I’m not a user of Facebook. That’s not a reflection on Facebook, I don’t use any social media with the exception of reposting my blog articles on Twitter and LinkedIn. But I’m an admirer of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for several reasons.
- Facebook’s go-to-market strategy: starting with Harvard, then spreading to the Ivy League, then other top schools, then all .edu domains, followed by high schools, and finally to the general public. Why was this brilliant? For two reasons: one, the inventor of the social network, Friendster, died because it couldn’t handle all its users. As David Packard, Co-founder of Hewlett-Packard said, “More companies die from indigestion than starvation.” It couldn’t scale. Secondly, by moving from market to market so carefully Facebook learned a tremendous amount from its users, enabling it to constantly innovate. There was a time when there were no photos on Facebook, if you can believe it!
- Real names for users: many earlier networks allowed users to be anonymous or use pseudonyms. Anonymity often resulted in so-called “flame wars” where users got involved in endless online battles. Insisting on a real ID by initially requiring a .edu mail address enabled Facebook to start gathering incredibly valuable information about each of its users. Again, believe it or not, this decision was very controversial at the time.
- Hiring a COO: there is no question that Mark Zuckerberg is brilliant. But one of his most brilliant moves was to bring in Sheryl Sandberg, a veteran executive from Google as COO. That freed him up to focus on his forte: product development. Needless to say, Sheryl has done a fantastic job running Facebook’s operations. Many are the CEOs who should have made a similar move, including Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber.
- Aligning the company around a single goal: according to an early Facebook hire, Facebook then had one metric and one metric only: monthly active users (MAU). The entire company was focused on growing this number, nothing else. Focus is the name of the game in early stage companies, as is alignment. Using MAU as the company measuring stick achieved both goals.
- Running multiple versions of Facebook: I’ve asked numerous people “how many versions of Facebook do you think are running simultaneously?” After getting a blank stare, I get guesses like “three?” I was amazed to learn from watching a
Y-Combinator interview with Mark Zuckerberg that there are thousands! Why, because virtually every engineer at Facebook is empowered to run their own version of Facebook – to a limited number of users. This policy has two tremendous benefits: one, every engineer wants to see his product shipped. Being able to add a new feature and get it out to users themselves without going through some lengthy bureaucratic process is galvanizing for engineers. Second, Facebook learns a tremendous amount from all the usage data gathered systematically from each of these versions. Talk about Big Data!
Finally it’s always been my personal belief that what drives creative people is not money, not titles, not awards, it’s pride (including recognition). According to an article in Fast Company entitled Here’s What Facebook Discovered From Its Internal Research On Employee Happiness the key element of employee engagement turns out to be pride in the company! I highly recommend this article which contains a link to a much more detailed article.
So what’s the take away from all this? One big error founders make is cloning popular apps and social networks. Typically this just doesn’t work. What does work though, is searching out the success factors that have driven companies like Facebook and learning from them. It’s all about process, not product!