He is the co-founder of Twitter, a Silicon Valley billionaire and now heads his own start-up, Jelly. For all that, Biz Stone passes off as a very regular guy, indeed, who still wonders at his great wealth. He limits his wardrobe to two pairs of jeans, drives a Volkswagen Golf because he is embarrassed about showing up to work in "something flashy" and, in the true spirit of philanthropy, says he likes to help people with his money.
"I don't like owning too many things. I have two pairs of jeans and four shirts," Stone says in an email interaction. "Great wealth for me is a wonderful gift. I grew up poor, struggled with credit card debt through my life, and now I have the ability to help many people. Helping people is what my wife and I choose to do with our wealth."
From a childhood largely dependent on welfare in Wellesley in Massachusetts to a Silicon Valley legend who impacted the lives of millions with the ingenious 140-character communication breakthrough, this is a modern-day fairy tale. Stone's recent Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, a part-memoir, part-guide published by Pan Macmillan India, gives you a glimpse of that story.
Stone (christened Christopher Stone) quit his first start-up in New York City to move in with his girlfriend in his mom's basement, where he conjured fictitious research labs and test-drove super jets in a blog, which according to him, was "Buddy Love to my Professor Kelp". He was hired by Evan 'Ev' Williams at Google and they quit a couple of years later leaving valuable shares behind. (Stone is believed to have given up on about $2 million in stocks.) They hired Jack Dorsey and tried their hand at podcasting, but failed. And then came the two-week 'hackathon' in teams of two people where Stone and Williams come out with the snazziest communication model in recent times — Twitter. With more than 650 million users today, the social media network has been responsible for the fastest dissemination of information globally. And for launching some revolutions too — remember Arab Spring? And closer home, 26/11? Stone has also referred to how people used Twitter during the terror siege to report what was happening in real time and how it served as a lifeline.
Stone, 40, writes on how they planned to come up with something to hack the SMS network and build a tool that lets you update your status in 140 characters. He talks about how constraint leads to creativity. "The international limit for text messages is 160 characters. In our early prototypes, the amount of characters you had to compose your tweet was 160 minus however long your name was. It occurred to me that it wasn't fair that I got more characters because my name, @biz, was so short. So we decided to standardise on 140 characters," says Stone. "We wanted every tweet to be created and consumed in its entirety, including the author's name on any device."
The Twitter saga has its fair share of back stabbings and animosity. Nick Bolton's Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal that released late last year stopped a few dramatic steps short of villainising Dorsey, who heads Twitter currently. Twitter's history has been marred by a lot of fights and backstabbing, and Stone alone, it seems, has escaped the animosity.
Given the messy current equations between Twitter's founders and Stone's usually poised demeanour, he now no longer works with Twitter, and instead heads his own start-up. Jelly, launched in January this year, allows you to pose questions to your Facebook or Twitter friends via pictures, maps, location, and people to get answers.
Stone, who is hopeful of "introducing a new level of empathy", says that the app aims to "reimagine how we get answers to our queries". "We are now all mobile, connected by social networks. The six degrees of separation has recently been reduced to four, according to new white papers. For some percentage of queries, a human is going to better at helping you," says Stone. "Jelly is the productisation of my own personality so it makes sense for me to put all my energy toward a connected society, where people help each other."
He seems to be walking the right path again. Because this hyper-connected humanity could do with a fair bit of humanising.