How Twitter's owners and top executives say Twitter was founded is different than how Twitter was actually founded.
Mainly, the official version leaves out the role of a major co-founder. Some early Twitter investors also wonder if it also leaves out a scandal.
The official telling of Twitter's founding goes like this:
Ex-Googler Evan Williams had a startup called Odeo. It was going to be a podcasting platform. Evan asked his friend, another ex-Googler named Biz Stone, to join him. When Apple launched iTunes, and made Odeo's podcasting platform irrelevant, Evan and Biz and an Odeo employee named Jack Dorsey decided to create something called Twitter instead. Odeo's investors didn't like Twitter, and Evan did them a huge favor by buying back all their stock and making them whole.
According to interviews with about a dozen early investors and employees, the story of how Twitter was actually founded begins with an entrepreneur named Noah Glass, who started Odeo in his apartment.
The story begins about six years ago ...
The real history of Twitter …
"Noah had a product where you call a phone number and it would turn your message into an MP3 hosted on the Internet. That was the technology that Noah brought that turned into Odeo," says early employee Ray McClure.
Along with Charles River Ventures and about a dozen other individuals, one of Glass' earliest investors in Odeo was a former Google employee named Evan Williams. Williams was more involved with Odeo than most investors are with startups in their portfolios, and eventually, Odeo moved from Noah's apartment to Williams'. Williams, who had recently sold a company called Blogger to Google, had just bought a nice house and wanted to put his old apartment to good use.
"I think it was something Ev was interested in, but it was mostly Noah's thing," McClure says.
"At that time, it would have been me, Evan [Henshwaw-Plath, better know by friends as "Rabble,"] and Rabble's wife Gabba. Mostly it was the four of us working out of the apartment."
Next, Odeo moved into an office and started hiring more employees — including a quiet, on-again, off-again Web designer named Jack Dorsey and an engineer named Blaine Cook. Evan Williams became Odeo's CEO.
By July 2005, Odeo had a product: a platform for podcasting.
But then, in the fall of 2005, "the shit hit the fan," says George Zachary, the Charles River Ventures partner who led the firm's investment in Odeo.
That was when Apple first announced iTunes — which included a podcasting platform built into every one of the 200 million iPods Apple would eventually sell. Around the same time, Odeo employees, from Glass and Williams on down, began to realize that they weren't listening to podcasts as much as they thought they would be.
Says Cook: "We built [Odeo], we tested it a lot, but we never used it."
Suddenly, says Zachary, "the company was going sideways."
By this point, Odeo had 14 people working full time — including now-CEO Evan Williams and a friend of his from Google, Christopher "Biz" Stone.
Williams decided Odeo's future was not in podcasting, and later that year, he told the company's employees to start coming up with ideas for a new direction Odeo could go. The company started holding official "hackathons" where employees would spend a whole day working on projects. They broke off into groups.
Odeo co-founder Noah Glass gravitated toward Jack Dorsey, whom Glass says was "one of the stars of the company." Jack had an idea for a completely different product that revolved around "status" — what people were doing at a given time.
"I got the impression he was unhappy with what he was working on — a lot of cleanup work on Odeo."
"He started talking to me about this idea of status and how he was really interested in status," Glass says. "I was trying to figure out what it was he found compelling about it."
"There was a moment when I was sitting with Jack and I said, 'Oh, I do see how this could really come together to make something really compelling.' We were sitting on Mission Street in the car in the rain. We were going out and I was dropping him off and having this conversation. It all fit together for me."
One day in February 2006, Glass, Dorsey and German contract developer Florian Webber presented Jack's idea to the rest of the company. It was a system where you could send a text to one number and it would be broadcasted to all of your friends: Twttr.
Noah Glass says it was he who came up with the name "Twttr." "I spent a bunch of time thinking about it," he says. Eventually, the name would become Twitter.
After that February presentation to the company, Evan Williams was skeptical of Twitter's potential, but he put Glass in charge of the project. From time to time, Biz Stone helped out Glass' Twitter team.
And it really was Glass' team, by the way. Not Jack Dorsey's.
Everyone agrees that original inkling for Twitter sprang from Jack Dorsey's mind. Dorsey even has drawings of something that looks like Twitter that he made years before he joined Odeo. And Jack was obviously central to the Twitter team.
But all of the early employees and Odeo investors we talked to also agree that no one at Odeo was more passionate about Twitter in the early days than Odeo's co-founder, Noah Glass.
