Good luck getting this foursome this close again.

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Is Anyone in Charge at Twitter?

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Diagnosing Twitter’s problems has become an international pastime. I’ve engaged in it, as have far more informed and illustrious people, most recently and most wordily the early Twitter investor Chris Sacca. These critiques are generally made out of love, by people who are devoted to the social network and fret over how it keeps losing ground to the far less compelling -- to us, at least -- Facebook. Not to mention Instagram, Snapchat and whatever else comes along next week.

We enthusiasts are one obvious culprit. The insidery, rapid-fire discussions that appeal to journalists, economists, soccer fans and all the other overlapping subgroups that populate Twitter are exactly what scares away casual users. Sacca’s epic essay was mostly a list of ways in which he thought Twitter could become more accessible to newcomers while keeping core users engaged.

Wall Street is another oft-cited factor. After the 2010 boardroom coup by Twitter’s venture capital backers that made Dick Costolo chief executive officer, Twitter raised so much money from private investors and then an initial public offering that it has since faced huge pressure to deliver gobs of revenue, quickly. Maybe too quickly.

Here’s another theory: Twitter’s main problem is that it is run by a committee -- an often dysfunctional committee. Most of the great tech successes have had a dominant founding leader or partnership: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard at HP; Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore at Intel; Bill Gates at Microsoft; Larry Ellison at Oracle; Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google; Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. Even at Cisco, where the founders left in a huff, outside-hire John Morgridge was able to establish himself as the undisputed boss.

At Twitter it’s never been clear who’s in charge. The company wouldn't exist but for Ev Williams, who bankrolled its creation with the money he’d made selling Pyra Labs -- the company behind Blogger -- to Google, hired its creators and was CEO from 2008 to 2010. It also wouldn't exist but for Jack Dorsey, who came up with the idea for the service that evolved into Twitter and was its first CEO. It probably also wouldn’t exist but for Noah Glass, who came up with the name Twitter and played a crucial role in its early development, and Biz Stone, who kept Williams and Dorsey and Glass from strangling each other.

That, at least, is my reading of Nick Bilton’s wonderful book “Hatching Twitter” (shorter New York Times Magazine version here) which remains as relevant today as it was when it came out the day before Twitter’s IPO in November 2013. Glass and Stone are long gone from the company, but Williams and Dorsey remain its largest individual shareholders, Williams with a 7.3 percent stake and Dorsey 3.3 percent.

Working together they could probably call all the shots at the company, but working together has always been a struggle for them. Williams fired Dorsey as CEO in 2008; Dorsey was part of the plot to push Williams out in 2010. Costolo, whom Williams had befriended at Google and hired at Twitter in 2009, was caught in the middle but ended up as CEO with Dorsey as chairman.

Costolo lasted almost five years in the job, was beloved by employees, and appeared to get along with both Dorsey and Williams. But he has been beset by a revolving door of top executives and increasing impatience from investors, and now Dorsey is back as interim CEO. He, Williams and Costolo will all remain on Twitter’s board. Of the venture capitalists behind the 2010 direction change only Peter Fenton of Benchmark Capital remains a director. The other board members are Silicon Valley wise man Peter Currie (who was Netscape’s chief financial officer back in the day, and also once served as interim CFO at Facebook), Internet advertising pioneer David Rosenblatt (the former CEO of DoubleClick, which Google acquired in 2008), and old-media stalwarts Peter Chernin (former president of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.) and Marjorie Scardino (former CEO of Pearson).

Who’s actually in charge? You tell me. Costolo and Dorsey told reporters and colleagues Thursday that this switch was Costolo’s idea -- but while it’s believable that Costolo was burned out, the logic behind having him step down now so that Dorsey can serve as interim CEO during the search for a new one is harder to understand. Much is made in Bilton’s book of Dorsey’s conscious emulation of Steve Jobs, who came back to Apple as interim CEO in 1997 and engineered the greatest corporate revival ever. It appears to be continuing: Like Jobs in 1997, Dorsey is refusing to take any salary and staying on as CEO of another company (Pixar in Jobs’ case; Square in Dorsey’s).

So that’s one possible narrative -- Jack Dorsey returns to the company he loves and brings it to unimagined heights. It seems unlikely, though. Twitter isn’t in as dire condition as Apple was in 1997, Jobs didn’t have a co-founder with a 7.3 percent stake with whom he had a testy relationship looking over his shoulder , and, well, Jack Dorsey isn’t Steve Jobs. The return of Williams seems even unlikelier -- he’s not the charismatic savior type and he’s not even really the CEO type. His current venture, the blog publishing platform Medium, follows the management approach known as Holacracy, where no one is supposed to be in charge.

This leaves what is now being deemed the likeliest next step -- a full-on CEO search that considers an assortment of insiders and outsiders (Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier and Brian Womack have a list of possible candidates) and makes one of them the boss. But will he or she really get to be the boss?

  1. There was Mike Markkula, who sort of fits that description, but he left Apple just as Jobs returned.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net