How The Cult Of Zuck Will Survive Sheryl’s IPO

A tug of war between innovation and monetization as Facebook grows could dilute The Hacker Way, says a paywalled piece from Fortune. But a plan hatched since it filed its S-1 to IPO. Rather than sacrifice the user experience for revenue or vice versa, Facebook is merging the two. Content is being transformed into ads, and those ads are being blended into blank spaces and feeds where they’re less obtrusive.

Scaling a company from 200 twenty-somethings to 3,000 thirty-year-olds is no cakewalk. If the plan works, though, Facebook could bridge the gap between engineering and advertising, make the company feel a whole lot smaller, and let The Hacker Way live on.

Fortune’s Miguel Helft and Jessi Hempel describe Facebook as an organization split in two:

“One, Zuckerberg’s world, is a meritocratic, coder-led organization that develops the Facebook site; the other, which is charged with making money out of it, is subordinate. It is more hierarchical and corporate and is the domain of Zuckerberg’s handpicked deputy, Sheryl Sandberg…Yet as the importance of the business side grows once Facebook goes public, the inherent tension between the two is certain to be magnified under the glare of Wall Street. It all amounts to the paradox that on the eve of its IPO, Facebook is a powerhouse, yet it feels a bit fragile.”

Facebook started as a hacker culture, where the primary goal was making the site more fun to use. It would be years before monetization became a serious question. As the site and team grew but co-founders and early employees left, Zuckerberg became increasingly responsible for shepherding the product. Growing reverence for the leader’s ability to see what people want before they do led Facebook Director of Engineering Andrew Bosworth to say “The reason Mark has final word is because he is fucking brilliant.”

Fortune noted that “The cult of Zuck is downright Jobsian in its intensity.” [Correction: This statement was by Fortune’s writers, not Bosworth as this article originally indicated.]

Going a little overboard, Fortune write that Facebook “holds bootcamps to teach engineers to “think like Zuck,” forces people to change projects midstream, and even mandates all-nighters.” That’s not completely accurate, Bosworth wrote on Facebook this morning:

Still, Facebook engineering’s mantra is “move fast. break things.” It doesn’t matter who comes up with a product. If it’s great, it will get shipped. Even Zuckerberg’s letter to investors in the S-1 described The Hacker Way as “an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration” and his belief that “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”

Taken at face value, these ideals seem at odds with the polished, no-nonsense business wing of Facebook run by Sheryl Sandberg. There, the money to fund the site’s innovation must be made, and it’s more about who you know than what you do. Fortune explains:

“There’s a term spoken quietly around Facebook to describe a cadre of elites who have assumed powerful positions under the leadership of Zuckerberg’s chief operating officer: They’re FOSS, or friends of Sheryl Sandberg. Many have followed her there after studying with her at the Harvard Business School or working with her at the U.S. Treasury Department or Google. Several middle and senior executives who have left the company say that Sandberg has put friends in powerful positions, sometimes even when they were less qualified than other Facebook employees, and once there they enjoy special status. “You can’t really cross a FOSS,” says one former senior manager.”

This distortion of the meritocracy might be the biggest threat to Facebook’s culture, and something Zuckerberg should seek to curtail.

But the secret to merging Zuck and Sheryl’s halves of Facebook is that profitability and site usability are not a zero-sum game. Facebook doesn’t have to make its advertising sidebars bigger and the rest of the site smaller, nor must it paste banners atop its mobile interfaces. It’s going to make the ads vanish before our eyes by turning them into content that fits naturally across the site.

At yesterday’s Facebook Marketing Conference, Facebook unveiled its plan. Gone are the old premium ad units where brands could plaster any message they wanted. Now all premium ads are built directly off of the organic content published by a brand’s official Facebook Page. And instead of appearing just in the sidebar, those ads can appear on the web news feed, the mobile news feed, and even on the logout page in a unit many times larger than Facebook has ever sold.

Shill too hard, and a brand will seem sleazy compared to your friends in the news feed. But if a brand provides inspiring text, beautiful photos, or funny videos…hey, that’s a lot like what my friends share. When it shows ads on the logout page, Facebook simply makes the revenue pie bigger because there’s no social content there to distract us from. Plus, Facebook has found that ads which are really content get much better click-through rates and produce brand favorability.

There are dangers on this road. We want the most relevant news feed possible. Too much artificial presence of brands, even just mentions of how our friends interact with those brands, could make the site less addicting. Rate limits on news feed ads must be upheld, and Facebook will need to do everything in its power to teach brands what resonates.

The shift to ads as content could unchain Zuck’s visionary engineering and product teams. They won’t have to slow down to ask or be asked “how will this make money?” — a question that contributed to the stagnation of the tech giants before it. They can work confidently and autonomously on the original mission of making the site fun. The shift will relieve Sheryl’s driven ads team, who won’t have to figure out how to shoehorn ads into the sidebar or convince clients to buy space in tiny boxes.

This is how the cult of Zuck and the friends of Sheryl Sandberg are teaming up. If it succeeds, The Hacker Way stays and Facebook won’t have to decide whether “Stay Focused, Keep Shipping” means the product carrying the content, or the ads that pay for it. They’ll be unified, and so will the company.

[Image Credit: Ali Manazano and Mark Zuckerberg]