In the few years since he graduated with a computer science degree, Jason Stirman has been a programmer, designer, trainer, owned an automobile repair shop, did the corporate thing, was employee #7 at Twitter, and now is helping to build publishing site Medium. If you’re new to the working world, he will inspire you; if you’re a ”not-so-new” Baby Boomer, he will amaze you. Aimee Woodall, founder of The Black Sheep Agency, interviews a bright, articulate uber-entrepreneur of the new generation.
Aimee: Hi, I'm Aimee Woodall, Founder of the Black Sheep Agency, and this is The BusinessMakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Today our guest is Jason Stirman, early team member and product designer at Twitter and now at Medium. Jason, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Jason: Thank you for having me.
Aimee: So tell me a little bit about how you ended up at Twitter
Jason: Well it was a crazy, non-linear path, we'll start there. Take you back a little bit, I graduated from the University of Texas in 2001 Computer Science degree and got a job as a software engineer in Houston. Did programming up until September of 2001; our biggest client was British Airways at the time, after September 11th, uh, my whole division got the axe. So left me flailing with a pregnant wife and, um, I decided to get into design. I have always loved writing code, I love designing products and I spent a little stint as a programmer, I thought I'm going to try designing. And so I spent a few years as a freelance designer, um, not digital at all, doing book covers, billboards, business cards, um, just visual design which was great but as my family was growing, uh, it was harder to sustain myself as a freelance visual designer from The Woodlands, TX. And so I got back into technology a little bit, starting doing some web programming, uh, building websites for people; um, this was the time when that was a high demand and everyone needed a website for their business so I found some good opportunities there. Um, and then took a little bit of a detour, bought an auto repair shop.
Aimee: Oh, interesting.
Jason: So when I talk about business lessons learned in my life, the year I spent as an owner of an automobile repair shop probably is the most…
Aimee: That could be a whole other show I bet.
Jason: It was crazy one of the worst years of my life, but I learned probably more that year than any other year of my life. From there I became a trainer of administrative staff for school districts in Houston teaching administrators how to administrate - which I still know nothing about - and finally found a technology startup in Houston that would have me doing design and writing code for them and I joined the company about a year before it was acquired by Hewlett Packard and this was my first foray into the startup world
Aimee: And what was the name of that company?
Jason: It was RLX Technologies.
Aimee: And what line of business are they in?
Jason: RLX Technology's invented the Blade Server which was a very popular server in these bid server racks, super thin and super fast and then moved pretty quickly before they hired me into making the software that Blade Servers run on.
Jason: There was about twenty of us when I joined and we had a crazy, wild ride; before HP acquired us we were almost out of business and I got this real taste of high risk, high reward startup life and I was addicted. I loved it, I love the late nights, I love the camaraderie, those people that I went through that adventure with are my brothers and sisters and I was addicted. On the other side of it, after the acquisition I found myself at Hewlett Packard, um, in a big, beautiful corner office, um, wanting to kill myself.
Aimee: Ohhhh, no.
Jason: And so at Hewlett Packard I started playing around with designing and developing some products that would make my life easier and one of them was a, uh, test message reminder service that I actually built for my wife so she could easily remind me to pay the bills, take out the trash, pick up our kid from school, things, you know, fathers are supposed to do, yes, um, and accidentally stumbled upon a novel way to send text messages programmatically. At the time this was 2005 I think, um, SMS was not as ubiquitous as it - as it is now and so I stumbled across this little novel way to send text messages which turned out to be a great opportunity for businesses to communicate with people; this was kind of the beginning of the text messaging as we currently know it.
Aimee: Oh, okay, so now we're moving back towards Twitter?
