There is something peculiarly impressive about the video below of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, talking in Mandarin to students at Tsinghua University in Beijing. If nothing else, it shows a dedication to the country’s customs that very few foreign business leaders can match.
There is an argument that the latest Facebook scandal is a lot of fuss about nothing. A week-long psychological experiment on 690,000 users in 2012 that did no damage and had a barely noticeable effect hardly registers on the scale of research abuses over the years.
Nadella channelling Zuckerberg (photo: Microsoft)
Executive biographies keep a low profile on most company websites. Not so at Microsoft, which has been showing off its new chief executive, Satya Nadella, on a special microsite of the kind usually used to hawk things that consumers can actually buy. This is unlikely to persuade anyone to buy a PC or a Surface tablet. What, then, is the point?
Visitors see a list of Mr Nadella’s qualifications (Education: BS, MSCS, MBA; Hobbies: poetry). A video shows the new CEO answering questions such as “Why do you think Microsoft is going to be successful?”, which gives you an idea of how useful he might be in a boardroom. The blurb strikes an aspirational tone: “Nadella wanted to complete his master’s degree and take the Microsoft job. He did both.”
Evan Spiegel, co-founder of Snapchat (AP)
Few technology companies are hotter than Snapchat, the photo sharing app founded just under three years ago that turned down a $3bn bid from Facebook. An article about the company in Forbes calls it “the greatest existential threat yet to the Facebook juggernaut”, highlighting that “droves” of teens (the median age of a Snapchat user is 18) are turning to the social network founded almost three years ago that allows users to send videos, pictures, text or drawings that disappear after a set period of time.
But one unexpected detail in the piece stuck out for me. When twentysomething co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy first met Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder tried to dig for information on their plans. He also outlined his own plans for Poke, Facebook’s own app for sharing photos and making them disappear. According to Mr Spiegel: “‘It was basically like, ‘We’re going to crush you’.” Here’s the surprising detail: the Snapchat founders then bought a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for each of their six employees.
In choosing that particular military-treatise-cum-strategy-guide, Spiegel and Murphy punctured two myths about tech entrepreneurs.
Social media buzzed around Mark Zuckerberg’s comment on Tuesday that he wrote the “founder’s letter” for Facebook’s initial public offering registration statement on his mobile phone. (Big deal – investors who have suffered since must wish he’d used the phone’s computing capacity to set the offer price at a more reasonable level.)
I was more interested in his admission that the social networking group had “burned two years” betting on the wrong mobile technology. For most companies, that doesn’t sound like a long time to spend exploring a potentially highly profitable dead-end, but remember, Mr Zuckerberg hit the button that launched “Thefacebook.com” on February 4 2004. It has barely been in existence eight years. In that context, to burn two years is like Ford (founded 1903) wasting a quarter of a century developing a five-wheel car or General Electric (1892) blowing 30 years exploring the possibilities of a steam-powered lightbulb.
Facebook investors: you have been warned. The last time I was in Silicon Valley was 12 years ago, in the very week that the Nasdaq crashed, marking the end of the dotcom boom. That I should fly back into San Francisco on the eve of the social network’s initial public offering cannot be a good omen.
I’m not here to write about Facebook – for expert insights, read the analysis of my San Francisco-based colleagues or the FT Lex team – but the IPO overshadows most discussions. What strikes me is how entrepreneurs, technology executives and analysts I’ve met are reluctant to talk publicly about Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Ask them what they think about him and they tend to preface their remarks with a polite request that this part of the interview should be off the record.
Fred Wilson, the venture capitalist who is a mainstay of New York internet start-ups, has some provocative thoughts on the lifecycle of web and mobile apps – that their lifecycles are similar to those of hit television shows:
“This round trip from nothing to everything to nothing again is also true at some level with many tech companies. Digtal Equipment Corporation was founded in 1957 and shuttered in 1998. RIM was founded in 1984 and in all liklihood will be gone before the end of this decade. Same with Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, and many more iconic tech companies.”
As he says, the networks effects that work in favour of social networks on the way up can also turn against them:
“Network effects are powerful in both directions. They can help you grow exponentially. But when they are going against you, they work just as fast. Myspace’s decline was mind-blowingly quick. RIM’s has been as well. Who is next?”
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, sets himself an admirable test in the company’s filing for an initial public offering – “that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us, how we make decisions and why we do the things we do.” Unfortunately, he then flunks it.
Like Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, which went public in 2004, Mr Zuckerberg has written a letter to shareholders to explain his approach to their new investors. While Google’s letter was brisk and open about how they intended to ignore short-term earnings targets, his is aspirational and vague.
“By focussing on our mission and building great services, we believe we will create the most value for our shareholders and partners over the long term . . . We don’t wake up in the morning with the primary goal of making money, but we understand that the best way to achieve our mission is to build a strong and valuable company,” Mr Zuckerberg writes.