S01E08: Laura Fitton

04 Feb 2011

This week we interview Laura Fitton and talk to her about the usefulness of twitter and startup life in Boston Kelsey: Welcome to Cloud Out Loud. This is Kelsey Schimmelman. I’m here today with Laura Fitton of 140. She’s fresh off the plane from Boston. She’s traveled a long way to be with us today.

Laura: Hey Kelsey. Good to be here. Hi.

Kelsey: Good. Nice to have you here as well. So, I’m really interested to hear what you have to say and I’d love it if you could talk a little bit about your background and just introduce yourself.

Laura: Sure, sure. So I’m Laura Fitton, CEO and Founder of 140.com and co-author of Twitter for Dummies. I am @pistachio on Twitter and before all that craziness came into my life a couple years ago I was basically a marketing consultant. I helped people suck less at PowerPoint which is not that hard.

Kelsey: Wow you’ve come a along way since then. When I was reading your bio I read that a lot of people described your ascent to professional success in social media as a Cinderella story. I’m wondering how you feel about that characterization.

Laura: I’m just waiting for the clock to hit 12. No, it really has been insane. I was honest-to-goodness, this random marketing consultant and moved to Boston right after having kids so I had to start my professional network from nada and I started blogging a little bit. I heard about this crazy thing called Twitter. I blogged about how stupid it was cause haven’t we all, right? And that was when it had its breakout at South by Southwest. I was reading about it on blogs over and over and going “This is so stupid.” About May 2007 it started to make sense one day just really out of nowhere and by August 2007 I was blogging an ode to Twitter and I sent a copy of that post to Guy Kawasaki and said, “No man, you’re wrong. Twitter’s great, it can be used for business. Let me show you how” and he listened and he started Twittering and Dave Winer and Laura Fitton convinced me so things just snowballed from there. I started speaking at conferences, I was asked to do a Twitter for Business talk in October 2007 by September 2008 I had relaunched my consultancy to say, “well fine I’ll help businesses understand this Twitter thing”--the book contract came in and frankly I started 140 to solve a problem I had trying to write the book and trying to serve clients which was knowing which app was what, which one should I recommend, how do they compare, how are they different. I couldn’t believe there was no solid list and ratings and reviews so now there is.

Kelsey: Wow. That’s really great. What an interesting story. You’re obviously super passionate about Twitter so can you just talk a little bit about the efficacy of Twitter, not just as a business tool but also as a means of overcoming social isolation.

Laura: Yea. I think one of the interesting things for me about Twitter has been, “What’s so fascinating? Why am I so caught up? Why are so many other people so caught up? I did a little informal polling and sort of watched all the case studies crews and if you grab Google right now and Google “Twitter: A Love Story” I think is the name of the video. Its like a 10 minute talk I gave at a conference. The thesis of it is “Twitter overcomes human isolation” like we just keeping seeing these events and the reason they break out and they’re significant is cuz the person the event was happening to isn’t alone anymore, right? So way back when the dude in the Egyptian jail, when earthquakes happen....its just this very light weight, very easy way people come together in a flash and share stuff. Elections, sporting events, tragedies, news....its pretty amazing and I think its changes a lot in the future the same way the phone or telegraph changed a lot when they came along.

Kelsey: So even despite the lightness as you said, it has a really profound effect on the way that people communicate.

Laura: Yea when you think about it, you don’t walk around your town having profound, deep conversations with everybody you pass on the street, right? it’d be crazy; you’d think something was wrong with someone. You do these very trivial, my friend Kevin Marks calls them Phatic, P-H-A-T-I-C, these little trivial interactions with people all the time. That’s where trust comes from to get really out there. That's the fabric of society. That's how we build up trust is minor interactions where instead of getting right in your face and staring at you intensely and freaking you out, I’m just kind of standing next to you and I’m pointing out the window and going, “Wow, cool building” and we just kind of get to know each other that way. So, Twitter mimics that in a trusting way and it can do it only mobile and it can do it so serendipitously that people end up discovering people with really unusual situations or common interests and suddenly you can be in a remote part of the world and have a network of 50 people who have that really unusually thing in common with you and that’s extraordinary when you think about it.

Kelsey: That is. That’s really a really fascinating take on Twitter. I’ve actually never heard it characterized that way. So what kind of reception have you encountered to your Twitter-centric business philosophy. Has there been any push back at all or are most of the companies you work with eager to adopt Twitter as a means of branding?

