, gaining more and more of a following. He was Buddy Love to my Professor Kelp. But as I sustained this charade, something started to happen. My posts weren’t just wacky anymore. Some of the thoughts weren’t in the character of a mad scientist; they were my own. As I continued to write about the web and think about how it might evolve, I started hitting on ideas that I would one day incorporate into my work. In September of 2003 I posted:
My RSS reader [a syndicated news feed] is set to 255 characters. Maybe 255 is a new blog standard?… Seems limiting but if people are going to read many blogs a day on iPods and cell phones, maybe it’s a good standard.
Little did I know how ideas like this, which seemed incidental at the time, would one day change the world. And I say this with all the humble understatement of a self-described genius.
Google acquired Evan Williams’s company, Blogger, in early 2003. In the four years it had taken for blogging to evolve from a pastime of a few geeks into a household word, Ev and I had never met or even talked on the phone. But in the interim, I had interviewed him for an online magazine called Web Review, and I still had his email address. Now I worked up the confidence to contact him. I sent him an email congratulating him on the acquisition and saying, “I’ve always thought of myself as the missing seventh member of your team. If you ever think of hiring more people, let me know.”
It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, Ev had been following my blog, too. In the tech world, that made us practically blood brothers. Though he was surrounded by some of the best engineers in the world, he needed someone who really understood social media—someone who saw that it was about people, not just technology—and he thought I was the guy.
He wrote back right away, saying, “Do you want to work here?”
I said, “Sure,” and I thought it was a done deal. I had a new job on the West Coast. Easy peasy.
I didn’t know it at the time, but behind the scenes Evan had to pull strings in order to hire me. Actually, they were more like ropes. Or cables—the kind that hold up suspension bridges. Google had a reputation for hiring only people with computer science degrees, preferably PhDs; they certainly didn’t court college dropouts like me. Finally, the powers that be at Google begrudgingly agreed that Wayne Rosing, then Google’s senior VP of engineering, would talk to me on the phone.
The day of the call, I sat in my attic apartment staring at the angular white Radio Shack phone I’d had since I was a kid. It had a cord. It was practically a collector’s item. I’d never interviewed for a job before, and nobody had prepped me for this. Although I naively assumed that I already had the job, I at least understood that talking to Wayne Rosing was a big deal for someone in my position. I was nervous that I’d mess it up, and with good cause. A few days earlier, a woman from the human resources department had called me, and I’d joked around with her. When she asked me if I had a college degree, I told her I didn’t but that I’d seen an ad on TV for where to get one. She didn’t laugh. Clearly my instincts in this department weren’t reliable. Real-Life Biz was consumed by self-doubt.
The phone rang, and as I reached for it, something came over me. In that instant I decided to abandon all the failure and hopelessness I’d been carrying around. Instead, I would fully embody my alter ego: the guy who ran Genius Labs. Genius Biz was on the job.
Wayne began by asking me about my experience. I guess he’d talked to the HR woman, because his first question was why I hadn’t finished college. With utter confidence, I explained that I’d been offered a job as a book jacket designer, with the opportunity to work directly with an art director. I considered it an apprenticeship. As the interview went on, I acknowledged that my startup had been a failure—for me, at least—but explained that I’d left because the culture didn’t fit my personality. In Silicon Valley, the experience of having crashed and burned at a startup had value. I told him about a book I’d written on blogging.
Then, in the middle of his questions, I said, “Hey, Wayne, where do you live?” That took him aback. I guess it sounded a little creepy.
“Why do you want to know where I live?” he asked.
“If I decide to take this job, I’ll need to pick a good location,” I said.
Decide to take this job. I didn’t even know I was being audacious. But somehow it worked. I had the job. I was going to join Google. Evan invited me out to California to meet the team. With its seemingly limitless resources, scientists, and secret projects, Google was the place on earth most resembling my imagined Genius Labs.
A couple of years later, Ev and I would quit Google to start a company together. I had joined Google before the IPO, so I would be leaving lots of valuable shares behind. But my move to Silicon Valley wasn’t about a cozy job—it was about taking a risk, imagining a future, and reinventing myself. My first startup had failed. But my next startup was Twitter.
This book is more than a rags-to-riches tale. It’s a story about making something out of nothing, about merging your abilities with your ambitions, and about what you learn when you look at the world through a lens of infinite possibility. Plain hard work is good and important, but it is ideas that drive us, as individuals, companies, nations, and a global community. Creativity is what makes us unique, inspired, and fulfilled. This book is about how to tap into and harness the creativity in and around us all.
I’m not a genius, but I’ve always had faith in myself and, more important, in humanity. The greatest skill I possessed and developed over the years was the ability to listen to people: the nerds of Google, the disgruntled users of Twitter, my respected colleagues, and, always, my lovely wife. What that taught me, in the course of helping to found and lead Twitter for over five years, and during my time at startups before then, was that the technology that appears to change our lives is, at its core, not a miracle of invention or engineering. No matter how many machines we added to the network or how sophisticated the algorithms got, what I worked on and witnessed at Twitter was and continues to be a triumph not of technology but of humanity. I saw that there are good people everywhere. I realized that a company can build a business, do good in society, and have fun. These three goals can run alongside one another, without being dominated by the bottom line. People, given the right tools, can accomplish amazing things. We can change our lives. We can change the world.
