Extreme success nearly always arrives at the fickle intersection of timing, ambition, and skills, among other variables. Historically, we look at biographies of successful individuals and, in most cases, can point to a “right place at the right time” moment. This is not to discredit the talent of the person, however there is the notion that we tend to vastly overestimate one’s individual contributions towards achieving extreme success – a concept that is famously documented by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.
The truth is, when I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for a part-time software developer internship in 2003 at Isovera, he was a fresh-faced college sophomore who was not setting out to build a multi-billion dollar company. At his interview, Zuckerberg demonstrated to me and my partner a prototype for his forthcoming website he called “Facebook,” that would serve as a kind of photo guide among Harvard students.
Harvard already had a quasi-yearbook publication called Face Book, which was distributed once per year in print form. I remember thinking, “Ok, so maybe he wants to put this online.” Zuckerberg then proceeded to describe his plan to let people also “connect with their friends.” That seemed like a fine idea, but social networking was not a new concept (even in 2003!) and I didn’t see how doing this at Harvard would really produce anything other than a cool website that students might dabble with. When I questioned him about his ambitions he claimed that “if the site was successful at Harvard, maybe we’ll roll it out at Yale.” It wasn’t clear that he had any plan to make this into a serious business, and to this day, I don’t believe that he was at all aware that he was about to catch lightening in a bottle.
The success of a social network is contingent on strong positive network effects. In other words, the more people who use the network, the more useful the network is to each person. While not an expert on the “business” of social networks, I didn’t see how an upstart in this space could build an audience of sufficient critical mass since MySpace and Friendster seemed to have gotten there first. After all, that’s why there hasn’t been another eBay since…, well, eBay.
After the interview, I didn’t really give the Facebook concept a whole lot of thought. As reality played out in the ensuing years, however, the meteoric rise of Facebook meant the fall of both Friendster and MySpace. So why is Facebook monumentally more successful than either of these one time leaders of social networking? I believe that a lot of it has to do with the fact that Zuckerberg happened to tap a voyeuristic vein that runs particular strong among college students.
Encouraging users to upload as many photos as they wished was a dramatic departure from other social networks that would typically limit a user’s photos to just a few. This helped capitalize on the “inner stalker” of the technically inclined, but perhaps less socially inclined technophiles particularly prevalent on Ivy League campuses. Photos of wild parties and myriad other exploits (which most coeds would not wish their parents to see) quickly filled the site. This was just the seed needed to plant a flourishing garden.
Sure, Mark Zuckerberg was a smart kid, but did he really understand the extent to which voyeurism would play into his business model? Did he have any data to show that the social networking space was ripe for this type of product at this particular time? When Facebook came on the scene, the masses were finally starting to become receptive to social networking. In this sense, sites like MySpace and Friendster helped to pave the way. A college student himself, predisposed to the same hormonal animal instincts of his brethren audience, he was at the right place at the right time to get the ball rolling.
Once it launched, the site began to grow rapidly without any real outside investment. This naturally attracted the interest of the venture capital community, and in 2005 Zuckerberg landed $12 million in VC funding (a paltry sum when compared with the company’s subsequent rounds of capital raised). When Zuckerberg realized he had a tiger by the tail (perhaps this realization was aided by his new venture capitalist partners), he quickly expanded the social network beyond colleges to try and reach a progressively broader audience. There was no looking back and extreme success ensued.
In the end, I decided not to hire Mark Zuckerberg. Without giving it much thought, I figured his Facebook concept would have been a distraction from the work we needed him to do at my company. So, perhaps I should feel in a small part responsible for Facebook’s success. Allowing fate to take control of one’s ambitions can sometimes lead to miraculous things.