Interview: Veteran Product Lead Josh Elman on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter — and Joining Greylock

Josh Elman has been in the trenches of product development since mid-1990s, with his resume reading like a who’s who of major web companies today. He started at Homestead and RealNetworks in the 1990s, and went on to hold key product roles at LinkedIn, Zazzle, Facebook and most recently Twitter.

But after 15 years building products, he recently became a principal at Silicon Valley venture firm Greylock Partners. We sat down with him recently to get his take on where Facebook and Twitter are going, and to learn more about his own plans now that he’s an investor.

Inside Facebook: If you were abandoned on an island for the rest of your life, would you rather be stuck with Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Williams or Jack Dorsey?

Josh Elman: Um, wow that’s a great question. I’d probably choose Ev. Ev, Zuck and Jack are great entrepreneurs, and I have massive respect for all three. But I’ve spent most of the most time with Ev and would love to spend more. Of the three, I feel closest and most stylistically connected to him. And I’d add Reid Hoffman to this list too — and should note that I’m happy to be working with him again.

IF: It’s 2011, and despite all the years of speculation about Facebook and Twitter killing each other, they are obviously coexisting now. But having worked at both companies, what do you predict for them (and other social platforms) in the future — let’s say in the next 5 years to keep that question somewhat focused?

JE: The way that I think about a lot of the opportunities in communication is: Where do we turn to as humans to find out what we care about in the world? In the past it was maybe newspapers, TV, radio. Now it’s mobile, iPads, computers, TV — we’re turning to all these different screens. But we really want an emotional connection to people we care about, to be more informed, and to be more able to react to conversations that are important and interesting around us.

There are three streams of important information. One of those, I think, is direct messages to me. That’s mostly email. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t do this (though I’m sure there are some) — the question of whether Facebook and Twitter can do to replace it gets asked a lot less now.

The second stream is what is happening with the people I love and care about. It’s obvious that Facebook has become that for everybody. When you want to know what’s going on with a friend, you have these incredible emotional moments on Facebook. You see them change jobs, celebrate their kids, share funny or important links.

The third stream is the world: What should I know about and care about? Everyone wants to know what’s happening. I think that Twitter is really redefining what that experience means. For example, recently there was an earthquake, and a lot of folks turned to Twitter to both share what happened and to verify what happened.

And for a lot of folks, there is a fourth stream — your work/professional stream. There are a lot of companies working on different facets of this between LinkedIn for your professional life, Google Apps, Salesforce, Asana, and more for your productivity. And email is still a huge component here.

IF: Right, that’s today, but all these companies are in some ways getting into each other’s turf.

JE: Think about it this way. If your favorite Italian restaurant hires a Japanese chef, who then starts doing Japanese noodles, you still wouldn’t go there for Japanese noodles unless it was the best Japanese noodles ever. You’d still want to go to an Italian restaurant for Italian food, or go to a Japanese restaurant for the noodles.

The specialized graphs of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn make them each incredibly long-term defensible businesses.

Twitter is so focused on staying simple, real-time — like Mac is so much simpler than Windows. Facebook, while some people say it’s too complex, has grown to more than 800 million people worldwide. It’s clearly not too complex.

Humans will go to whatever is best, most visceral.

Facebook’s frictionless sharing is a big opportunity to pivot from connecting people and more to connecting info. That’s going to be a change for the way that people use Facebook, and I’m not sure if that will ultimately happen. But it’s a great move in many respects — Spotify’s new integration means that I can see if Eric is listening to Bieber again, and jab him about it. When we launched Facebook Connect, we thought that Facebook wasn’t just going to be a social network site for communicating with your friends. It was that you were going to go to have all sorts of great experiences. On the phone, web, offline locations, wherever — it makes us more connected as people, and helps serendipity happen.

IF: What about Google+?

JE: I have huge respect for them. They’ve had a great launch and done something most people in the tech industry had doubts about — whether Google could launch a compelling social product.

But it’s still incredibly early to tell if it’s mainstream and able to tap into visceral elements like Facebook and Twitter. It’s enabling certain types of conversations between people — big conversations, real-time debates, it’s more similiar to what we’ve seen on indie blogs than Facebook or Twitter.

IF: It feels more public than Facebook, but private enough that you know your audience….

JE: Yeah, and the interface naturally enables that. Facebook doesn’t always have great topical discussion.

It’ll be exciting to see how Google+ expands to other services.

IF: How do Facebook’s latest f8 launches change what developers should focus on?

JE: They introduced probably the most important change since at least 2008 when they did a big shift from profile boxes to make the news feed central. The idea of the ticker is transformative. Now frictionless sharing creates way to share everything, naturally broadcasted without being too heavy or too spammy or too awkward. In the past, it’d be annoying. Now it lets you find out what your friends are doing at a much bigger scale — great insight into lots of friends.

You can start to build really compelling discovery, like with Spotify — seeing that ten of your friends listened to Bieber.

The launch creates new opportunities for every kind of vertical or business where people interact around certain thing would bring other friends in. Companies who take advantage of it first are going to get big benefits.

Overall, it’s better alignment between Facebook and developers — broadcasting what you actually do which gets more friends sharing , and even more discovery.

IF: How should developers be trying to harness the Twitter platform?

JE: Twitter’s platform has only gotten stronger because Twitter now has 100 million active users. Comscore shows much higher visits, not just users. So it creates even more opportunities to help people create, interact with, and consume more content through Twitter. Twitter has talked about curation, analytics, and a few other platform businesses.

But the thing about building for any platform is that the moment you start building for one, you need to remember you’re building your own company and business. If I were to go build this great new restaurant discovery app, I’d want to use Twitter to share more, as a source of content and amplifer. But I would be focused on restaurant discovery, not being “X for Twitter.” The same is exactly true for Facebook.

IF: How are you approaching this from the investing perspective?

JE: I’m brand-new to this side, and it’s quite a bit different than the operating side. A lot of what I’m doing is listening and helping teams that we’re meeting as well as in the portfolio in any way that I can. Through my career, I’ve always been super excited about creating networks of people that enable new forms of communication and connection. Whether that’s Linkedin or Zazzle (connecting designers and artwork with buyers), or Facebook or Twitter, I’ve always been compelled by helping the founders realize these huge visions and build and grow these networks and platforms.

A lot of people talk about specific spaces like “mobile” or “social” or “local”. In general, I think any new consumer experience is going to tie in key elements and work across all of those. It needs to be relevant when you check the service on your phone and relevant when you want to pull something up on your TV in the future.

At Greylock, we tend to look for two things — a great product that people will want to use in meaningful ways, and durable distribution that ensures the product gets in the hands of as many users as possible.

Mostly I’m looking for great teams of people with big visions and a deep understanding and excitement about the path it takes to build a long-lasting company.

[Photo via Greylock Partners]