The personal stories in this book—which come from my childhood, my career, and my life—are about opportunity, creativity, failure, empathy, altruism, vulnerability, ambition, ignorance, knowledge, relationships, respect, what I’ve learned along the way, and how I’ve come to see humanity. The insights gained from these experiences have given me a unique perspective on business and how to define success in the twenty-first century, on happiness and the human condition. That may sound pretty ambitious, but when we’re taking a break from developing hybrid air transit, we aim high here at Genius Labs. I don’t pretend to know all the answers. Actually, strike that: I just might pretend to know all the answers. What better way to get a closer look at the questions?
HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
So, in a single phone call, Genius Biz had landed a job at Google pre-IPO. Or so he thought.
After my conversation with Wayne Rosing, I thought I would just drive to California and start my new life. In anticipation of that, my would-be employers had asked me to fly out to the Google offices in Mountain View to meet them in person and finalize the details.
At this point Evan Williams was my champion. Having never laid eyes on me, he had pushed Google to hire me, and now he was meeting me at the airport to take me to my new workplace. I had no idea what a big part of my life Evan would become, and that one day he and I would start Twitter together. At that point I was just grateful for the ride.
I arrived at the San Francisco airport on an early flight, and when Evan picked me up in his yellow Subaru, Jason Goldman, his right-hand man at Blogger, was in the passenger seat. I jumped in the backseat, and as we drove to Google, I was immediately jokey about my plane ride. As is my wont, I probably made some inappropriate remarks, because I remember Evan and Jason laughing and saying, “We just met this guy five seconds ago and this is where he’s going with his banter?” I tend to come on a little strong, but I could see that they were pleasant and casual and had a nice rapport. I wasn’t surprised. I’d been reading Evan’s blog for so many years that I knew there was a thoughtful person in there. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and sunglasses. He had a slight build, a big smile, and he drove like a maniac. Goldman has a memorable laugh. He usually hits a high note at the end.
Because Google hadn’t gone public yet, it was still a startup, but it was already several years in and considered very successful. There was no Googleplex yet, just a bunch of people working in leased stucco buildings.
Evan showed me the place and introduced me to the Blogger team. After making the rounds at the office, he and I went to a party in Mountain View for a bit; then we drove up to San Francisco to have dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Marina District with his mother, who was in town, and his girlfriend.
After dinner and plenty of wine, I was ready to go to my hotel—I had more meetings at Google the next day and I was still on East Coast time—but Evan had other plans for us.
“Let’s go to the Mission! I’ll show you some of my favorite bars.”
Evan, his girlfriend, and I kept the party going at a bar called Doc’s Clock. I ordered a whiskey neat, and the bartender poured me a full juice glass.
“Wow,” I said, marveling at the quantity.
“They have a good pour here,” Ev said.
By last call, at 1:40, we’d all had plenty to drink. Ev, who was blitzed, leaned back in his chair, opened his arms wide, and said, “Biz, all this could be yours.” We had a table in the rear, and I was sitting with my back to the wall. From my vantage point, I could see the whole bar, a dimly lit, hipster-friendly dive bar, not much more.
“Really?” I said sarcastically. “This?”
Evan put his head down on the table. We were done.
The next day, I had twelve meetings with various Google executives. It became immediately clear to me that these “meetings” were in fact interviews. Turned out this job I thought I already had wasn’t yet mine. I was smack in the middle of Google’s famously rigorous application process.
But I swear what got me through was the certainty that the job was mine. Channeling my Genius Labs persona wasn’t the only strategy I had up my sleeve.
Before I got on the phone with Wayne Rosing, I’d never applied for a real job before. I had no idea how an interview, phone or live, was supposed to go. But as I’ve said, I did have one thing going for me: the well-established confidence and chutzpah of Biz Stone, Genius.
Still, you can print that on a business card or type it on a website, but you can’t just summon that attitude out of thin air. So there was something I did before the phone interview that helped me summon Genius Biz. Here’s how it worked: In the days leading up to that phone call, I took the idea of working on the Blogger team at Google and let it bounce around in my head. Back then I liked to take a slow jog from my apartment, which was practically on the Wellesley campus, down to Lake Waban and around the two-plus-mile dirt path. As I ran, I pictured myself in a strange office somewhere near San Francisco, with a bunch of guys I’d never met, doing the work I wanted to do.
Most of Google was entirely made up of computer science PhDs. They were very talented at building software. The role I envisioned for myself was to humanize Blogger. I would take over its home page—the company’s official blog—and make the Help area into a product called “Blogger Knowledge,” where I would highlight features of the service. I would give a voice and brand to Blogger. (Though I didn’t know it at the time, this is what I would find myself doing at every company I joined: embodying and communicating the spirit of the thing we were creating.)
This is a useful exercise with any problem or idea. Visualize what you want to see happen for yourself in the next two years. What is it? I want to have my own design studio. I want to join a startup. I want to make a cat video that goes viral on YouTube. (Can’t hurt to aim high.) As you’re working out or going for a walk, let that concept bump around in there. Don’t come up with anything specific. The goal isn’t to solve anything. If you take an idea and just hold it in your head, you unconsciously start to do things that advance you toward that goal. It kinda works. It did for me.
Now I was at those offices I had imagined. They were a little different from my fantasy; I’d expected… I don’t know, a Googleplex maybe, and instead there was a bunch of nondescript buildings; Blogger was in building number π—but I’d already been working for Blogger in my head for at least a week. Besides, it was hard to be intimidated when nobody seemed to understand what job they were interviewing me for. It all made sense to me and Evan, but the human resources department at Google was a little baffled by my job description. My explanation that I was going to add humanity to the product only seemed to confuse them further. In interviews, the Google staff was known to make engineers solve difficult coding problems on a whiteboard. They had no idea what to ask me. My hobbies? Adding to the general fuzziness of the interviews, Evan and I had been out ’til 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.