Laura: It depends on what calendar date we’re talking about. When I officially said, “Alright fine, I’ll be a social media consultant but I don’t know anything about social media in general really, I just have this kind of one-note wonder thing on Twitter” that was September 2008 and at first there was this huge flurry of interest. I’m in Boston so most of the clients are in New York and then the stock market crashed and everything dried up and there was just nothing. It was a total fetterer. I was 2 years too early. Now there’s serious interest. I think 85% of the Global Fortune 500 has a Twitter account...I might be quoting the wrong stat but there are more businesses on the Global Fortune either 500 or 100 that have Twitter accounts than have Facebook, YouTube, or any other social platform.

Kelsey: I did not know that.

Laura: And then there’s also some numbers that came in from Exact Target last year showing the act of following a business on Twitter is much stronger intent to buy than liking a business of Facebook. So there’s some evidence that even though its a much smaller platform, it may be more efficacious for the individual companies engaging their....IF you do it right which is key. It takes a long time--that journey I had where it was like oh, “This is so stupid” to like “Oh my God I’m obsessed with it” 3 months later, each business has to kind of cycle through that again and again and make head or tail and see if it works and deal with internal doubt and skepticism. It’s all a pretty normal process. In the grand scheme Twitter’s probably caught on a lot faster than email did in the workplace or telephones did in the workplace.

Kelsey: Yea it just exploded.

Laura: Yea.

Kelsey: That’s really cool. So what’s your development model at 140? Is it Agile or...what kind of development do you guys do?

Laura: Yea. So we started out at Pivotal Labs and there its Agile, its XP, its pairs, its everything. We have a modified Agile. We still pair occasionally. We do 2 week sprints. We’re completely dependent on Pivotal tracker still, great tool. I use it for some of our marketing planning as well. We do daily stand ups, occasionally the guys pair--we’re up to 4 engineers. And we do stick to the TDD-Test Driven Development and continuous integration. Also, of course really important to us is being a Lean start up where not only don’t we not know the solution, but we’re not entirely sure of the problem and we’re doing bits and refining and testing and measuring and seeing what catches on. So Lean’s been great at helping you figure out if we’re even asking the right question.

Kelsey: Cool. Yea. We have a lot of proponents here at Engine Yard for Test Driven Development and CI so that’s good to hear. What about any plans for a desktop app or is it going to remain strictly web-based?

Laura: We really plan to keep it strictly web-based. I think I would probably do and iPhone app or Android app before I did desktop just cuz the usage pattern of consulting a directory is very specific--when do you need it, when are you actually actively researching tools and especially with our business users, we’re just trying to help them get to their answer fast. So i doubt we’ll go in that direction.

Kelsey: Ok. Thanks for sharing that with us. So your product was featured in TechCrunch and a lot of people talk about the TechCruch effect where it just drives a ton of traffic to your site. What effect did this have on your business and how did you scale?

Laura: Sure, sure. We were super lucky. Well, a couple things. I mentioned that we started at Pivotal Labs-- that’s because we was me for 9 months. I’m solo, I’ve never coded, I’ve never worked at a software company. I really had no idea what I was getting into and being able to have Pivotal sort of teach me how to hire a co-founder and get me up and going on the engineering stuff and then a very nice hand off at the end of my run there to Engine Yard. It was 10 days before my VP of Engineering even started and I’m thinking, if the site goes down, what am I going to do. So, it was worth getting the full service. And then, even with 4 engineers now, they’re really happy with how you guys deal with that stuff. We’ve been on TechCrunch--we’ve been lucky; we’ve been on 8 or 9 times now--and we have never had--we’ve had the site slow down a couple times and it slows down a bit while we deploy but we’ve never had just outright outage because of a spike in traffic and that was impressive to me because before this I was kind of a casual blogger for a couple of years and saw so many people’s blogs just FAIL when they got hit hard with traffic. We were an Inbound Link from Twitter.com, used to have those little definitions off to the side. We got tons of traffic from that all the time; it was kind of like being on TechCrunched everyday in some ways and you guys have performed really well. It’s been outstanding.

Kelsey: Well, glad to hear that. So you’ve given us a little glimpse into the path your career’s taken and what I’d like to ask you is what is it like for you to be a first time CEO and what lessons have you learned along the way and what advice would you give to somebody who has similar aspirations?

