Evan Williams's New Medium

Evan Williams, co-founder and then-CEO of Twitter, speaks at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association in 2010 Photograph by Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

The entrepreneur and former Twitter chief recently went public with his latest attempt to redefine publishing through a new platform called Medium (currently in Beta). He spoke with Senior Editor Diane Brady about the challenges of deciding on his next big bet.

Twitter was a wild ride for sure. I totally enjoyed being CEO. It was incredibly difficult but satisfying to grow the company at the time I did. When I stepped away last year, I didn’t know if I wanted to start something new. My wife and I got a place in Tahoe for the season, and I took three months off. I was bored. I realized that I really craved the intellectual challenge and stimulation of work.

It’s hard to start something new after you’ve had success. There are high expectations; it gives you a little stage fright. Too much capital and too much attention can be very detrimental to ideas. An idea is like a spark that needs to catch the kindling just right. If you put too much attention on it, it’s like blowing a bunch of air on it that puts it out. You need enough air to breathe and that’s all. Constraint drives creativity. The character limit on Twitter did that. When we started Blogger, the market dropped, and we went from seven people to one. I was forced to do only what was needed to keep it running and that’s what made it work.

When I led Twitter, I wanted to publish ideas and thoughts on my blog but I didn’t have the time. Now that I had the time, I thought the tools and the model needed improvement. I wanted to do in publishing what the iPod did to digital music. [The iPod] wasn’t the first, but it took available technologies and transformed [digital music] into a whole different thing.

With this new venture, we didn’t want to build too much too soon. The idea wasn’t fully formed. We started building a team without a lot of direction on where we were going. I needed technologists and designers who were comfortable with ambiguity. Things don’t show up as epiphanies for me. They just gel over time. You look at the gaps out there, and whether you can fill them. We wanted to give people a way to share and write into what we call collections [by theme or topic].

The problem was trying to wrap that into a simple product. Social media is great for really fast communication; Facebook lets you talk to the people you know. So where does quality content go? Other people’s sites feel disconnected and stagnant compared to the networks we’re tapped into today. The Internet has lowered the cost of distribution and given everybody a voice. There hasn’t been enough done to improve the quality of content, to give great ideas enough attention no matter who created them.

That’s how we came up with Medium. It’s a way for people to write and share into collections. I want this to be the best platform for sharing and finding ideas that matter. Any time you make a new product, you have to guess how it will scale and try to make design decisions that will lead to the best dynamic. The more you try to do that ahead of time, the more likely you are to be wrong. I’d rather do something minimal so we could make better decisions as we go along. We’re trying to fill a void. Lots of people have ideas or stories to tell, and they don’t have a place to tell them. I’ve learned to follow my gut more and more, and my gut has gotten better.

The biggest thing you get caught up on is that there’s always too many ideas and too much to do. It’s very hard to filter them. Ultimately, very few things matter in terms of moving the needle. You have to focus only on the things that matter. That’s reflected in how we design the product. There are too many good things in the world now and there’s not enough time. Success will come from decisions that seem little but have long-term implications for the product we’re designing. You don’t know what will lead to the best outcome. We have to move forward with the idea that we might be wrong and we can revisit it later.

Right now, if you’re in Silicon Valley all you see is people pursuing new ideas. A lot of them are redundant or derivative, but that’s just a marketplace working itself out. The Internet is more mainstream than ever. When you work on something today, success means impacting the world more than you ever did before. The stakes are high. But it means great things will happen.