In the first meeting, when a woman said, “Thanks for coming in. Can I get you anything?” I said, “Yes. Do you have an aspirin?” I’m pretty sure on the list of job interviewee “don’ts,” immediately exposing your hangover ranks high.
One of the guys who interviewed me asked, “Do you know why Google acquired Blogger?” He was genuinely curious. At that point Google had acquired Deja.com’s Usenet discussions, but this was its first real acquisition of a company with employees. My answer was simple, if not necessarily correct. I said, “Well, it’s the other half of Search. Google searches web pages. Blogger makes web pages. It gives you more to search.”
By the fifth interview, I asked a guy, “Do you know why you’re interviewing me?” He said, “No. I only started here two days ago.” I’m pretty sure on the list of job interviewer “don’ts,” that’s also pretty high up there. Maybe that meant we were well matched.
Regardless, when all was said and done, the job that had never been mine finally was.
With no small help from Evan, I’d manufactured this opportunity without a college education, much less a higher degree; without working my way up a ladder; and with a failure or two under my belt for good measure. I wasn’t a shoo-in; I wasn’t anything. But I did have experience in one particular area: creating my own opportunities.
I discovered early on that it was better to make my own destiny. As a kid, I spent a bunch of time playing in the yard alone, but one of my favorite things was to go down into our basement and “invent things.” My grandfather built telephones for American Telephone and Telegraph in Boston from 1925 to 1965. He passed before I was born, but my mother never cleared out her father’s work stuff. In our basement were his workbench, all his tools, and a giant apothecary-type arrangement of various springs, sprockets, wires, and the like—everything my grandfather had used to build and repair rotary telephones. I’d go down there and pretend to be inventing wondrous contraptions in my secret, underground laboratory.
My mom’s best friend, Kathy, had a husband, Bob, who was an electrician. His basement, as far as I was concerned, was another laboratory. The real deal. Whenever we visited their home, I would walk straight in and say, “Bob, let’s go invent some stuff in the lab. I have a few ideas.” I distinctly remember having a revelatory thought that with two empty soda bottles and some hoses, I could rig a contraption that would allow me to breathe underwater.
When I told Bob the idea, he said, “You mean SCUBA?”
I told him the name needed more thought and insisted we get to work. He diplomatically said we’d need an air compressor and some other things he didn’t have and suggested we build a battery-powered light mounted on an upside-down coffee can instead. It wouldn’t allow me to breathe underwater, but if it had batteries and wires, I was all for it. Another time, I wanted to invent a flying contraption. Instead, we hooked a speaker up to a battery. We slipped flat copper strips into a plastic mat and connected them to the speaker so that when you stepped on the mat, it activated the speaker and made a horrible buzzing noise. I brought it home and slipped it under the area rug next to my bed. That night I crawled into bed and yelled, “Mom, you forgot to kiss me good night!”
“Aw, so sweet!” she said. She came into the room, stepped on the rug, activated the alarm, and nearly had a heart attack.
“My invention worked!” I crowed.
Perhaps to channel this energy, my mom enrolled me in a program called Boy Rangers. Not the Boy Scouts. Not the Cub Scouts. Some obscure other program called Boy Rangers. It was like the Betamax of scouting programs. Not only did I not want to be in the Boy Rangers, but every week I had to bring “wampum” to the program—I had to pay. Also, my parents had divorced when I was a toddler, and my dad lived a few towns over, but he might as well have lived in Istanbul. My parents were oil and water, so we barely ever saw my father. As it happened, the Boy Rangers was a father-son thing. Every week, all the other boys had their dads with them, and I attended solo. If there was a merit badge for “rubbing it in,” they all would have earned it without trying.
Anyway, the Boy Rangers was modeled after Native American tribes. In order to advance from Paleface through Papoose, Brave, Warrior, and eventually to Hi-Pa-Nac (which sounds like an anti-cholesterol drug but is actually some sort of chieftain) we had to create our own feathered headdresses, learn how to tie knots, and memorize various tribal slogans. You know, cool-kid stuff. I was stuck in Boy Rangers from age six to ten, all those critical years when most boys were playing Little League baseball, Pee Wee football, and all the other sports. I wasn’t very driven to master the Boy Rangers skills, but the leaders always gave everyone the patches anyway. The other kids had their patches sewn onto their khaki shirts, but my mom attached mine with safety pins.
As a struggling single mom, the most important thing my mom did for me, my sister Mandy, and my two half-sisters, Sofia and Samantha, was to keep us in Wellesley, where she’d grown up. The town had become very affluent, and the public school system was one of the best in the country. My mom had gone through the Wellesley school system and loved it. She was determined that we have similarly good experiences.
To me, all my friends were rich. It seemed that they assumed I came from a wealthy family, too, but at various times, we were on welfare. I remember the gigantic slabs of government-issued cheese. I was on a school lunch program for low-income families, which was good because it meant I didn’t need lunch money, but it was bad because of the way it worked. To buy lunch, most students bought lunch tickets. Those tickets were green. To get my lunch tickets, I had to go to a special office once a week to be issued five gray lunch tickets. When other kids asked why my lunch tickets were gray, I made jokes about their green tickets. I suppose I started developing a sense of humor and a certain attitude to deal with the obvious differences in our lifestyles. I would even raid the Lost and Found box so I could find a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt—something other than the same jeans and T-shirt that I pretty much exclusively wore otherwise. Most of my socks and underwear were marked “Irregular.” My mom did her best, and she managed to keep us in Wellesley, in a school system that happened to be receptive to my particular brand of creativity.
