Zuckerberg: Facebook Started Out As A ‘Hobby’ And A ‘Project,’ Not A Company

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Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at Y Combinator’s annual Startup School event this morning for a one-on-one conversation with Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham. It was his second major sit-down, on-stage interview since taking Facebook public earlier this year (his first was at TechCrunch Disrupt last month), and he spoke to a packed house at Stanford University’s Memorial Auditorium about the early days of Facebook and his personal entrepreneurial path.

Being that Startup School is an event aimed at giving programmers the tools and motivation to take the leap into starting their own companies, it was interesting that Zuckerberg reiterated again and again the fact that in the beginning, he didn’t intend for Facebook to be the massive business it is today. Initially it was not a company at all, he said — it was “a project.”

“I started building Facebook because I wanted to use it in college… we weren’t looking to start a company,” he said. “I had this one friend who I went to have pizza with almost every night, we did all our computer science problem sets together at Harvard… and I remember telling him that I was working on this Facebook thing, and I thought it would be cool [as a service for] Harvard.”

He told this friend that he saw the potential for the Facebook concept to go beyond the college market — but he never thought he’d be the one to do it. “[I thought that] over time, someone would build a version of this for the world, but it wouldn’t be us — it would be [a large existing software company] like Microsoft.”

Of course, now Facebook is itself a large technology company, on the public stock market and all. Zuckerberg noted that he believes a big part of this eventual success was the fact that the company started out with relatively small ambitions — starting out only at Harvard, expanding slowly school by school, server by server.

“It took a year for us to get to one million users and we thought it was incredibly fast,” he said, noting that many services today grow much faster. “I think having that time to baby was really helpful for us.”

And while Y Combinator now lets people apply to its startup accelerator program without a business idea at all, Zuckerberg said that he feels its better for a passion and purpose to come before the pull to “start a company.”

“So much of the lesson I’ve learned is that it’s really hard to decide to start a company,” he said. “Facebook, I didn’t start to ‘start a company’… it was mostly just through wanting to build it and having it be this hobby and getting people around me excited. It eventually evolved into a company… but I never understood the psychology of wanting to start a company before deciding what you wanted to do.”

More from Zuckerberg’s talk at Startup School, read “Zuck’s Advice To Startups: Listen To What Your Users Want, Both Qualitatively And Quantitatively

Image via Twitter user Charlie Isaacs