Experts believe that it is not easy to trounce a behemoth that has the support of a maverick in Elon Musk and his huge financial backing
Enter Elon Musk. Exit Parag Agrawal.
That was the scene that played out at Twitter’s California headquarters after Tesla founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Elon Musk finally acquired the micro-blogging platform. The $44 billion deal was in the works for almost six months and witnessed enough twists and turns to impress a Hollywood moviemaker.
When such a high-profile product changes hands, the question of continuity occupies everyone’s mind. Ever since Musk started showing interest in buying Twitter, he had been finding faults with Twitter’s algorithm and the ethics of its user-acquisition approach. Observers expected him to make high-decibel changes at Twitter due to these objections.
Musk sees himself as a disrupter par excellence, and disruption he did cause at Twitter after taking over, which seemingly agrees with his objection to the product ethics of the social media giant. What followed next was a series of exits of the top management team. Those shown the door include CEO Agrawal, head of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde and chief financial officer Ned Segal.
Agrawal was no ordinary CEO to be sacked. His growth in Twitter ran almost parallel to the social media platform’s rise to prominence. The Stanford University alumnus had joined Twitter in 2011 as a software engineer five years after it was founded. He grew up the ranks to become its chief technology officer (CTO) before taking charge as the CEO in November 2021, in a way representing the core values of Twitter as it existed till the takeover.
Nilesh Shah, managing director and CEO of Envision Capital, believes that product engineers and the core tech team are a company’s differentiator and define it. “They are its moat and play a huge role in its shift from an early stage to becoming an evolved enterprise, even determining whether the start-up will be successful or not,” he says.
Given Agrawal’s in-depth knowledge of the social media platform’s codebase, will his exit cause a tech disruption that Musk does not intend?
Experts believe that while Agrawal’s ouster is unfortunate, his exit may not have much impact on Twitter’s daily activities. At their scale, a CTO or CEO is usually not involved in operational matters and instead focuses on strategic initiatives. Moreover, as a mature social network, Twitter’s culture is more or less institutionlised.
Anand Jain, co-founder and product lead at Clevertap noted that when tech companies start out, it is the tech team that helps shape the product and realise the overarching vision. As the organisation matures, the promoters start identifying talent for leadership roles and groom them to step up when the time is right.
He noted that the exit of a core team member could oscillate between negative or positive effects, depending on whether they were effective in their roles, were staying true to the core mission or were able to realise the full value of the business’ growth. “As a company matures over the course of 20 to 30 years, we have seen founders hand over the baton to newer members of management, and take on a coach-like role,” Jain added.
A self-confessed technophile, Musk created the Blastar video game in his youth and sold its BASIC to a PC magazine for $500. In 1995, he started a web software company, Zip2, to help newspapers develop online city guides, which was acquired by Compaq Computers four years later for $341 million. He then built the fintech X.com, which later became PayPal.
However, so far, Musk has made only patchy attempts at owning a tech or a tech-product-based company. He co-founded an artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI in 2015 but exited its board soon after. Next year, he co-founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company for brain-machine interface.
The intrepid entrepreneur became involved with electric cars venture as an early investor in Tesla Motors in 2004. Interestingly, Martin Eberhard who co-founded the company and was later appointed as CEO, too had a series of disagreements with Musk and was asked to step down in 2007, following which Musk became its CEO and product architect.
Unlike some of the other mega acquisitions that have taken place in user technology space, like Facebook acquiring WhatsApp, Musk does not have any exposure of running a big tech-based company like Twitter. Instead, he seems to be relying on an outsider like Binance to overhaul the tech philosophy of Twitter.
“Musk understands technology better than the average CEO or investor. However, it is hard to comment whether this makes him a better leader at the helm of a big tech company,” said a start-up founder, under conditions of anonymity.
Pradip Ghose (name changed on request), the CTO of a global American multinational and angel investor in early-stage start-ups, feels that the core tech team leaving a big product does not always lead to a negative outcome. He cites the examples of WhatsApp and Apigee to underline how the companies scaled up and grew bigger after the exit of founders or the core tech team.