When I got to high school, all my friends were nerds. But I knew from TV and the movies that a good way to expand my social crowd would be to play on a sports team. I was naturally athletic, and from all my years in the Boy Rangers, I was really good at tying half-hitches and sheepshanks, but I’d never tried a team sport. The basketball court had all these crazy lines on the ground. All the other kids seemed to know where you were allowed to stand and for how long. I just stood there. Then, in the football tryouts, there were all these rules. How did it work? How many chances did we get? And how was I supposed to know when I was on the wrong side of the field? I was confused and nervous, which made me even more confused. Before I went to the baseball tryouts, I wised up and did a little research. But there was no way to make up for all the lost time. In this situation, the visualization technique I used to land the job at Blogger wouldn’t have worked. Even if I’d been aware of the strategy at the time, I would have visualized myself making a thousand home runs and then stood by and watched while all the other kids scored them. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make any of the sports teams. That’s when I decided to take matters into my own hands.
A little investigating told me that there was one sport my high school did not offer at the time: lacrosse. If none of the other kids had any experience playing lacrosse, then everyone would feel as confused as I did. It would be a level playing field. So I asked the school administration whether, if I found a coach and enough boys, we could start a lacrosse team. The answer was yes. So that’s what I did. After all that apparent ineptitude, I emerged as a decent lacrosse player, I was elected captain, and we were a pretty good team (though I still preferred the company of the nerds to the athletes).
The determination that led me to create a new sports team taught me an important lesson: opportunity is manufactured.
My dictionary defines opportunity as a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something. The world has conditioned us to wait for opportunity, have the good sense to spot it, and hope to strike at the appropriate time. But if opportunity is just a set of circumstances, why are we waiting around for the stars to align? Rather than waiting and pouncing with a high degree of failure, you might as well go ahead and create the set of circumstances on your own. If you make the opportunity, you’ll be first in position to take advantage of it.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that this is the core of entrepreneurship—being the person who makes something happen for yourself. But it’s also true for all forms of success, in all parts of life. People say success is a combination of work and luck, and in that equation, luck is the piece that is out of your hands. But as you create opportunities for yourself, your odds at the lottery go way up.
In high school I’d learned how fulfilling it was to make my own opportunities, and I assumed I’d be able to do the same in college. I graduated high school in 1992 and cobbled together a bunch of local scholarships to cover my first year of college at Northeastern University. Knowing the funding would run out, I landed a scholarship for excellence in the arts, which gave me a free ride at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
But college didn’t turn out to be all I’d envisioned. Every day, I commuted an hour from my mother’s house to the UMass campus, a maze of concrete that was rumored to have been designed by builders who specialized in prisons. One of the first things I wanted to do there was produce The White Rose, a play based on an early anti-Nazi movement in Germany. But the woman who ran the theater department told me my only option was to attend her class and be a part of whatever play she had picked. Hmm. That wasn’t what I had in mind.
On the side, I got a job moving heavy boxes in an old mansion on Beacon Hill for the publisher Little, Brown and Company. I carried boxes of books from the attic of the mansion down to the lobby. It was the mid-nineties, and the publisher’s art department was transitioning from spray glue to Photoshop. They even had an old Photostat machine in its own little darkroom—a huge and expensive machine that did the same job as a ninety-nine-dollar scanner. I knew my way around a Mac, and designing book jackets looked like fun. So one day, when the entire art department went out to lunch, I snooped around until I found a transmittal sheet for a book that listed the title, subtitle, author, and a brief summary of what the editorial department wanted for the jacket. The book was Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band, by Scott Freeman. I sat down at one of the workstations and created a book cover for it. On a dark background, I put “Midnight Riders” in tall, green type. Then I found a picture of the band, also very dark, that looked good below the title. When I was done, I printed it out, matted it, and slipped it in with the other cover designs headed to the sales and editorial departments in the New York office for approval. Then I went back to moving boxes.
Two days later, when the art director came back from presenting designs in New York, he asked, “Who designed this cover?” I told him I had. He said, “You? The box kid?” I explained that I knew computers, and that I was attending college on a scholarship for the arts. He offered me a full-time job as a designer on the spot. The New York office had picked my jacket to use on the book. Looking back, it wasn’t very good, but they chose it.
I was being offered an honest-to-goodness full-time job. Should I take it? College so far had been a disappointment. (My experience there reminds me of a Dutch phrase that an entrepreneur I visited in Amsterdam once told me: “He who stands up gets his head chopped off.”) And here I was being handed an opportunity to work directly with the art director, who would turn out to be a master. The way I saw it, people went to college in order to be qualified to get a job like the one I was being offered. Basically, I was skipping three grades. Besides, I’d learn more here, doing what I wanted to do, than drifting anonymously through college. So I dropped out of college to work at Little, Brown, one of the best decisions of my life.
I’m not advocating dropping out. I could have entered college with more focus in the first place, or I could have tried to change my experience when I got there. But taking a job that I’d won through my initiative was another way of controlling my destiny. This, as I see it, was an example of manufacturing my own opportunities.
