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Facebook’s New “Creative Labs” Lets The 6,000-Employee Giant Move Fast Like A Startup

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It’s tough to experiment with a billion people watching. At that scale, Facebook’s mantras of “move fast and break things” and “Done is better than perfect” don’t quite work. But it’s exactly those philosophies Facebook needs to discover the lean, single-purpose experiences people want on mobile. That’s why it’s formed the Facebook Creative Labs.

It’s an initiative that gives small teams the freedom to form within the company and build standalone apps or other projects that live outside the core Facebook experience. It’s not a physical space or formal reorganization of the company, but a way to explore new forms of social connection.

Today, Facebook unveiled the first child of the Creative Labs, a news reader app called Paper. A fifteen person team worked for well over a year to build this standalone app that reimagines the News Feed as a highly tactile, visually immersive mobile newspaper. [Check out our full story: Facebook Announces Paper, A Curated Visual News Reader Launching Feb 3rd On iOS]

Facebook tells me Paper’s product designer Mike Matas likens building within Facebook’s main app and website as ‘going in and messing up a billion people’s furniture’. Try a new navigation mechanic, change how a feature works, or redesign a piece of the UI, and some percentage of the users are sure to freak out.

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That wasn’t as risky when Facebook was a small startup more concerned with doing whatever it could to grow. But now it’s earning $2.6 billion in a single quarter, and has a headcount of well over 6,000 employees. Small changes can have seismic impacts on Facebook’s business. That’s made it more and more conservative about fiddling with Facebook.com, m.facebook.com, and Facebook for iOS and Android.

For example, Facebook had a flashy press event in March 2013 to announce a big redesign of the News Feed. But while the ability to easily sort the feed into content types like Photos, Pages and Public Figures, Music, or Games rolled out on mobile, it never reached the web.

As Bloomberg Businessweek describes, Facebook halted the web launch because it found users “didn’t like it”. That’s probably slang for used it less. And less usage means both less of the human connection that’s Facebook’s mission, and less ad revenue which is Facebook’s fiduciary duty to shareholders.

facebook-college-hackathon-done1Until now, Facebook’s outlet for tinkerers was its frequent in-house hackathons where employees would work on random pet projects for a night, present them to the company, and some would get integrated. Chat, the Events Calendar, video uploads, and other features originally started as Facebook Hackathon projects, Business Insider says. But you’ll notice that these are more add-ons than changes to critical functionality.

Facebook Creative Labs permits employees to work on more ambitious projects. Not just in the sense of the amount of time or teammates needed to build them, but in how they would drastically alter Facebook as we know it if crammed into the existing product.

If Facebook recklessly replaced the News Feed with Paper, it would be gambling with its user engagement and loyalty. By allowing a Creative Labs team to build it as a standalone app, the stakes are much lower, and Paper could be more audacious about breaking from convention.

[Update 1/31/14 3pm PST: One more huge benefit of building apps through Creative Labs instead of Facebook proper? They don't have to monetize. Just like startups, Creative Labs apps can concentrate on building something people love that grows to be big before worrying about making money.

Paper's product manager Michael Reckhow tells me the Paper team hasn't put much thought into what ads could look like in its content reader and the team has no engagement metrics they're trying to hit. "Our focus has been just launching and hopefully getting a core set of people who really like it." If it gets popular enough to be p]ulling significant usage away from Facebook’s main app that the company does monetize, the Paper team thinks figuring out how it can make money is a good challenge to have to deal with.

What Else Could Get The Creative Treatment?

Paper is just the first of many Creative Labs apps. Facebook had a special hackathon to launch the initiative that lasted three days instead of the typical one, and that employees were asked to prepare a month and a half in advance for. Zuckerberg told Businessweek that about 40 ideas came out of the hackathon, and “as many as half a dozen could be introduced this year under the Creative Labs umbrella.

One Zuckerberg mentioned to me when I moderated an on-stage talk with him at a private Facebook Developer Day event was Groups. “So the thinking I think we’ve had in the Facebook mobile app for a while is that experiences that we might add, whether that’s Groups or Events or things like that can reach a lot of people because the vast majority of phones have Facebook on them and people are using Facebook everyday,” he said.

He signalled the same to Businessweek and on yesterday’s earnings call said 500 million people now use the Groups product Facebook relaunched in October 2010 to enable private sharing to smaller sets of people. By digging the feature out of the main Facebook experience, there would less friction to using it, similar to how Facebook unbundled Messenger.

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Events could blossom into a more full-fledged calendar app that pulled in appointments from other apps alongside your Facebook event invites, suggestions of events nearby you might enjoy, and reminders of friends’ birthdays. With more algorithmic muscle behind event discovery, a standalone app could answer “what do you want to do tonight?”

Zuckerberg mentioned games on the earnings call yesterday. In its web heyday Facebook controlled one of the world’s most popular gaming platforms, but the mobile era saw Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android steal platform ownership. Facebook’s became just a social login and sharing layer, and doesn’t earn a 30% cut of in-app purchases. Perhaps Facebook Creative Labs could build a Facebook Arcade app that offers a rotating curated set of games from third-party developers, capitalizing on how the app stores are crowded with crap.

And one great Facebook feature that never got the spotlight is Nearby, the mobile local business search hidden in the main Facebook app’s menu. Beefed up and spun out, it could become a legitimate social Yelp competitor that uses your friends’ checkins and everything Facebook knows about you to beat Yelp’s reviews from strangers. Facebook recently acquired Branch, whose founder Josh Miller has suggested Facebook tackle dating and employment.

If Facebook launched any of these and they were a hit, it could build ties from its main app to drive them more users. And if people think they’re dumb, they can just delete the apps and go back to using old Facebook.

6a00d8341c730253ef01774297bff3970d-800wiSilicon Valley often trumpets its respect for failing fast and trying again, but that’s easier to say than do when a company grows fat with rung after rung of management. A common complaint I hear from exiting Facebook employees is that it’s no fun to work forever on something that never ships.

Google’s old 20-percent time and now Google Ventures work to keep top talent from leaving the Mountain View family, and considering Facebook’s brain drain over the past few years, it needs a way to keep rockstars in Menlo Park.

It might not be as sexy as Google X with its self-driving cars and smart contact lens moonshots, but Facebook Creative Labs could make its employees feel like they’re the ones in a Harvard dorm room doing it the Hacker Way.

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[Image Credit: Ben Barry]