How Twitter Got an App Store: The Oneforty Story (Part 1)

10/6/09Follow @bbuderi

“Ohh, Twitter needs an app store.” It was coming up on Christmas of 2008. Laura Fitton was writing a chapter on the top 10 applications for Twitter for her book Twitter for Dummies when the thought struck her like a tweet out of the blue.

She jumped up from her office in Brighton, MA, and ran to share the news with a friend. When she couldn’t find him, she went back to her desk and tried to forget the whole idea. She had a ton of things on her plate. Besides the book, she was a single mom with two little kids. And she had worked for a startup before and found them “really scary.” Launching her own startup to sell Twitter apps seemed even more scary. “I tried to shut my brain off,” Fitton says, but it was no use. “It just lodged in my head, and I couldn’t get rid of it, and I couldn’t sleep.”

[Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part story about oneforty. Part 2 will run on Tuesday, October 13.]

And that’s pretty much how Fitton, aka @pistachio (her Twitter user name), gave birth to her third child: oneforty. The startup, which indeed is an app store for Twitter and a bit more, is named of course for the 140-character maximum allowed in a tweet. The company, which now has four employees, three developers and Fitton, officially closed its long-extended angel round yesterday. Fitton isn’t saying how much she has raised—only that the extension builds on $250,000 she took in earlier in the year—but I’m guessing it is somewhere in the $750,000-$1 million arena. That was only a few days after oneforty dropped its beta status (under which an invitation was required in order to access the site) and opened up to the world. “oneforty is your Twitter outfitter, with tons of resources for all things Twitter. Currently tracking 1719 apps that make Twitter even better,” the home page read as of last night.

LauraFittonTo say oneforty is the new darling of the Boston tech startup scene is hardly doing it justice. Fitton’s presentation was the highlight of the TechStars Boston (it’s actually here in Cambridge, MA) investor day in early September (she was part of the group’s inaugural class). Last week, she shined again at TechStars’ Bay Area investor day. Hubspot co-founder Dharmesh Shah, John Landry of Lead Dog Ventures, and Laura Rippy, former CEO of Handango, are three prominent Boston-area angels who have made their investments in oneforty public. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Fitton has been deluged by would-be investors from all over. Her funding round was vastly oversubscribed; she says she simply couldn’t take any more capital for fear of extreme dilution. She has a stack of invitations from the media and VCs requesting meetings, invitations for event appearances, and more. Her inbox is “unparsable,” she says. “It’s a great problem to have.”

And one more thing. Given that Twitter and a whole bunch of cool Web 2.0 folks are out in San Francisco, a lot of people who hear about oneforty suggest that Fitton should relocate out west. But great developers are everywhere—New York, London, Canada, and so on, she points out. “They’re in San Francisco, too, but they’re not only there.” Bottom line: oneforty is staying put in its Brighton HQ, at least for now. “Maybe oneforty will be the case that proves New England can do it,” Fitton says.

This, then, is the oneforty story. It’s not containable in 140 characters. It’s the story of a wild ride from motherhood and (relatively) peaceful consulting to mayhem, with a bit of altruism thrown in (Fitton says she is just not solely motivated by making money—read on). When I first interviewed her, Fitton was just coming off an East Coast-West Coast run where she hadn’t slept for 35 hours. So the story’s got insomnia and workaholism, too.

Smart People are Using Twitter?

You can without hesitation call Fitton an unlikely Internet entrepreneur. She puts March 2007 as the beginning of her awakening to the powers of the Web, and ultimately, Twitter, to promote her business. She and her husband had moved to the Boston area in September 2006 from Philadelphia, where she had her own business called Pistachio Consulting that helped people, mostly in large companies, with presentations. Later that year, she had given birth to her second child, and had put the business on hold for that and the family’s relocation. Until that time, Fitton had done little with the Web from a business standpoint. But as she was trying to rebuild her consultancy in her new hometown, she finally accepted that Pistachio needed to have a bigger Web presence. As Fitton puts it, she kind of sighed and said: “‘Ok fine, what is Web 2.0? Where do I update my browser?’”

Her path to true social media awakening goes something like this: blogging, RSS (which allowed her to easily follow other blogs), Twitter. Fitton says she heard about Twitter in the early spring of 2007. She joined, “thought it was dumb,” “wrote the obligatory ‘Twitter looks stupid’ post.” It was called “Smart people are using twitter?”

And then one day a young blogger and entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha linked his blog post to his Twitter account. Fitton followed the thread and read his most recent tweets—and somehow the powers of this new expression medium really came through. If I’ve got Fitton’s thinking essentially right, it includes all these points: You get 140 characters to convey the essence of a thought or idea to anyone. That can be very powerful. You need never work alone. By following others, it’s like surrounding yourself with smart, highly motivated people who drop insights over the transom of the Internet as if they’re sitting in the cubicle next door—and this can be great for both your personal and your business life. “Sun coming out in the sky, just suddenly got it,” says Fitton in almost tweet-like shorthand of her Twitter epiphany.

