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On October 7, 2003, a “Boston-based blogging entity” called Genius Labs announced it had been acquired by Google. The press release was picked up by various news outlets, and soon Genius Labs was added to Wikipedia’s “List of mergers and acquisitions by Google.” Once something makes it into Wikipedia, it is often repeated as fact. And, in a way, it was fact. But Genius Labs was just me, and the tale of how I got acquired—i.e., hired—by Google says a lot about the spirit of the early social web.
The story begins in 2002. My first startup, an online reviews site called Xanga, was struggling, and, tired of being broke in New York, I quit. My wife and I headed back to my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts, with tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt in tow. We moved into the basement of my mom’s house. I had no job. I tried to sell an old copy of Photoshop on eBay, but no one bought it. (Also, it was probably illegal.) At one point, I even asked for my job back at the startup—and my former colleagues said no.
The only bright spot in my life was blogging. At the startup, we had used a web-based collaboration tool from a company called Pyra, and we got to be friendly with Pyra’s cofounder, a guy named Evan Williams. That’s why, in 1999, I was among the first to test-drive a new product Pyra put out: a web-logging tool called Blogger. To me, like to lots of people, blogging was a revelation, even a revolution—a democratization of information on a whole new scale.
Now, I was an outsider to that revolution, living in my mom’s basement. But I still had my blog. Written in a spirit of total, almost hallucinogenic confidence, my blog was my alter ego. It was a fictional creation that began with the title, inspired by an old Bugs Bunny cartoon guest-starring Wile E. Coyote. In one scene, the perpetually clever coyote says, “Permit me to introduce myself,” then presents a business card to Bugs with a bit of pomp. It reads: “My name is Wile E. Coyote, Genius.”
By simply announcing himself as a genius on his business card, Wile E. Coyote epitomized the spirit of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. When you’re starting a company, you sometimes have nothing more than an idea. You have to begin somewhere, so you declare yourself an entrepreneur just like Wile E. declared himself a genius. Then you make a business card and give yourself the title “Founder and CEO.”
So in the spirit of Wile E., I christened my blog “Biz Stone, Genius.” And in my posts I made sure to play the part. I claimed to be building inventions with infinite resources and a world-class team of scientists at my headquarters—naturally titled Genius Labs.
posted: July 14, 2002—5:57 am
The scale-model of a Japanese superjet that is supposed to be able to fly twice as fast as the Concorde crashed during the test flight … I may have to sign various paperworks that will flow millions into further development of hybrid air transit.
In real life, I was not investing in hybrid air transit. I did, however, manage to land a job as a “web specialist” at Wellesley College; my wife found a job too. We rented a place near campus so I could walk to work. It wasn’t so much an apartment as the attic of a house—but at least it wasn’t my mother’s basement.
My alter ego, meanwhile, continued to exude confidence. Something started to happen. My posts weren’t just wacky anymore; some of the thoughts I published were my own, and they weren’t in the character of a mad scientist. As I continued to write on the web and think about how it might evolve, I started hitting on ideas that I’d incorporate into my future work.
posted: September 10, 2003—5:28 pm
My RSS reader is set to 255 characters. Maybe 255 is a new blog standard? … Seems limiting but if people are going to read many blogs a day on iPods and cell phones, maybe it’s a good standard …
When Google acquired Blogger in early 2003, Evan Williams and I had started exchanging emails. In the four years it took for blogging to evolve from a pastime of a few geeks into a household word, Ev and I had never met or even talked on the phone. But now I worked up the confidence to email him and say that I thought I’d always been the missing piece of his team. And it turned out that Ev, though he was surrounded by some of the best engineers in the world, needed someone who really understood social media—who saw it was about people, not just technology.
He had to pull every string he could. Google had a reputation of hiring only people with computer science degrees, preferably PhDs; they certainly didn’t court college dropouts like me. I interviewed with Ev, but Larry and Sergey flat out said that he couldn’t hire me. Ev persisted. Finally, they begrudgingly agreed that Wayne Rosing—then Google’s senior VP of engineering—could talk to me on the phone. I waited nervously in my attic apartment. The phone rang, and as I reached for it something came over me. In that instant I decided to abandon all the failure I’d been carrying around. Instead, I would embody my alter ego: the guy who ran Genius Labs.
Wayne started out by asking me about my experience. Immediately I went on the offensive. “Before we get to that,” I said, “where do you live? If I decide to take this job, I’ll need to pick a good location.” As the interview went on, I told Wayne I had chosen to “apprentice” rather than finish college. I acknowledged that my startup was a failure—for me at least—but I left because the culture didn’t fit my personality.
It worked. Wayne told Larry and Sergey to hire me. Working at Google, my virtual and physical worlds collided: With the seemingly limitless resources, scientists, and secret projects, the place was practically Genius Labs.
A couple of years later, Ev and I quit. I had joined Google before the IPO, so I was leaving lots of valuable shares behind. But my move to Silicon Valley wasn’t about a cozy job—it was about taking a risk and reinventing myself. My first startup had failed. But my next startup was Twitter.