Jason: Yep. At the same time I was doing that there was a little group of people in San Francisco, um, working on a product called Odio which was a podcasting company,; it was born out of the people who founded Odio founded Blogger which was Google's first acquisition. So the guy who kind of stared Blogger started this podcasting company and here a lowly nerd from The Woodlands trying to get businesses to use my technology, so sending emails to everyone I could possibly find. And I found this company called Odio which I thought they actually just had a really cool brand, it was pink with a star; I thought it was very progressive and looked cool and I thought well that'd be a good idea if I subscribed to a podcast, when the new episode comes out I get a text message. Which in hindsight is actually a pretty horrible idea, but it didn't stop me from sending an email to the company saying I got this technology, you guys have this product, maybe we could work together.
Little did I know after I sent that email Odio was winding down. iTunes had built podcasts into iTunes at the time which basically killed Odio's business model, um, but they had this other little thing they were kicking around, um, called Twitter and at the time Twitter was all text message in, text message out. And so I sent them a proposal to try to implement my technology at Odio and the founder of Twitter saw this and said - wrote me back and said I don't think we want to work with this for Odio, um, but we have this new little project you might be interested in. Um, and so that led to a series of phone calls and trips to San Francisco and, um, a couple months later I was, uh, in Twitter's office helping them with their technology, building tools, doing some product design and at the time there was seven or eight of them and I was there.
Aimee: Okay, so 7 people, who were you working with, who were you reporting to?
Jason: I had met Evan, Williams the Founder of Blogger and the Founder of Twitter and now the CEO of Medium, and that's who I work directly with, uh, for all these years.
Aimee: I imagine with that small of a team it was pretty much him and - and then all of y'all.
Jason: It was. Actually at the time I joined, uh, he was not the CEO believe it or not. They had let one of the engineers early in years become the CEO and then Ev took the CEO reigns, uh, shortly thereafter.
Aimee: Okay, gotcha. And from there how quickly did you dive right in and get involved and what was your initial role there?
Jason: Well my initial role at Twitter was actually exploring some other products believe it or not. Twitter was born out of a company after Odio called Obvious Corporation and Twitter was destined to be one of Obvious' products, um, and so they brought me in to help with their text message technology, uh, but they also wanted to explore some other areas and I had a history with programming, software design and just visual design so they said, you know, this is a guy who could potentially explore some other areas kind of by himself and even from Texas. Um, so I go out regularly and actually built two different products as Twitter was being developed and in about the year that I was doing that Twitter just started catching on and taking off to the point that Obvious became Twitter and they said you know what, we're not going to mess with any other products, we should just all go do Twitter.
Aimee: So tell me what that was like to be there when it was just 7 people before it became this huge thing that's hard to even wrap our minds around at this point.
Jason: It was awesome and scary. It was scary for me because here I was committing this chapter of my life to work on this thing which I thought seemed cool and was really just following this vision. You know, I'll never forget Ev looked me in the eyes one day and just said, you know, if we do this right it will change the way the world communicates and that vision really drove the company but I've learned that those times in startups, even fast-growing startups, are often romanticized in hindsight. You know, like everything was going through the roof and everyone was super excited and it's usually not like that; day over day you see little growth, sometimes lots of growth, but every little decision you make could affect the company in a - in a rare - very positive or very negative way and so it was a stressful, scary time.
Aimee: Wow. But now you find yourself at Medium which is actually a new product from Obvious Corp. because the founders came back out of Twitter and said it's time to work on some new - new things. So tell us a little bit about what Medium is because I don't think everyone watching might know yet.
Jason: Medium is the next chapter of Ev's story and his mission to really, uh, foster this exchange of idea-havers and story tellers in the world with people who are interested in connecting those people. Um, so Medium is a publishing platform, it's simply a place to read and write, uh, things that matter to you. Um, there's not a hundred and forty character limit and there's some other novelties and features built into the product but if you have, uh, something in here, something in here that you want the world to know, I think Medium is the best way - the easiest way for you to put that out to the world.
Aimee: Okay, tell me, in your opinion, as a person that's in social media I've been an early adapter of Medium and I'm trying to figure out how this fits into the social media spectrum and where the power is in Medium.