“There are examples where start-ups have died off, either by design as part of a bigger plan by the acquirer or the new management could not continue the success due to lack of expertise or poor strategy,” he pointed out.
WhatsApp’s acquisition worked for Facebook, now Meta, for multiple reasons. Its leadership position in the messaging space can be attributed partially because Facebook is a tech company and its founder Mark Zuckerberg himself is a coder who successfully implemented his ambition to create a fully functional internal tech stack within the company. Within four years of acquisition, Facebook took WhatsApp off IBM SoftLayer’s cloud and implemented its whole architecture on Facebook’s own datacentres.
On the other hand, Musk is trying to involve a rank outsider in managing the tech affairs of Twitter. Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, invested $500 million in Twitter. However, its involvement is significant since it has announced that it is creating a blockchain-based approach to define the operations of the platform, including the contentious issue of handling the bot problem that almost broke the Musk-Twitter deal.
This is not the first time that Twitter has thought of using blockchain technology to manage its operations. Its co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey also proposed the blockchain idea before he left the company. With Musk’s firm intent, it appears that the core tech philosophy of Twitter may undergo transformation where user trust trumps user experience.
Earlier in April, Musk claimed that if he succeeded in acquiring Twitter, one of his priorities would be eliminating the scam bot armies, which he believed had made the platform “much worse”. However, the start-up founder quoted above said that it is unsure how Musk will be able to rein in the bots with or without the Binance’s involvement.
“The team that will lead the content moderation strategy will need to have to future-proofed plan to deal with bots and misinformation. This can start with quantification of fake accounts and bots, which will not be easy,” he pointed out. “Moreover, the Twitter we know today is easy-to-use where content creation and sharing is simpler. It is unclear how a blockchain version will make things better for users, since many users might be able to use Web3, which relies on tokenization or avatars for verification.”
Like WhatsApp, what works for Musk is that Twitter is the absolute leader in the microblogging space, with a second-best player not even in sight. Even if Agrawal’s departure, Musk’s reliance on a third party, like Binance, and his own non-tech background cause upheaval within the organisation in the short term, Musk has the time on his hand to recover.
It is unlikely that Agrawal’s exit will lead to a vacuum in the social media stratosphere, which a competitor will move in quickly to fill in. According CleverTap’s Anand, it will be hard for a competing platform to offer a service like the microblogging site any time in the next three to five years.
Anil Joshi, Unicorn India Ventures managing partner noted, “Twitter is a big organisation and is unlikely to fail with few critical people leaving. However, it (their exits) may offer opportunity to rivals to catch up product enhancement and make some difference to the business."
Given the Big Tech’s involvement in influencing public opinion, their acquisitions and mergers tend to acquire an ideological colour. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton publicly sparred with the Facebook leadership over user rights and privacy issues. So much so that he went on to found a similar product, Signal, which guaranteed message encryption to users.
Similarly, the Musk-Agrawal imbroglio is seen as a fallout of the difference of opinions between two corporate leaders on how the social media platform should look at freedom of speech. Ghose believes that while Twitter is mature in its features and functionality, its algorithms and controls are highly driven by the beliefs and ideologies of its founders and the erstwhile management.
“For instance, Dorsey endeavored to keep Twitter a responsible platform despite the turmoil exacerbated by polarised opinions, especially by industry leaders and policy makers,” he noted. “He also took quick decisions when needed, trying to differentiate disinformation and propaganda. This is something one would expect from Musk.”
Despite all the strides Signal has made, its userbase is nowhere close to matching WhatsApp’s and that is the advantage leading tech and user products give to the acquirer. “It will not be difficult for Musk to hire the right talent to tweak and modify Twitter to work the way he and his new product team want. As far any rival platform goes, even if founded by those exiting it— Dorsey has already announced Bluesky—it will take considerable time and work to reach the success of Twitter,” Ghose claims, adding how Indian start-up Koo was unable to make much headway in countering Twitter’s march despite seemingly having the endorsement of the ruling dispensation.
Given the long rope that Twitter’s leadership position and Musk's huge financial war chest offers, Twitter seems set for the tech transformation with a new philosophical core.
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