This is why starting a lacrosse team, producing a play, launching your own company, or actively building the company you work for is all more creatively fulfilling and potentially lucrative than simply doing what is expected of you. Believing in yourself, the genius you, means you have confidence in your ideas before they even exist. In order to have a vision for a business, or for your own potential, you must allocate space for that vision. I want to play on a sports team. I didn’t make it on a team. How can I reconcile these truths? I don’t like my job, but I love this one tiny piece of it, so how can I do that instead? Real opportunities in the world aren’t listed on job boards, and they don’t pop up in your in-box with the subject line: Great Opportunity Could Be Yours. Inventing your dream is the first and biggest step toward making it come true. Once you realize this simple truth, a whole new world of possibilities opens up in front of you.
That modus operandi is what brought me to Google in 2003.
I’d landed at Google, but Real-Life Biz was still working out the kinks. Genius Labs was a nonentity, Livia and I still had tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, my car wasn’t up for the cross-country drive, and I was on my way to an opportunity I’d manufactured out of nothing but a unique blend of confidence and desperation.
I wanted a bigger car, a Toyota Matrix, for the move across the country, so I went to a dealership to trade in our old Corolla. I said to the dealer, “I have this Corolla, but I don’t have any money. Can I give you the car and get a payment plan for the rest?”
He said, “For five thousand dollars down—”
I interrupted him. “I really don’t have any money. I have no money. Nothing. Zippo.”
He said, “For two thousand dollars down—”
I politely interrupted again, “If I had some money, I’d give it to you, but I don’t. I’ve no money, no access to money, and my credit cards are completely maxed out.”
So he took my Corolla and gave me a financing deal that even he admitted was terrible. Time for another visualization.
I thought, Here’s to my future self, who will pay for all of this.
EVERY DAY’S A NEW DAY
Renewables are just what they sound like: naturally replenished resources. They’re inexhaustible. In spite of the earth’s
depleting reserves, don’t you feel better already, thinking about renewables? The idea of replenishment is such a relief. There’s more where that came from. We won’t run out. This life that we’re trying to live is sustainable. This is an important concept when we think about the world’s resources, but it’s also applicable to our work and lives, and it came into play in my eventual decision to leave Google.
I worked on Blogger at Google for two years, and up until the initial public offering, Livia and I were still deeply in debt. Our living situation was less than ideal. In fact, it was less than mediocre. Before we moved to San Francisco we had asked Evan and Jason where we should live. The most obvious choice was downtown Mountain View, near where the Google offices were located. But Jason and Evan were self-proclaimed San Francisco snobs, so they told us, “You gotta live in the Mission, man. That’s where it’s at.”
We could tell that the Mission was too gritty for us. It was in that phase between down-and-out and up-and-coming, where the hipsters had moved in but there were still gunshots at night—possibly directed toward the hipsters. For people like Ev, who grew up in Nebraska fantasizing about the big city, it was cool being the city mouse. But Livy had grown up in New York City in the seventies. She’d had enough of living in the city; she wanted to be the country mouse. To move to yet another city and pick a transitional district with lingering gang territories would have rubbed salt in the wound. Then we read about a really nice neighborhood that was Mission adjacent: Potrero Hill. From the pictures we found online, it seemed to have a cute street with an old-school deli, a family-owned grocery store, a corner bookstore, and probably a savings-and-loan run by George Bailey, from the looks of it.
Still searching online, I found a fifteen-hundred-square foot loft in Potrero Hill for thirteen hundred dollars a month. Holy crap! I’d always wanted to live in a loft. And the apartment was number 1A. We’d be on the ground floor—no more walking up to the attic. We’d walk out our front door and be right in charming Potrero Hill.
Fingers crossed, I called the landlord. It was still available! I agreed to rent it on the spot. We felt so pleased with ourselves to be driving west with our affordable, cool loft waiting for us.
What we failed to take into account was the “hill” part of Potrero Hill. Downtown Potrero Hill is at the base of the north slope. Our new apartment, we discovered on arrival, was on the south slope. The only way to get from one side to the other was to walk up and over a hill steeper than a ski slope. I’m all for cardio, but I wasn’t about to climb that hill every time I wanted an overpriced scone, which I couldn’t afford anyway.
As for the cool loft building we’d anticipated, it was squeezed between two housing projects, overlooking the highway and a rendering plant, where I’m pretty sure they were making glue out of seagulls, or something along those lines. Our picture windows looked out onto an industrial wasteland.
Also, it was a live/work loft, and the guy next door was in a band. Guess what instrument he played? Did you guess drums? Good for you! He played loud, crazy music all night, and kept a barking pitbull as his companion.
But the real kicker was the mistake we’d made in assuming our apartment, 1A, would be on the ground floor. The building was built into the side of a cliff, so the numbers were basically reversed—you entered on the ninth floor and the floors went down from there. We had rented a ninth-floor walkdown. Each day began with us clambering up nine double-height flights of metal stairs.
Every morning, I commuted to my new job in Mountain View, a pretty town with shops and cafés and a weekly farmers’ market. It would have been perfect for us. Our rent there would have been even lower, and I could have biked to work. Anyhoo, that’s not what we did.
Livia and I didn’t have any furniture for a year and a half. Our credit card debt was a black hole that ate all our income. And when Google gave out one thousand dollars in cash to every employee at Christmastime, I stopped on the way home that day to recklessly spend most of the bonus on a TV. We put the TV on the floor and used its box for a dining table. Otherwise, we were living hand to mouth. We’d brought only our cats and whatever else would fit in our Toyota Matrix. There hadn’t been room in the car or money left over for luxuries— like, say, a bed. We slept upstairs on the bedroom floor. At least it was carpeted.
