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Nov. 14, 2013

Turmoil at Twitter: A CEO's Ouster

by Nick Bilton

Click to enlarge images
Get out,” Evan Williams said to the woman standing in his office doorway. “I’m going to throw up.”
 
She stepped backward, pulling the door closed, a metal clicking sound reverberating through the room as he grabbed the black wastebasket in the corner of his office, his hands now shaking and clammy.
 
This was it. His last act as the CEO of Twitter would be throwing up into a garbage can.
 
He knelt there for a moment, his dark jeans resting on the rough carpeted floor, then leaned back against the wall. Outside, the cold October air rustled the trees that lined Folsom Street below. Violin-like noises of traffic mingled with a muffled din of conversation near his office doorway.
 
Moments later, someone informed his wife, Sara, who also worked at Twitter, “Something is wrong with Ev.” She rushed up to his corner office, her rich, black, curly hair wobbling slightly as she walked.
 
Sara checked her watch, realizing that Ev had only forty-five minutes before he would have to address the three hundred Twitter employees and break the news. She opened the door and went inside.
 
Down the hall, the Twitter public-relations team reviewed the blog post that would go up on the Web site at 11:40 a.m., the moment Ev would finish addressing the company and hand the microphone to the new CEO, passing power in a gesture as simple as handing off the baton in a relay race.
 
The blog post, which would be picked up by thousands of press outlets and blogs from around the world, gleefully announced that Twitter, the four-year-old social network, now had 165 million registered people on the service who sent an astounding 90 million tweets each day. Five paragraphs down, it noted that Evan Williams, the current CEO, was stepping down of his own volition.
 
“I have decided to ask our COO, Dick Costolo, to become Twitter’s CEO,” said the post, allegedly written by Ev.
 
Of course, that wasn’t true.
 
Ev, seated on the floor of his office with his hands wrapped around a garbage can, had absolutely no desire to say that. A farmer’s son from Nebraska who had arrived in San Francisco a decade earlier with nothing more than a couple of bags of cheap, raggedy, oversized clothes and tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debt, Ev wanted to remain chief of the company he had cofounded. But that wasn’t going to happen. It didn’t matter that he was now worth more than a billion dollars or that he had poured his life into Twitter. He didn’t have a choice: He had been forced out of the company in a malicious, bloody boardroom coup carried out by the people he had hired, some of whom had once been his closest friends, and by some of the investors who had financed the company.
 
Ev looked up as he heard Sara come in. He wiped the sleeve of his sweater across the dark stubble on his chin.
 
“How are you feeling?” Sara asked.
 
“Fuck,” he said, unsure if it was his nerves or if he was coming down with something. Or both.
 
Down the hall, through the doors that led to the Twitter office’s main foyer, copies of The New Yorker, The Economist, and The New York Times were fanned out on the white square coffee table in the waiting area. Each publication contained articles about Twitter’s role in the revolutions now taking place in the Middle East—rebellions that, through Twitter and other social networks, would eventually see the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and spark massive protests in Bahrain, Syria, and Iran.
 
Around the corner, Biz Stone, another of Twitter’s four cofounders, finalized an e‑mail telling the employees that there would be an all-hands meeting in the cafeteria at 11:30 a.m. Attendance was mandatory; no guests were allowed. There would be no hummus, just important news. He hit “send” and stood up from his desk, heading for Ev’s office to try to cheer up his friend and boss of nearly a decade.
 
Jason Goldman, who oversaw Twitter’s product development and was one of Ev’s few allies on the company’s seven-person board, was already sitting on the couch when Biz arrived and dropped down next to him. Ev was now quietly sipping from a bottle of water, despondently staring off into the distance, the turmoil and madness of the past week playing over in his mind.
 
“Remember when . . . ,” Goldman and Biz chorused, trying to cheer Ev up with humorous memories of the last several years at Twitter. There were lots of stories to tell. Like the time Ev had nervously been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, fumbling in front of millions of viewers. Or the time the Russian president showed up to the office, with snipers and the Secret Service, to send his first tweet, right at the moment the site stopped working. Or when Biz and Ev went to Al Gore’s apartment at the St. Regis for dinner and got “shit-faced drunk” as the former vice president of the United States tried to convince them to sell him part of Twitter. Or other bizarre acquisition attempts by Ashton Kutcher at his pool in Los Angeles and by Mark Zuckerberg at awkward meetings at his sparsely furnished house. Or when Kanye West, will. i. am, Lady Gaga, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain, and countless other celebrities and politicians had arrived, sometimes unannounced, at the office, rapping, singing, preaching, tweeting (some others were even high or drunk), trying to understand how this bizarre thing that was changing society could be controlled and how they could own a piece of it.
 
Ev struggled to smile as his friends spoke, trying his best to hide the sadness and defeat on his face.
 
There was one person who might have been successful at making Ev smile: the man who was now pacing in the office directly next door, his bald head bowed, his phone cupped to his ear. Dick Costolo, once a well-known improv comedian who had graced the stage with Steve Carell and Tina Fey. The same Dick Costolo Ev had “decided to ask” to become Twitter’s new CEO, the third of a company that was only four years old.
 
Yet Dick wasn’t in a jovial mood either. He was talking to the board members who had been involved in the coup, confirming the wording of the blog post that would soon go out to the media, and also what he would say to the hundreds of Twitter employees when he took the mic from Ev.
 
He paced as they plotted what would happen next: the return of Jack Dorsey.
 

Excerpted from Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, by Nick Bilton with permission of Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Nick Bilton, 2013.

About the Author
Nick Bilton is a columnist and reporter for The New York Times and also leads its popular Bits Blog, where he explores the disruptive aspects of technology on business and culture, the future of technology, privacy, and the social impact of the Web. He is a regular guest on national TV and radio and the author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. He lives in San Francisco.
 
Author photo by Christopher Michel
 
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About Nick Bilton

Nick Bilton is a columnist and reporter for The New York Times and leads its popular Bits Blog, where he explores the disruptive aspects of technology on business and culture, the future of technology, privacy, and the social impact of the web.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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