Laura: Don’t do it.....No I tease a lot. I was a Tech Star as well and the Tech Stars came out with a book written by a bunch of Ex-Tech Stars and mentors and stuff like that and my chapter was “Quit Your Start Up.” My basic thesis was, if there is anyway humanly possible you can avoid taking that step of doing that start up you probably should, right. But if its still burning in you and you just can’t shake it and you just can’t sleep, go for it, right. So that was the first thing I really learned, it took me 4 months to recruit myself to the idea. I had just enough experience working at someone else’s start up to know I really didn’t want to go there. The only other sort of quick advice I can give and over arching thing is to look up the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling and if you think that’s a reasonable threshold of standards to hold yourself to, go for it.

Kelsey: Ok.

Laura: Again, I’m joking but I honestly have found that poem really helpful. As a CEO, you really have to absorb a lot, as a first time CEO with--I didn’t even manage an employee before. I am a rookie. I’m learning on the fly, I need patience, I need mentoring, I need help, and I need to push myself and really tap into whatever courage and insanity is driving this in the first place.

Kelsey: You must be really adaptive.

Laura: I think I’m adaptive. I never feel like I’m adapting fast enough. I think that comes with the territory.

Kelsey: Sure.

Laura: It’s easy to take all the mistakes personally when you’re in the business of going out and making a bunch of mistakes. It’s one of the tough things about a start up also is accepting the fact that you are systematically trying to mess up. To try and--like I said about the test driven and the Agile, sorry the Lean, is you don’t even know if the problem exists. You’re trying to find it and you’ve got to try a bunch of stuff that’s not the right thing before you find the right thing. It’s exciting and fun. I mean, what other job do you get this much chance to reinvent yourself. It’s like a whole other job every 3 months. And again, I joked about that poem but seriously I pull that thing out and read it when I’m getting frustrated because all the answers are in there. Just tap into yourself, listen to your team, accept people....a lot of stuff.

Kelsey: We’ll make sure to post it on the site and with the Podcast, seriously.

Laura: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, then make allowance for their doubting too”...it just goes on and on its great.

Kelsey: Great. Ok. Cool. Ans the final question I’d like to ask is, what is it like for you to work outside the Silicon Valley? What are the culture differences.

Laura: Yea. Boston’s really different. We’re--our offices are in Cambridge but just like here we tend to sort of use one word to mean everything and that’s Boston. I did live out here when I was first getting it off the ground. Most of my angels are here, and here being San Francisco of course--I don’t know where you are listening to this. It is different. There are cultural differences. You’re not immersed--I mean when I walk down the street in San Francisco, I run into like 20 different start up people that I know. Less so in Boston. There’s not as many of us, the expectations are a little bit different, the angels are a little less accessible. That said, its not that big a deal. There were people when I was out here saying there’s no way you can run this company from Boston and its actually working ok. I come out here about once a month, I generally stay 2 or 3 days. I probably do 15-30 meetings in those 3 days because its easy to be a priority on some one's schedule when you’re just not here--you’re a scarce resource. So I’d say--it only works because I have a strong foothold out here that I can rely on but other than that it’s great. We’re not all--when you guys had AngelGate and everybody in the start up community was freaking out, we didn’t care. We were coding, we were getting our work done. So a little bit of distance can be healthy too. But no, you can’t do it wholly independent of here because there’s just so much intelligence--or you’d be crazy not to, right, cuz there’s just so much intelligence out here. At least have mentors here, come and go, send your team out for stuff. And the other thing is, Boston sometimes has this, “Oh, we’re number 2” hang up--well maybe number 3 behind New York, right. I’m like, “You guys are crazy.” I did a speaking engagement out in Grand Rapids 2 years ago and they have a start up scene that was all “Yea, we can do it, we can do it here!” and Boston’s too busy going, “Oh, we’re not the best” so it’s like--I’ve definitely been stirring things up. The one other thing I’ve been trying to teach in Boston is go out drinking together a lot. Like all the start ups must drink together. That is such a huge part of why it works out here.

Kelsey: it is. Drink ups.

Laura: Yea. SF Beta’s tonight, right.

Kelsey: Fun. Ok, well its been so great talking to you Laura. Thanks for sharing all of that with us.

Laura: Great. Enjoy.