Leadership guru Warren Bennis asked whether leaders are born or made. When asked if Wall Street would accept a young Mark Zuckerberg in his early 20s as CEO, Facebook investor Peter Thiel said: “Well, we’ll wait until he’s over 25 to file”. Wise move, considering that Mark’s title on his business cards read “I’m CEO, bitch”.
This week Facebook filed its S-1 to go public. Mark is 27. How Mark managed to launch a social networking site after Friendster had crashed during MySpace’s zenith has been widely chronicled. What’s been less discussed is how Mark mastered the six requirements to succeed, namely Ambition, Vision, Determination, Execution, Luck and Timing.
“The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the scythe”, Russian Proverb
The foundation and building block of any successful person is Ambition, or the desire for personal achievement.
People are driven by success, recognition, respect, money, power or fame. If you believe everything in The Social Network, Mark launched Facebook to level the playing field at Harvard and to succeed at getting girls. Success is relative, subjective and fluid; over time Mark’s definition of success grew to match his brainchild’s imprint.
Wearing your ambition on your sleeve will get you cut off at the knees, but ambition is required to succeed; the challenge is channeling it properly and managing your emotions around it. When the Winklevoss twins first hired Mark to build their social networking site, Mark never revealed his ambitions to build his own site. It was only later – far too late for the Winklevoss – that Mark revealed his true ambition.
A design glitch allowed MySpace users to customize their profiles. But that mixed blessing created a cacophonous environment which made users welcome Facebook’s clean interface.
Facebook wasn’t visionary in any revolutionary sense of the word. Where Facebook deserves credit was that Mark et al. recognized the need for a real directory of people, not merely users. Before Facebook it was nearly impossible to actually find people, you could “google” them but finding the person you wanted within one search wasn’t a given. We now take it for granted, but that extension of people search and connecting them was certainly evolutionary, and it’s worth noting that most successes are not radically new but extensions and improvements of existing paradigms.
The critics may note that Mark sometimes lacked charisma. In this context, charisma is a subset of vision: it allows you to convince others to buy into your vision, but charisma in and of itself is not a requirement to succeed, it’s an accelerant or amplifier. In Mark’s case, he has had the good fortune to let Facebook’s massive growth rates do the talking for him.
“Stay Focused, Keep Shipping”, Mark Zuckerberg
When you look back to Facebook’s functionality when it launched, it was bare bones. Facebook has added features while scaling users, literally changing jet engines at 30,000 feet without missing a beat. It’s easy to laugh at missteps like Beacon or the privacy dossier and fail to appreciate the velocity at which Facebook has evolved and grown.
To quote President Calvin Coolidge:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Back in 1995, Steve Jobs added: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance”.
Determination, drive, tenacity or persistence is the most important variable, demonstrated by Mark through his: relentless coding early on to launch Facebook to catch the Winklevoss brothers off guard; adding colleges; attacking MySpace; defending against the subsequent lawsuit from the twins; repeated encroaching into people’s privacy (which remains one of Mark’s Achilles heels). But, to his credit, he has repeatedly not cared or believed in himself enough to charge ahead no matter what. Mark is a constant reminder that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
So those were the first four traits: largely innate, can be learned, and things you can control. But without the next two, you won’t succeed.
“A great fortune depends on luck, a small one on diligence”, Chinese Proverb
In sports and in business, luck can be your best friend or your undoing.
Let’s face it: Mark’s had a horseshoe up his butt. Luck made him run into Sean Parker, who introduced him to Peter Thiel, without whom as an ally and first outside investor it’s unlikely he would have remained CEO to this day.
But you create your own luck, or when lady luck smiles down on you, you seize the opportunity.
Google wasn’t the first search engine, YouTube wasn’t the first video sharing site and Facebook certainly wasn’t the first social network. Geocities, Tripod, Friendster, Tribe Networks, MySpace are just some that come to mind.
Mark’s managed the clock all along: slowing down the Winklevoss brothers; launching Facebook on Harvard first to then expand to other colleges; relocating to California; refusing Viacom and Yahoo!’s offers; closing his deal with Microsoft.
While the comparisons to Google’s IPO are understandable, Google ushered a new Internet Bull run whereas Facebook’s is coming at the tail end of Zynga, Groupon, LinkedIn, Demand Media and Pandora’s – none of which have fared particularly well.
However, much like Google’s IPO made it the Internet stock bellwether, Facebook will become the de facto stock pick of individual and institutional investors, pushing demand to justify the lofty price-to-earnings and price-to-sales multiples.
There you have it: success = ambition + vision + execution + persistence + luck + timing; with the first four being things you can control and the last two being externalities that you cannot.
While I’ve praised and criticized him and Facebook, as a fellow entrepreneur, Mark is someone all builders look up to and admire despite his obvious mistakes – reminding me of the Michael Jordan quote: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”