Biz Stone (Twitter Co-founder) Reveals Why He Started Jelly (Social Q&A App)


Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder and CEO of Jelly, appeared on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West” today to discuss his latest venture. Stone told Emily Chang “I did it by accident. I didn’t mean to do this,” when describing how he got started in his new mobile startup, Jelly, a social-based question/answer search engine that relies on user photos and social networks.

He also offered perspective on the evolution of Twitter, the company’s leadership and ability to innovate and how lessons learned continue to help him at Jelly.

Stone on why he started Jelly: 

“First of all, I did it by accident. I didn’t mean to do this. My friend Ben Finkel and I were going on a walk and we accidentally asked ourselves the question, what would build if we had to build something that can answer any question — and that led us to mobile, that led us to social, and all of sudden we had this idea on our hands that we thought we had to do.

And the other part of the answer is that once I realized what it was, I realized that Jelly was really kind of a productization of my own personality. Because I really enjoy helping people. And this just lets people help each other. It was something I couldn’t get out of my head.” 

On whether he meant to start a company:

“Not really. We were gonna hack on it, and just sorta put it out there and see if people liked it, but then as we started talking more and more about it, we started thinking, this could be a really good all-around business.

On the first two weeks of Jelly and what questions are being asked:

“It is still early days, so it is hard to tell what people are going to end up asking over the long haul. But the three sort of canonical types of questions we’re seeing right now are — one: should I buy this or should I choose this one? – whatever the pictures is of; two: how do I fix this or set this up? I am confused; and three: what is this? What am I looking at?”

On why Jelly requires a photo to be posted in order to ask a question:

“This is a mobile-only application right now. It is very native to the mobile world. And so, one of the things that makes mobile what it are photos. Without the photograph, a mobile phone is really just a little computer.

It’s something that tells you where you are out in the world. In my experience, most questions can be dramatically contextualized better with a photo. Sure, you can argue that some don’t need them, but since most of them, I think, can be enhanced with a photo, I decided to make it mandatory, just so that you wouldn’t have to have that extra decision. You just have to do a photo. You don’t have to decide whether or not you need one.”

On how Jelly compares with Google:

“I’m not necessarily trying to take them on. I’m trying to offer an alternative. I just think there are some percentage of queries that are better answered by a human mind than retrieving a document that’s already been published. The key thing is — Albert Einstein said famously that information is not knowledge.

Knowledge is worlds away from information because information is just an ingredient and it is one of many things that gets transmuted in the human mind into actual applicable experience. And so, when you ask a person a question, you just get so much more nuance and so much more knowledge.”

On who in your network gets alerted when you ask a question on Jelly:

“Well, not everybody. My co-founder’s name is Ben Finkel, and we’re jokingly referring to this as Finkel-rank. What we’re doing is we’re taking all your social networks – now just Twitter and Facebook – we’re blending them together into one network and we’re sending your query out to a percentage of those people. And so, not everybody, but some of the people you know got that question.”

On whether people might prefer asking questions anonymously: 

“Right, that was a decision we made early on. We felt it was better if you weren’t anonymous. In looking at other anonymous services, there was too many mean things that are possible.

When you attach your name to something, then you behave a little bit differently. It might [inhibit the potential growth]. But we were willing to take that chance. If you are not comfortable asking the questions to your friends, then it is probably not the right service.”

On why Jelly does not allow custom messaging:

“Yeah, we have sort of intentionally broken a lot of accepted norms right now. We had an early prototype that was very discussion based, very back and forth, a lot of comments and stuff. And what we found was that people weren’t getting their questions answered quickly enough or in a valuable enough way.

So we switched to this model where we just said, here’s the question – you can either answer it or dismiss it or you forward it to someone who might know. We are sort of actively discouraging conversation, because we feel like there’s plenty of other places to have those conversations right now. That may change in the future, but right now, that’s the way we are doing it.”

Stone on why he notes Jelly is not a social network:

“We just don’t want people to think this is yet another social network. The kind of simplicity of Jelly is that it just takes advantage of what we have been building for the past 7-10 years. People have been collecting followers, collecting friends, collecting contacts. It is kind of like, why, to what end? And so, Jelly is sort of a response to that. Maybe the answer to why we have been doing that is so that we can all start helping each other.”

