I recently read David Kirkpatrick's new book The Facebook Effect, which chronicles the history of Facebook from the pre-creation days in a Harvard Dorm Room to the 400 million user platform and advertising behemoth that it exists as today. It was a very pro-facebook, pro-Zuckerberg account as compared to much of the media coverage that has been given to Facebook over the years, and while it points out the mistakes they've made along the way, it generally gives the young founders the benefit of the doubt. Overall, I found the book interesting and worth the read simply for the Facebook story, but from an entrepreneur's perspective, there were three key takeaways for me that will shape the way I think about building our current company.
1. Ride a big theme
Shortly after the founders experienced the early success of Facebook on their campus, they realized that they were onto something big. But their goal was never to build a business that had one product which was an intercampus social network. Their goal was to increase sharing in the world. They felt that by making the world a more open place, they would make it more transparent, bring people and cultures closer together in the global ecosystem, and as a result it would be a better place. Their business wasn't based around selling one product or even one feature within a product as some businesses are. Their goal was the change the world.
By riding this enormous theme of sharing and openness, Facebook was able to address a market of almost every person on the planet. Sure they needed a product which would facilitate their themes, and they had a great one, but they were really starting from a point of almost limitless growth potential.
2. Timing is critical
You often hear people say that they had the idea for Facebook before the launch of Facebook. And sometimes in tech circles you even hear people say that they built a Facebook style service before Facebook but it never caught on. Well here's some news: lots of smart people spent lots of time and money building Facebook style social networks long before Facebook even launched. And some were actually moderately successful. However many just didn't have the timing that Facebook had and the world wasn't ready to embrace a global social network yet.
What made their timing so accurate? There were a couple of contributing factors including people's willingness to accept transparency online, proliferation of broadband internet, and the rise in popularity and availability of cheap digital cameras.
Companies that created social networks before broadband internet had a hard time convincing their users to wait around for endless page loads and no photos. Facebook users spend a tremendous amount of time on the site because they can keep clicking from link to link, from photo to photo, and get instant satisfaction. Try that before broadband.
Social networks that launched before people were comfortable enough with the internet to put their information online had a hard time getting people to use their real names and information. Facebook only let users use their service with their real name and identity, and therefore there was an enforcement on the site that you couldn't misbehave or your reputation would suffer. In 2001 people were scared to enter any information online, but in 2004 people were ready and the timing was right.
The Facebook photos feature was really the first application built on top of the Facebook social graph, and it was a gamechanger for the company due to the amount of time that users spent on the site after the launch. But photos on other networks just weren't popular until everyone had a digital camera with which to take the pictures. 2004 was probably one of the earliest years that you could expect your average college student to possibly own a digital camera. And if they didn't own one, they could buy one for a couple hundred bucks in order to join in the facebook photo frenzy.
When thinking about your own business, you need to look around and leverage the emerging trends (or even better yet the trends that are just about to emerge), and use them against existing, slow moving competition. Look at recent changes in the world and technology and take advantage of the latest ways that people are spending their time and money.
3. Product vision is key and needs to be protected
Mark Zuckerberg really was a product visionary. He somehow knew what users would want, before they even did, and he was almost always correct in his predictions. The protection which he gave his vision was paramount. He was endlessly harassed by investors, officers of his company, and even the public at times to consider major changes, but he fought them off hard and committed to building the product that he wanted to build.
Ben Horrowitz wrote yesterday in his discussion on why they funded Foursquare that "The only thing better than the CEO being the keeper of the vision is the CEO being the creator of the vision." Facebook had this CEO with the right vision, and he knew never to compromise the vision or the product for short term wins. If he had, Facebook would likely be chock full of banner ads and part of the Rupert Murdoch empire.