Oneforty_logoThe date was May 17, 2007 (Fitton tells me she sometimes can’t remember what she did the day before, but she has a penchant for remembering specific turning-point dates). “Four days later,” says Fitton, “I did my first tweetup, here in Boston.” It was to welcome Australian social media strategist and PR guru Paull Young to America. Scott Monty, head of social media for Ford, and early vlogger Steve Garfield were among the dozen or so who attended, “so it was pretty cool,” Fitton says.

She has pretty much been at the forefront of the Twitter movement ever since. “I followed a bunch of interesting, smart people, and it just kind of took off from there,” she says. Fitton took the name @pistachio. Her original Twitter bio read: “I make PowerPoint suck less.” Her tweets weren’t just about business or just about her personal life—they were about whatever was on her mind, “just twittering” is how she puts it. “That is the sense any business should think about with social media—be yourself as much as possible,” she says. She ought to know. As of this writing, Fitton has 38,882 followers, and counting.

Pretty quickly, Pistachio Consulting’s Google rankings went up. More importantly, says Fitton, “Customers starting hiring me because they had been following me on Twitter and they felt comfortable.” Indeed, she says, many clients felt like they already knew her, understood how she thought and how she approached work, her intelligence, all that—and they had already made up their minds to work with her. “It wasn’t, ‘Come in and give me a capability presentation.’ It was, ‘We want to work with you, let’s figure out how,’” Fitton relates.

A few months after her ‘Twitter is Stupid’ post, Fitton wrote an ‘Ode to Twitter.’

A Real Twitter Economy?

In October 2007, Fitton gave her first talk on the business use of Twitter. Not too long after that, clients stopped asking about PowerPoint presentations pretty much altogether. “All anyone wanted to know about was Twitter,” she says. So last September, she relaunched Pistachio Consulting as a Twitter-for-business consultancy. “People thought it was crazy, but now there’s hundreds of companies saying, ‘We’re a Twitter marketing firm,’” Fitton says.

The next month, she signed a contract to write Twitter For Dummies. Both in writing the book and in her consulting, the question of what were the best Twitter apps kept coming up. “It’s a totally unanswerable question,” Fitton says. It depends on who the person is, what they are trying to do, and so on. But her mind was primed, so to speak.

So one day she was sitting at her desk—she rents her Brighton space from Shift Communications, a high-tech PR firm—working on her Top 10 Twitter Apps chapter, when the lightbulb went off. She went on her unfruitful search to share the news with a friend, and then came back and tried to forget it—but as you already know, that was like trying to take back a tweet.

It would take at least two other key events to bring Fitton to where she is now, a startup CEO, a hot commodity on both coasts, closing a funding round for her new company.

First, she got a taste of e-commerce on Twitter. More accurately, she helped pioneer e-commerce on Twitter. This all happened in part because Fitton has always had what she calls a love-hate relationship with the sliver of fame Twitter has brought her (she calls it “femto fame,” with femto being “nine orders of magnitude smaller than micro.”) At the time, she had about 12,000 followers, and was already quite well known in social media circles. This was good for her career, of course. At the same time, she says, “I’m not a big, ‘Let me go be a celebrity’ type of personality.”

Christmas was approaching. It was a kind of slow time. She and her husband had separated earlier in the year, her parents had gone to Florida for the holidays, her business (a lot of it with New York advertising media) was feeling the effects of the economy. Fitton decided that she should do something to put her femto fame to good use. “What is the point of having all these followers if I can’t accomplish anything with it?” is how she explains her reasoning.

She zeroed in on the problem of fresh water in emerging countries. Some 5,000 children die each day because they don’t have clean drinking water, Fitton says. “It’s like a human rights issue as far as I’m concerned.” She was an admirer of a group called Charity: water that works to bring clean water to people in developing countries. So Fitton decided to create her own movement called Well Wishes (@wellwishes) to raise money for Charity: water. She set the goal of raising $25,000—an average of roughly $2 from each of her followers.

She started her Well Wishes campaign last December 19. She got a boost when Ariana Huffington pointed to it on Christmas Day in the Huffington Post. And on January 21, Fitton’s birthday, she hit her $25,000 target. “It was awesome,” says Fitton.

More to the point for oneforty, the Well Wishes campaign involved what Fitton calls the “first large-scale exchange of currency right on Twitter.” She used the now-defunct Tipjoy, a Y Combinator company based in Arlington, MA, to allow people to tweet money to Well Wishes. Some $5,000 came in through PayPal, she says, but the remaining $20,000 came in through Twitter. And that was really important. It helped her to realize, Fitton says: “Transactions and a real economy are definitely coming to Twitter.”

End Part 1: Part 2, covering the formation and funding of oneforty, and its plans for the future, will run next Tuesday.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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