On why it is not possible to search other people’s questions:

“That may come later, but right now it is so early we don’t actually have that much information to look through. So down the line, we will probably build up a huge corpus of questions and answers and we may start wanting to search across that, but it is really early days.”

On potential partnerships and how to turn this into a business:

“I mean, right off the bat, just the fact that we’re thinking of ourselves as being in the search business, I think there’s a lot of opportunity. It has been proven that is a good business to be in. It sounds strange to anyone in the business world, but it is kind of cart before the horse when you are dealing with this kind of business, because you really need to build up that base and prove that there is value before you can really begin to think about how you want to offer more value in the form of revenue generating products.

So, we’re holding off, but we think there’s a lot of opportunity in the search space, mainly because there is an intent. When somebody comes to Jelly, they want something. And whenever somebody wants something, there is usually someone else who wants to get their attention.”

On using lessons from Twitter to help Jelly grow:

“It is funny to say this in that it is only a few years later, but we are living in such a different world now. In three days, Jelly had more accounts — twice the accounts — than it took a year to get at Twitter. And that’s because of services like Twitter and Facebook that just spread the word so amazingly quickly.”

“When we launched and we got featured in the apple app store, it was just crazy. I had to remind everyone on the team it’s gonna go like this [downward motion]. So be prepared for that. Don’t think it is failure. The way you gotta do it is you have to build a system that has growth mechanisms in it and you have to trust that those will work. You don’t want anything artificial.”

On whether he learned from any mistakes at Twitter:

“Well, we are not going to go down all the time. Although, it would be an appropriate image. But again, no, it is a different world. We are able to use Amazon services to host everything. We can spin up a new server in seconds. Whereas, back in the early days of Twitter, that was just a whole lot of work.”

On whether life is different now that Twitter has gone public:

“Not really. It’s different in that I have some notoriety, so I have the ability to, you know, get my phone calls answered, or, you know, make a big deal when I launch a new app, and I think that certainly helps.”

On whether Nick Bilton’s ‘Hatching Twitter’ fairly portrayed the founding of Twitter:

“He did, I think it was hundreds of hours of interviews. I think he was fairly thorough in his interviews. You know, fair — I think he had to make someone a bad guy and he had to make someone the fall guy and he had to make someone the good guy, right? Because it is more exciting that way. In that capacity, I think maybe there was a little too much sharpness. But, otherwise, there was stuff in there that I learned that I didn’t know.”

“I mean, I didn’t read the whole thing. I am too scatterbrained to read it from cover to cover. I just sorta looked at my section and a couple of other things. There were meetings that were taken that I wasn’t part of, etc.”

On confidence in Twitter’s current leadership:

“I’m very confident in Dick and Adam Bain and all those guys. I think they’re doing a great job. Ali Rowghani. You know, we picked them. What I’ve always said – and I think this is true – is that Twitter needed who it needed at the time it needed them.  And that as it evolved, people switched roles. No matter how dramatic it was, people switched roles and they were in the right roles. I mean, look at where the company has come today. I think that is a testament to it.”
On Twitter’s ability to innovate in the future:

“This is something every company faces once they go public. Ok, we have to make dramatic, innovative moves on the product side, but we have to be careful because now we have shareholders. But I think the shareholders and everyone understand what Twitter is as a company in that ecosystem, and that they have to make bold product maneuvers and changes. And I think they will.”

Stone on his first time as CEO, his style and who he looks up to:

“It is great. I love it. The fact that I have Kevin Thau at my back, that really made all the difference. We were talking before about how we didn’t really intend to make this a company. In fact, I was telling Kevin Thau, one of my friends and trusted advisors, about the idea. And he just said, ‘I’m in.’

And I thought he meant he likes the idea. And then I went to dinner at his house and he said ‘hey, Biz – Jelly, I’m in.’ I said, what does that mean? Is that something the kids are saying? He said, no, I want to do this. So once he decided to come on board, that’s when really I said, well with your help, I think I can make a good CEO.”

“It sounds kinda cheesy to say this, but I look up to Evan and Jack and Dick. I like to kind of steal their best traits and fold them in to my own leadership skills. But my main thing as a leader is to be as communicative as possible. I think that’s like 50% or 75% of the job as a CEO — to make sure everybody knows everything they need to know.”

Courtesy BLOOMBERG TELEVISION