Thursday, November 25, 2010

In defense of Mark Zuckerberg!

This column first appeared in on 24 November 2010

It is now almost a month since the seminal movie The Social Network released. It has been dissected and analysed and commented upon by everyone remotely associalted with Facebook, media or venture capital. I read the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich almost an year ago – it is impossible to believe most of the made up fiction that Mr Mezrich passes off for fact. I watched the movie a few days ago in the company of people gushing about the 26 year old billionaire and try as much as I want, I cannot bring myself to think of Mark Zuckerberg as a villain. In the past I have had problems when the media has compared him to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates but as time passes and the enormity of what Facebook is turning into becomes apparent, one cannot but admire the man behind the company.

A few hours ago a good friend and successful entrepreneur spoke about the problems he has faced in the past from people who have been with his venture for a long time and how they have not been able to scale up to the vision needed to be a truly great company. It got me thinking – why are so many people calling Mark Zuckerberg a villain? The general feeling the book and the movie seems to give is that the founder of Facebook is a slimy guy who carries a sharp knife, willing to use it on people in a cold blooded manner.

Fact remains that anyone who starts a venture has to be the way Mark is – ruthless in the singleminded approach towards achievement of greatness. While there can be ideas all over the place, any half decent VC will tell you it is not ideas that get you funding, it is the ability to execute and execute in a manner of a achieving in the shortest possible time traction to grow really big and be a game changer. That’s what got Google to the IPO, Apple its value and thats what will get any new idea reach its true potential. Mark got the idea of what was possible if you gave people something they really wanted when he created a ‘hot or not’ website. The trio of Winklevoss and Divya just fuelled that idea into a full blown project. Let us look at what Facebook became in the 4 years since that inspiration – I cannot begin to imagine what the Harvard Connect website would have been. It needs a manic kind of thought process to be able to see a 70 mm larger than life picture of what your business is about. It will make the person anti social and lacking in social graces. However the final result would be a work of art. I refer to books like Icon and Iwoz to emphasize this point. The greatest pioneers in this world have had a mean streak and it is unfair to single out Mark for special treatment.

One wonders what would have happened if Mark had followed the path taken by Saverin – quite possible that Facebook would have been an also ran website that ran banners advertisements. Saverin had his role to play in putting in the money but beyond the semblance of being aware of what really was going on, he would have been a major pain in the growth of the company. In getting rid of Saverin at that point, Facebook’s founder did more for the company than all the algorithms he wrote or the coolness quotient he brought to the system. In following Sean Parker to where the action was, Mark demonstrated that he could take risks and jump into the unknown. And in forcing Parker to quit from Facebook when implicated for possession of drugs, Mark ensured that the venture grew.

If you are someone who is starting up please take lessons from these incidents. Your venture will need you to be a hachet man, You will need to cut dead wood or you will be forever saddled with trying to explain your vision to a bunch of people who were good to start with but cannot see beyond their limited vision. You will need to anti social and seek people who can beee with you for part of the journey. As the venture grows it will attract people who can see beyond what you think and that’s when the game changes.

In defence of Mark Zuckerberg I can say that if I had to do all of what he did to build a great company I could do it without regret and in the same manner that he did. I know I have in the past.