At Google, when word got around that I was sleeping on the floor, some colleagues passed around a coffee can and raised eight hundred dollars for me to buy a bed. It was an amazingly kind gesture, and I was touched and grateful. However, I had no choice but to misallocate the funds and put them all toward my obscene car payments, which were several months overdue. As for the rest of our furniture, I brought home two garish, multicolor Google beanbag chairs. We sat in those beanbags and slept on the carpet for over a year—until I finally got some dough from Google.
I joined Blogger in September 2003. On August 19, 2004, Google finally had its much-anticipated public offering. The options I was granted as part of my hiring package were on a four-year vesting schedule. I had the right to buy them for a dime per share. By the time Google went public, I was one year vested, and the value per share quickly rose to over one hundred dollars. By the next year, it had nearly tripled. Every month, I was allowed to exercise more of my stock options, so I would pick up the phone, ask a guy on the other end to “sell, please,” put down the phone, and say, “Livia, I just made ten thousand dollars.” Little by little, we chipped away at our credit card debt.
But something was missing. Something I’d learned to love in my first job, the one I dropped out of college for, working for the art director at Little, Brown.
On my first official day of work as a designer at Little, Brown, I walked into the art director’s office, and he silently beckoned me over to his desk. Without speaking or turning around, he reached his left hand over his right shoulder and plucked a book from the shelf. Like a Jedi Master, he never took his eyes off me. The book he had selected was a Pantone color swatch book, and it must have been the one he wanted, because he started looking through it. I stood quietly and watched as he slowly flipped through pages and pages of colors. Finally, he stopped in the range of the light browns and tans. He found what he wanted and tore out one of the little perforated swatches. He put it down on his desk, placed one finger on it, and wordlessly slid the chocolate-colored swatch slowly toward me. He then stated drily, “That’s how I take my coffee.”
Oh my God. I dropped out of college for this. I gave up an awesome free-ride scholarship. And now I have to go to Dunkin’ Donuts and ask the lady if she can do the coffee…
In three seconds, all those thoughts went through my head. As I was considering how to replicate that color at the local café with just the right amount of cream, the art director burst into laughter.
“I’m kidding! What kind of asshole do you think I am?” And so began my apprenticeship in graphic design and my introduction to a new way of thinking. The director, Steve Snider, and I worked side by side for over two years.
Book cover design teaches you that for any one project, there are infinite approaches. There were several factors at play in jacket design. A jacket had to satisfy us, the designers, artistically. It also had to please the author and the editorial department by doing justice to the content. It had to appeal to Sales and Marketing in terms of grabbing attention, and positioning and promoting the book. Sometimes designers were frustrated when their work was turned down by one department or the other. “Idiots. Fools,” they’d mutter, storming around the office. “This is a brilliant design.” And maybe it was. But our colleagues in Sales and Editorial had experience in their jobs, and I learned from Steve to assume that their concerns were legitimate.
Steve told me that once, for a biography of Ralph Lauren, he’d had a brilliant idea. He wanted to put out six different jackets, each in a solid, preppy color with the Polo logo in
the upper left in a contrasting color. That would be it. Ralph Lauren’s photo might be on the back. It would have been so iconic. But Editorial nixed it. So that was that. Steve was still proud of the idea, but he understood that his opinion wasn’t the be-all and end-all.
For a book called The Total Package, by Thomas Hine, which deconstructed the world of product packaging, I took a little cardboard box of powdered pudding. I opened it up, ungluing the seams, and flattened it out. I made a jacket that mimicked the deconstructed box, with its registration lines and that little rainbow where they test the ink colors. I was really proud of the final product. But, instead, they used an elegant black-and-white jacket with product shapes on it. My jacket wasn’t used, but the work wasn’t wasted. I put it in my portfolio. I still thought it was cool.
Steve taught me that having a cover turned down wasn’t a problem. It was an opportunity. My job wasn’t only to be an artist, creating work that pleased me. The challenge was to come up with a design that I loved and that Sales and Editorial thought was perfect. That was the true goal. “Your goals should be bigger than your ego,” Steve used to tell me. When I satisfied every department, only then would I have really succeeded in nailing a cover.
When Steve and I were stuck, we’d try to inspire ourselves. We’d take a precut matte frame and hold it up against different things around the office. Would the wood grain of a credenza make a good background? How about the blue sky outside? (Steve Snider would later use a blue sky with white clouds as the background for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.)
Sometimes there were restrictions that limited our options. We’d be told, “For this book, you have to use this photo. It was taken by the editor’s sister. It’s nonnegotiable.” And the art would suck.
I’d say, “Great, gimme that one.” Then I’d turn the art sideways and blow it up eight hundred percent. Now it was cool. There was always another way to go. My creativity wasn’t limited to five designs per book, or any other number. There was always another potential cover. I quickly learned not to care about the hard work that had been wasted. I didn’t take rejection personally. My creativity was limitless. I wanted to come up with another idea. I got a million of these, I thought. I could do this all day long! It was a matter of attitude.
Graphic design is an excellent preparation for any profession because it teaches you that for any one problem, there are infinite potential solutions. Too often we hesitate to stray from our first idea, or from what we already know. But the solution isn’t necessarily what is in front of us, or what has worked in the past. For example, if we cling to fossil fuels as the best and only energy source, we’re doomed. My introduction to design challenged me to take a new approach today, and every day after.
Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, off beat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to the greatest work.
Steve became my mentor. He drove me in to work every morning, and we became friends, playing tennis together on weekends. He was more than thirty years older than me, but we were a good match: I didn’t have a dad growing up; he had two daughters, and he’d always wanted a son. Eventually he started bringing me with him to present covers to the New York office. On the way, I’d ask him a million questions, not just about design, but about life. How did you know when to propose to your wife? How much money did you ask for at your first job? Asking questions is free. Do it!
With Steve’s encouragement and confidence in me, I left Little, Brown to start a freelance business doing book design. It was the late nineties, so it was inevitable that I would soon expand my services to include website design. Every new business then included website design. I could have started a dry-cleaning service, and the sign would have read ALTERATIONS/WEBSITE DESIGN. When my friends graduated college and decided to form a web company, I was already designing and building websites. We started Xanga together. Learning design with Steve set me on the path that led me where I am today.
The notion that creativity is infinite drove my everyday energy, but that idea rose to the fore in 2005, when I was still at Google, working on Blogger, having finally climbed out of the debt that had plagued me for my entire adult life.
I was endlessly inspired by the characters at Google. There was Simon Quellen Field, a self-named older guy whom I’d met my very first day at orientation. I asked him what he was going to be doing at Google and he said, “I don’t know. Something that requires a PhD.” Simon had a big gray beard, a long gray ponytail, and a live parrot perched on his shoulder. He claimed that he owned a mountain in Los Altos, lived on top of it, and had a huge aviary and parrot farm.
During lunch, a guy named Woldemar (a.k.a. “He Who Is Sometimes Mistaken for He Who Shall Not Be Named”) would juggle by himself. I’d go over and talk to him: “Don’t you feel weird juggling here?”
“I’d feel nervous and embarrassed.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“Okay, see you later, Woldemar.”
Misha was squat, with a potbelly, a beard, and a thick Russian accent. He tracked me down when I posted a paper on the Google intranet. (The paper considered that, like it or hate it, when you go for a job interview or on a date, people are going to Google you. You might as well take ownership of that. I suggested that Google let people convert the search results on their names into a social networking profile page, editing the results, and expanding from there. I called it Google Persona. I still think it’s a pretty good idea, but it’s up on the shelf, next to Steve’s Ralph Lauren book jackets.) Anyway, Misha read my post and took an interest in me. He hunted me down and said, “Biz, come. We take walk.”
Should I take a walk with this Russian guy? Why not?
So from then on, Misha and I would take strolls. We’d amble by the parrot guy and the juggling guy, and he would say things like “Biz, I invent new way to present time.” It was guys like Misha who made Google work.
Despite the welcome financial stability of the job and the endlessly fascinating characters, there was something missing from my work at Blogger: I didn’t have a chance to challenge myself every day.
One of the ways I tried to fulfill that urge was to regularly brainstorm with Evan about what we might do next if we were to leave Google. One afternoon in 2005, he and I were carpooling home to San Francisco from Google in Mountain View. Ev was driving his yellow Subaru wagon, and I was riding shotgun.
“You know how people can record their voice in the web browser with Flash if they have a built-in microphone?” I asked.
“Yes,” Ev said.
“Well, we could build something that lets people record whatever they want. Then we could convert that to an MP3 on our servers.”
“Okay,” I said. “I think I have a genius idea.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Evan will listen to any idea I have, but he’s not one to get overexcited. He’s thoughtful, analytical.
We were driving through the northbound dot-com traffic on Highway 101, around San Mateo. I took a deep breath and went on.
“It seems like iPods are getting super popular. We could make it really easy for regular people to create recordings— talking, singing, interviews, or whatever the hell they want—by talking to a web page. Say lots of people do this, and we convert all their random recordings to files, MP3s.”
“Go on,” Evan said.
“We collect all these recordings in one place and make them available. Then other people can subscribe to whomever they like.” I explained to him how it might work technically, and how the recordings would sync between their computers and their iPods.
At last Ev’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. His “holy shit, that’s a good idea” face.
“So you see what I’m saying. We could basically make a service that democratizes audio in the same way Blogger democratizes the making of web pages. Anyone can have what is essentially his or her own radio show. Other people can easily get that show onto their iPods, so they can listen to all this stuff whenever they want. It could be a whole thing.”
You know I’m excited when I say, “It could be a whole thing.” “You might be on to something.” Evan is a tough nut to crack, but I’d cracked him.
“I told you I had a genius idea.”
Once we got back to the city and started researching this notion, we found out I wasn’t quite as genius as I thought— other people had already thought of this and were calling it podcasting. Still, we thought there was a wide-open market for a mainstream, consumer, web-branded podcasting service.
Evan consulted with his friend Noah Glass, who had been working in this space—recording voices in the browser using Flash. Noah had named his service Audioblogger, because it posted people’s recordings to a blog. But he hadn’t yet put together anything that made it easy to subscribe to these recordings and get them on an iPod.
One night, Ev called while Livia and I were cooking dinner at our “loft” in Potrero Hill.
He said, “Noah and I are hashing out the idea you had in the car. Come join us.”
I glanced over at the broccoli, potatoes, and fake meat stew simmering on the stove. I was hungry. It looked good. “Nah,” I said. “You guys go ahead without me.” It’s moments like this that make and break fortunes in Silicon Valley. Stupid broccoli.
