SAN FRANCISCO--In a panel at the Web 2.0 Summit, Twitter co-founder and CEO Evan Williams wouldn't concretely answer one of Silicon Valley's biggest unanswered questions: how the company plans to make money.
But he gave some strong indications. Hint: it's not advertising.
He spoke obliquely of a possible business model that we've heard whispers about before, corporate accounts for businesses that want to use Twitter. Twitter is a communication channel, he said, and what it can do is "charge the people who want to use that communication channel commercially."
He named companies like fire-sale start-up Woot.com that are already using Twitter to sell products: "a lot of companies that have goods that are scarce and they want to get the word out quickly." Other companies, like retailer Zappos.com, whose CEO Tony Hsieh spoke at the Web 2.0 summit on Wednesday, are using Twitter for internal communication and customer service.
"There is commercial value, not just personal value" to Twitter, Williams said, "and if there's commercial value we can really deliver on...then I don't think it's going to be hard to monetize that."
There are a lot of possibilities for "commercial" accounts, as Williams put it. Twitter could give corporations access to analytics and data unavailable in free Twitter accounts, something that could undoubtedly be enhanced by its acquisition of search app Summize earlier this year. Alternately, it could offer companies a way to use Twitter as an internal communication tool, something that start-ups like Yammer and Presently are trying to do.
Twitter had just completed a big partnership: its election night and debate deal with cable network Current, whose CEO Joel Hyatt joined Williams onstage for the panel.
Williams also exhibited what seemed to be a clear aversion to bringing advertising to Twitter, reinforcing the possibility that the company will institute enterprise accounts instead. "I think advertising, as most people think of it, is more and more a different proposition, the whole idea (that) we're going to insert some message along with the content you actually want, and hope you'll be interested in that as well."
In either case, what Twitter has to do soon is actually put some of this into action. The company raised its most recent venture round this spring, a $15 million round led by Spark Capital. Williams recently took over the CEO reins from fellow co-founder Jack Dorsey. And the company overcame a major hurdle in getting through election night without taking a technical tumble.
With these growing pains behind it and some money in the bank, inching toward profitability is a natural next step for Twitter. The clock is ticking, and industry confidence may start to waver before Twitter puts a business model in place. Some critics have alleged that it's getting late already, especially given an economic climate that has shortened the shelf life of companies running without revenues.
The panel moderator, author and New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, asked Williams what scares him, what keeps him awake in the middle of the night.
"Thankfully I'm not waking up in the middle of the night as much lately," Williams joked, an allusion to the rocky state the company's infrastructure was in not so long ago. "But it's still very early for Twitter, and we get a lot of attention for the stage we're at as a company...We are not at the level of a Facebook or MySpace, and well established and mainstream yet, so it's all about execution now and there's a million worries on a daily basis about a particular feature, a part technical problem and people problems and everything else."
Regardless, he said, he's optimistic about Twitter's future. "I'm feeling pretty good right now," Williams said confidently. "There's not one worry that's overshadowing all the others."