Jason: Yeah, for sure, good question. There are plenty of places for you to put your thoughts online; you can tweet your thoughts, you can put your pictures and even words on Instagram, you can create your own blog if you want to, but what we found is when we created Medium we took a big bet that there's a big population of people out there that don't have an existing audience. Um, they don't have a blog, uh, Twitter is not conducive for really weighty, meaningful, thoughtful, articulate, um, stories, ideas, um, and so we wanted to build a place for those people. And we took a bet there are those people out there and we found there absolutely are, but we were also surprised to find that we kind of assumed from the - from the beginning that people with existing properties online have their company blog, have their personal blog, they have audiences that follow them on different sites online, we thought well those people probably aren't for us because they already have a set up.
What found though is that we invested so heavily in the beauty and simplicity of the product that those are the people that really appreciate the product and everyday we find people moving their personal blogs over. We have a lot of notable companies, um, Tesla and others that are moving their blogs over to Medium because it's easy, it's simple and for someone, if you're just a normal person in the world somewhere and you're passionate about something, you have a political rant or you have a funny story or you - you have something you want to put out into the world, um, I'm convinced there's no easier way to do it than Medium. If you were going to set up your own blog you have to design the blog, edit the blog and the hardest thing is building your audience and you know
Aimee: Yeah absolutely, absolutely. I think that's one of the biggest things people struggle with is they have something really important to say, whether it's in here or in here, and - and they're putting it out there and then - and then the big struggle is are people reading it, are people finding me, are - am I connecting with people that this will matter to.
Aimee: And I love - I've had several conversations with people about Medium lately saying should I - should I continue with my blog, should I start a new blog if they're at that point or should I - should I look at Medium as the place to be because I don't want to start it in - in another place and have to have that struggle. So, do you feel like Medium is - I mean how are you building that audience? Like how - you are curating all of this amazing content, but what are some of the other ways that the audiences, uh, are being built through strategy?
Jason: For sure. So it's - the term we like to use is network publishing. When you publish on Medium you're publishing into an existing network. Um, a good analogy is YouTube; if you have a funny video of your cat crawling in your hair or something, um, you could put it on Facebook and you know your friends and family will probably see it, but if you this a really good one, it could totally go viral, you put it on YouTube because YouTube is a content network. YouTube's a video network; those are where the eye - YouTube is where the eyeballs are.
Aimee: And people that care about cats crawling in hair will search on YouTube for cats crawling in hair and then - and then bam, they're connected so it's similar.
Jason: Absolutely and then you're a celebrity, yeah. In the same way Medium is - is a network of content and more importantly people who are interested in reading smart, funny, articulate stuff; meaty, meaningful stuff on the web. And so if you publish into Medium you have a chance of getting a much, much wider audience than you probably could on your own.
Aimee: So how many people work at Medium now?
Jason: We have about 70 people about 50 or 60 in San Francisco and about 10 in New York and 1 in Texas.
Aimee: So how do you feel like - along your journey you - I'm sure you've learned so many lessons in each of these experiences way back to owning the auto shop and then being at big, huge what we perceive as giants out in California, um, who are innovating and doing these amazing things; you were at Twitter and then you were at - now you're at Medium, what are some of the biggest lessons that you've learned, uh, as these things have - I mean you've been there when there were just a few people and then you were there when there are thousands of people, how is that - what lessons have you learned in that growth?
Jason: The thing that I'm just now starting to realize is that we are in the absolute infancy of this digital internet age and it was so amazing to see a little seed of an idea like Twitter. And this little tiny idea in someone's head turned into what's now a 30 something billion dollar company that has helped, uh, liberate slaves and free countries and it's - it's absolutely changed the world.
Aimee: Jason, thank you so much for spending this time with me and sharing your story, we really appreciate it, it was great to have you here.
Jason: Of course, thank you for having me.
Aimee: No problem. (pause) And this wraps our discussion with Jason Stirman; I'm Aimee Woodall and this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.