Because Google had acquired Blogger, Evan had already made his fortune and was free to do whatever he wanted. (Yes, he bought a silver Porsche after the Google IPO. You can’t blame a kid from Nebraska for buying a toy like that when he becomes a multimillionaire.) The next thing he did was to quit Google, team up with Noah, and launch a podcasting company called Odeo.
A short time after that first call Ev told me that he had raised five million dollars to build Odeo with Noah. It had all happened so quickly, and suddenly I felt like I’d missed the boat. They’d started the company without me. Sure, Google was a great place to be. It was a hot company. I had no boss. I was earning maximum bonuses. I didn’t have to go in to work if I didn’t want to. I had two years of options left to vest. I could relax at Google and make millions of dollars. Or I could quit in order to work on a startup that might not succeed. (Spoiler: it failed.) But I wanted to be challenged every day.
Think about your work situation. Do you treat your creativity like a fossil fuel—a limited resource that must be conserved—or have you harnessed the unending power of the sun? Are you in an environment where creativity thrives? Is there room for new ideas every day? Can you make room?
I had moved out to California to work with Evan Williams, not with Google. That was more important to me than options or job security. I couldn’t sit around waiting for my options to vest when I had a chance to be a part of a startup with Evan. Sure, I was bringing a human side to Blogger, but the website was already well on its way. Leaving a stable, comfortable job is like starting again from scratch. It’s not easy, and it may not work the first time, but it can ultimately lead to greater things. I needed a new source of energy. It was time to hack on a new thing.
I called Evan and said, “I want to quit here and work at Odeo.”
He said, “Awesome.” So I quit Google.
Starting over is one of the hardest leaps to make in life. Security, stability, safety—it’s scary, if not downright irresponsible, to leave these behind. I was at Google in 2003 and I might still be there now. But I had faith in my future self. (After all, my once-future self had finally managed to pay off the Toyota Matrix.) I could help build something new.
By this point, after we had paid off our debt at last, Livia and I had broken the lease on our ninth-floor walk-down in Potrero Hill, rented a condo in Palo Alto, and I’d started biking to work. After two years of commuting from San Francisco to Mountain View, now I was driving from Palo Alto back up to the city to the Odeo offices. I’d reversed my commute.
And so we moved again. This time I asked Livia to decide where we should live, since my track record on this was so poor. She chose Berkeley, and because we were tired of landlords who wouldn’t allow us to bring along our menagerie of rescue animals, we wanted to own our home. Livy was the director of WildCare in San Rafael, a wild animal ER. What happens there is very different from a vet’s office, where people might bring in an obese housecat and try to help it live to be seventy. When people find injured animals—squirrels, hawks, owls, skunks—they bring them to WildCare for help. But unlike with dogs and cats, there’s no established protocol for some of the cases. (How do you make a prosthetic leg for a seagull?) And WildCare’s a nonprofit, so often it’s improvising with whatever’s been donated. A tiny mouse with a broken leg? They fix it with dental equipment from the seventies. Livy was saving lives. She’s wired to help others, and her life of altruism absolutely inspires me.
At the time, we ourselves were caring for two rescue dogs, two rescue cats, and a rescue tortoise. At various times we also had foster bunnies, crows, and rodents of varying sizes and shapes. So we took all the money we’d saved and used it as a down payment. We bought a little eight-hundred-square-foot house that had been built as the maid’s quarters to a bigger house. Half that square footage was the garage.
I’ll never forget celebrating my thirty-second birthday in that house. Livy, who did most of the work taking care of our animals, had gone to a medical conference for almost a week, and I was left to manage the animals by myself. It gave me a taste of the work she did professionally and often in our home. One of the dogs was prone to seizures. The other was anxious and attacked people. There was a cat that had been hit by a car and didn’t know when it was dripping poop. Livy left me with all of them plus, in the garage, five baby bunnies whose mother had been killed. They were really cute, but they were still nursing and had to be fed milk through a syringe. Then there were the crows, wintering in a giant aviary I’d crammed into the gap between our Berkeley house and the neighbor’s fence. The cage was big enough for them, but I had to stoop when I went in to feed them a stinky combination of dead smelt and fruit. Livy had said, “Whatever you do, don’t rile up the crows. They have broken wings. They shouldn’t flap them.” So I had to be quiet and gentle while I unclipped the food tray, replaced it with a new one, and reclipped it. But the stupid thing would not unclip. Wasps, attracted to the food, swarmed around me. I had to stay calm—I couldn’t rile the crows—during a twenty-minute wasp fest while I replaced the tray.
The second day Livy was gone was my birthday. At two o’clock that morning, Pedro, the older dog, started having a seizure. I ran upstairs in nothing but my tighty whiteys and found him with his tongue hanging out, eyes bulging. I thought he was dying. I picked him up and held him the way I thought I’d seen Livy do. He exploded dog diarrhea all over me. Then the phone rang. It was Livy, returning my desperate call for help. Holding the dog, covered in shit, I tried to answer without getting shit on the phone. Just then, the seizure stopped. “We’re fine,” I told Livy and quickly hung up. As I cleaned myself up, Pedro ran around like a puppy, overjoyed to be alive.
With the new house and a startup salary at Odeo, Livy and I were instantly back on our way to credit card debt. But hey, it wouldn’t have been a true leap of faith in myself if the stakes hadn’t been high. I had opted for risk and creativity, and that choice would serve me… eventually.
Excerpted from Things A Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone. Copyright © 2014 by Biz Stone.
First published 2014 by Grand Central Publishing. First published in the UK 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.