"It was predominantly Noah who pushed for the project to be started," says Blaine Cook, who describes Glass as Twitter's "spiritual leader."
"He definitely had a vision for what it was," says Ray McClure.
"There were two people who were really excited [about Twitter,]" concurs Odeo investor George Zachary. "Jack and Noah Glass. Noah was fanatically excited about Twitter. Fanatically! Evan and Biz weren't at that level. Not remotely."
Zachary says Glass told him, "You know what's awesome about this thing? It makes you feel like you're right with that person. It's a whole emotional impact. You feel like you're connected with that person."
At one point the entire early Twitter service was running on Glass' laptop. "An Thinkpad," Glass says, "Using a Verizon wireless card."
"It was right there on my desk. I could just pick it up and take it anywhere in the world. That was a really fun time."
Glass insists that he is not Twitter's sole founder or anything like it. But he feels betrayed that his role has basically been expunged from Twitter history. He says Florian Webber doesn't get enough credit, either.
"Some people have gotten credit, some people haven't. The reality is it was a group effort. I didn't create Twitter on my own. It came out of conversations."
"I do know that without me, Twitter wouldn't exist. In a huge way."
By March 2006, Odeo had a working Twitter prototype. In July, TechCrunch for the first time. That same summer, Odeo employees obsessed with Twitter were racking up monthly SMS bills totaling hundreds of dollars. The company agreed to pay those bills for the employees. In August, a small earthquake shook San Francisco and word quickly spread through Twitter — an early 'ah-ha!' moment for users and company-watchers alike. By that fall, Twitter had thousands of users.
By this point, engineer Blaine Cook says it began to feel like there were "two companies" at Odeo — the one "Noah and Florian and Jack and Biz were working on" (Twitter) and Odeo. Twitter, says Ray McClure, "was definitely the thing you wanted to be working on."
At a board meeting for Odeo that summer, Noah Glass presented Twitter to Odeo's directors. They hardly blinked at it.
Then, one day in September 2006, Odeo's CEO Evan Williams wrote a letter to Odeo's investors. In it, Williams told them that the company was going nowhere, that he felt bad about that, and that he would like to buy back their shares so they wouldn't take a loss.
In his letter to Odeo's investors, Williams wrote this about Twitter:
By the way, Twitter (http://twitter.com), which you may have read about, is one of the pieces of value that I see in Odeo, but it's much too early to tell what's there. Almost two months after launch, Twitter has less than 5,000 registered users. I will continue to invest in Twitter, but it's hard to say it justifies the venture investment Odeo certainly holds — especially since that investment was for a different market altogether.
Evan proposed buying back Odeo investors' stock, and, eventually, the investors agreed to the buyback. So Evan bought the company — and Twitter. The amount he paid has never been reported. Multiple investors, who had combined to put $5 million into Odeo, say Evan made them whole.
Five years later, assets of the company the original Odeo investors sold for approximately $5 million are now worth at least 1,000 percent more: $5 billion.
How do those investors feel now?
We spoke to most of them, and in general, the answer is that most feel at peace now — if only now. Some are wistful. Others are hurt. Speaking to one or two, you can detect a suspicion that they were somehow conned by Williams.
Most echoed the sentiments of James Hong, the co-founder of HotOrNot.com and an Odeo angel investor. Hong told us, "Obviously, I wish what happened hadn't happened. There was a dark period where I didn't want to hear about Twitter."
Many of the Odeo investors still appreciate Williams' gesture.
"At the time, it was well received as a gracious act," says one individual investor, Don Hutchinson. "Often when you're investing in early stage companies you end up with a dead loss."
A few wish that Williams had been more upfront about what he was planning to do next, as they would have loved to re-invest in Twitter.
"I wish he had reached out to me," says Mitch Kapor, still an active and successful investor in Silicon Valley. "I think he could have, but didn't. And I'd say it’s sort of a shared responsibility."
Some of the investors who sold Odeo and Twitter to Evan Williams for a few million dollars wonder about his intentions at the time.
Had Evan tricked them into thinking Twitter wasn't worth much, when he already knew it would be a gold mine?
One investor asked: "Could Evan have known this would be the world's best thing ever and hid it while re-capitalizing the company?"
"If there's ever any litigious stuff in the air," says this investor, "it will be: How much did Evan know about the user engagement and numbers of Twitter at the time of buying it out?"