How to Build a Brand with 140 Characters


Jack Dorsey is without a doubt the most acclaimed alumnus of Archbishop DuBourg High School in St. Louis – though he didn’t distinguish himself there. The fact that it took some time to achieve a bit of renown wasn’t due to a lack of accomplishment. By the age of 15 he had written programming to manage the dispatching and tracking of vehicle fleets – notably taxis.

He attended the Missouri University of Science and Technology for a short while before moving on to NYU. Realizing that a university education was not the road for him – he moved to the Silicon Valley where he began a company to sell his dispatch software online.

Soon however, he was hired by Evan Williams and Noah Glass to be a freelance programmer for their company – Odeo. Odeo was formed to make podcasts – but when Apple jumped into that area via iTunes, it became clear that the company needed to explore other options.  While out together one night, Dorsey discussed with Glass his idea for a website which would allow people to share their status via a brief message.

The concept spurred further thoughts in Glass and in February of 2006 they shared the idea with Williams and Biz Stone- an Odeo colleague. Several ideas were being reviewed, but it was Dorsey’s original concept which resonated the most with Williams (the financial resource) and that’s where all of the company’s efforts were focused. The first message was sent by Dorey in March – just one month into development – followed quickly by Stone and Glass.

Everyone seemed to have a role – yet, as with most businesses there was internal conflict. As much of it had to do with interpersonal conflict and ‘ownership’ as it did with designing, programming, and refining the actual concept. Personal issues and personal agendas came into play – but ultimately decisions were made which ended up being in the best interest of the company – regardless of reasons.

Early on, the service was deemed by many to be for the self-centered and shallow types and – not surprisingly for a new technology – there were frequent interruptions to service. Yet the user base continued to grow – slowly – and in 2007 things would accelerate rapidly. For one thing, the focus of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley began to shift to social networks. The service was featured at the SXSW Interactive (South by Southwest) in Austin winning the award for that year. The amount of messages – limited to 140 characters – tripled from 20,000 per day to 60,000. Also in that year, a user suggested the use of the pound sign, or hashtag, to identify groups – the company quickly adopted its use.

Through the years management conflict remained and change continued to be the result. Glass was ousted in 2006. Dorsey moved from CEO to chairman being replaced by Williams – himself ousted in 2010 and replaced by Dick Costolo.

Through all of the turmoil – perhaps in spite of it – the service continued to grow – attracting some high profile users such as NASA, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Rania of Jordan – even the Dalai Lama. A user posted a picture of US Airways flight 1549 after it had been safely landed in the Hudson River before any traditional news outlets featured the story, adding new relevance to the service.

Today, a service that started as a spark of an idea at a company facing dire straits, touts 284 million active monthly users – they send over 500 million messages daily. Nearly 75% of those users are outside the U.S. – supported by over 35 languages. There are 3,600 employees located in two dozen offices around the globe. The company went public through a successful IPO at the end of 2013 – which made very wealthy men of virtually all of the original key players. These are amazing accomplishments – but not what defines a fearless brand. This success is because Twitter itself was built as a fearless brand, providing tremendous relevance and value to its users.

Fearless Brands deliver authentic value and relevance  

Twitter – once thought to be merely a platform to report one’s music preferences or what one had for lunch – has become ingrained in global society. Twitter has given voice to the oppressed and censored by providing them a platform to send messages – known as tweets – to the world as a whole. It has helped document – in real-time – events ranging from political turmoil in Iran and Egypt to domestic unrest in Ferguson, MO.

President Obama set a record for retweets (forwarding a posted tweet) with a simple statement of victory – “Four more years”. That record was broken this year when a group of celebrities posted a ‘selfie’ (see it here) taken at the Oscars – an event, which itself, generated 3.3 billion impressions.

Twitter has helped unite the world when it has been used to report results and all aspects of global sporting events from the London Olympics to the World Cup in Brazil. Twitter has also created value on a smaller scale – allowing individuals to connect, establish relationships, receive and deliver content of their choice and stay in touch with topics and groups of interest.

Importantly, Twitter the company, has shown success in building a business model which will successfully monetize Twitter the brand. This is significant on two fronts

  1. Achieving profitability creates sustainability and an ROI for investors.
  2. Twitter’s performance provides validation that tech startups can survive and achieve success as a business.

There’s always a great deal to learn from fearless brands – brands that successfully deliver relevance by combining passion with competencies. Here are three key points to learn from Twitter:

Your brand is not a name nor a logo – A brand is the essence of a vision – the value of the idea. Twitter is a fearless brand because a vision became reality. Its name works because ‘twitter’ means – to utter successive chirping noises. That definition perfectly fit the concept and spurred the name Twitter, the blue bird and all of the related ‘lingo’. Understand that your brand is the value you provide – your name, logo, signs etc. need to effectively communicate that value. 

No ‘one’ is as smart as all of us – There is a great deal made of the alleged ‘behind the scenes’ conflicts which occurred between various key players in Twitter’s creation and eventual success. While not one concept is ever truly attributable to a single individual – success stories in Silicon Valley tend to do exactly that – Jobs with Apple, Zuckerberg with Facebook and now Dorsey with Twitter. Fearless brands are built by embracing the full value of every person and asset involved.  It does take a team.

The customer defines your brand – Yes a brand is built and yes you have to manage your brand (or someone else will) – but the value of any given brand is ultimately determined by the customer. Your brand has to pass what I call the ‘So what?’ test? Does your brand meet the needs and wants of your customer? If not, it won’t be successful. With Twitter, an enormous user base realizes tremendous value – that in turn, creates value to advertisers who are critical in Twitter’s business model. Be certain that your brand delivers the highest value possible – as determined your customers.

I find it incredible that a brand was built on the idea of communicating in 140 characters – or less. While it should be clear that is not my personal strong suit 🙂 – I can say that there is much to be learned from Twitter as you build your brand. As you encounter the turmoil certain to affect your efforts, stay focused on the value you are providing and your brand – like Twitter – will be successful.


NOTE: For an in-depth look at the history of Twitter check out the book Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton for his ‘inside’ story.

Friday's Fearless Brand

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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