MENLO PARK, CA -- As a sophomore at Fresno State University, Chad Austin became frustrated with the usual ways of alerting friends to websites he thought they should visit. “I’d be like, ‘Dude, check this out,’ or ‘You gotta take a look.’ And nothing,” Austin said. “It was like crickets.”
Austin, 22, came up with a better way.
One evening during spring break of 2011, Austin said, he stumbled across a “pretty rad” YouTube remake of an old Vanilla Ice video. Austin began to jump up and down, repeatedly yelling, “Whoa, this!”
The exclamation prompted Austin’s fraternity brothers to rush in from their motel balcony. They suggested he drop the phrase into his Twitter feed followed by a link to the video. Soon the entire Internet was grooving to “Ice, Ice Baby.”
The move was the beginning of a journey that would make “Whoa, this” (later shortened to just “This” at the suggestion of tech guru Tim O’Reilly) the most popular social link-flagging service on the web. Only three years after Austin first typed those 11 fateful characters, This has grown into an internet juggernaut. The service now has more than 300 million users worldwide, including British chef Nigella Lawson, talk show host Charlie Rose, and Telenovela star Eduardo Yanez. Michelle Obama has reportedly used This in private tweets.
Internet analysts say simplicity explains This’ explosive growth. “He didn’t want to get in the way of the user experience. He was very committed to that idea from the beginning,” said Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, an early This investor.
With Moritz’s encouragement, Austin turned simplicity into a mantra at This’s Menlo Park headquarters. “If you can spell ‘this,’ you can use This,” Austin is fond of saying.
The simplicity has paid off: This has evolved from a one-dimensional social media tool into a bona fide platform, vindicating Austin’s strategic decision to open his technology to third-party developers. “I wanted people to be able to, you know, put other stuff on it. Stuff I never even thought of. Like those arrows people make with equal signs. Or those dots,” he said, apparently referring to ellipses.
Unlike his fellow twenty-something moguls, Austin didn’t strike high school classmates as a budding tech savant. He was so reclusive that few even saw him programming, while those who did had no reason to believe his coding prowess might one day make him a billionaire.
“I was the programming nerd at Inglewood High,” said former classmate Aaron Roth. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure he even knew how to reboot a computer.” Pressed on what made him doubt Austin’s skills, Roth responded: “He once asked me how to reboot a computer.”
But those who have watched Austin in action in the years since inspiration struck describe a single-minded devotion to This. While other entrepreneurs wait around for venture capital funding, Moritz said, “Chad just went out and built it.”
Analysts say Austin was aided by the falling cost of entry in a world of cheap cloud-based computing services. “What Chad accomplished simply wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago,” said Ted Jarvis, of Forrester Research. “Back then, it would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars just to build a prototype, much less get the product to market.”
Austin’s path from sharing spring break quarters at an Ormond Beach, FL, Howard Johnsons to commissioning a new, Renzo Piano-designed headquarters did include some early stumbles. Employees once went three months without being paid because Austin “forgot.” Later, This’s investors considered demoting Austin to chief of product and installing a more seasoned executive in the top job.
But Austin appears to have settled down since moving in with his longtime girlfriend, Patricia, earlier this year. He is fond of bucking up his troops with inspirational quotes. “I like to tell them remember what Sun Tzu said--‘You gotta leave it all out on the field,’ that kind of thing,” Austin explained. (The actual author of the quote is believed to be the actor Craig T. Nelson from “Coach.”)
Employees rave about his non-hierarchal leadership style and his drive to cultivate creativity. Each Friday afternoon, engineers are required to set aside their projects and play around with anything but This. The ritual, which insiders wearily refer to as “not This, again,” has proved somewhat popular.
Through it all, friends say, Austin has remained the same tousle-haired guy-down-the-hall his fraternity brothers remember from Fresno State. His favorite dinner entrée remains cheese fries. He still “washes” his clothes by throwing several dryer sheets into his hamper and shaking vigorously. He recently showed up at the office with a little bit of dried spittle on his lower left cheek. “[Chief Technology Officer] Ravi [Singh] had to tell me to wipe it off because some investors were coming,” Austin recalls. “It was the second time that week.”
Analysts say the biggest challenge for This going forward will be deriving revenue from its hundreds of millions of users. Austin had initially pooh-poohed the idea of monetizing eyeballs through advertising, preferring instead a “freemium” model that would give away the basic service while charging a monthly subscription fee for GPS and encryption capabilities. But revenue growth has been sluggish.
If the numbers don’t improve, skeptics say, This may even come under pressure to sell itself to a competitor.
Austin has vowed to keep the company independent, insisting that the business remains his animating passion. He reportedly turned down a $1.5 billion acquisition offer from Yahoo! last year. “This is my life,” he said during an interview in his office, though it was unclear whether he meant the company or the pizza boxes littered across the floor.
Insiders caution that Austin’s rejection of the offer may simply reflect shrewd bargaining strategy rather than an actual determination to go it alone.
In the meantime, the young entrepreneur is charging ahead. By next month, This will have unveiled several foreign language versions of its product, including “Ce” in France, “Dies” in Germany, “Esto” across Latin America, and “Et zeh” in Israel. In June, Austin will keynote and play electric bass at This’s first annual developer conference, THS, in San Francisco, where he is expected to receive a raucous welcome. He is currently in talks to endow a program in experimental philology at the Aspen Institute. He recently acquired a vanity space shuttle.
As for whether it’s all a bit much for a 22-year-old who still only intermittently matches his socks, Austin grinned and said, “I think it’s pretty, uh…”
“No, the one with the A.”
A press aide got up to whisper in Austin’s ear.
“I mean, this,” Austin said when they finished conferring. “This!”