The Flexibility to Explore: Zuckerberg on Facebook’s Early History

10/22/12Follow @wroush

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most people in the world now don’t have e-mails that were issued by some institution that vouches for their identity.

PG: Now people get their identify from Facebook. You’re the source of identity!

MZ: It comes around. But to your question about when it would have been possible. One of the trends we see is that the amount any individual share in a given year seems to be growing at an increasingly exponential rate.

PG: Zuckerberg’s Law?

MZ: I don’t call it that. But it is a kind of social networking version of Moore’s Law. And it’s interesting. What that suggests to me is, if you expect that this rate is going to double every year for 10 years, two to the 10th is 1,024 … So I think the question is not `would Facebook have been possible before 2004?’ It would have been in some capacity, but people would have shared less. And if you fast forward five years, there are going to be versions of social services that people use to share way more. Anyone here should be thinking about, 10 years from now people are going to be sharing 1,000 times as much stuff as today if this trend continues. What things are going to have to exist in the world in order for that to be possible?

PG: Instagram for toilets.

MZ: Instagram is doing really well. So that is a good frontier.

PG: When you first launched in the very beginning the features were a profile, name, who you are, and also what house or dorm you lived in, and what courses you were taking. Do you think it would it have worked without that? Wouldn’t it have been enough to just have profiles?

MZ: It’s a really interesting question. We evolved and wanted to be a more general service. But I remember there was this early debate that Dustin and I had. We had to do some manual work for every new school that we added to Facebook, and in order to do that we went through and parsed the course catalogs for each school to make sure the data was clean. And I remember Dustin saying we could just expand so much faster, it would just be easier to launch new schools if we didn’t have to have the course catalogs. We just had this really long debate about what quality meant for us and the culture we wanted to have. In retrospect maybe it wouldn’t have made a huge difference. But it definitely set the tone that there was a lot of data on Facebook that you could rely on. Tools like a college-specific thing, which was valuable beyond the person-to-person thing.

A lot of you guys, in the projects you work on, are going to have a lot of similar questions. There is the famous 80/20 rule, where you can get 80 percent of the benefit by doing 20 percent of the work. But you can’t just 80/20 everything. There have to be certain things that you just are the best at. Where you go way further than anyone else, and you establish this kind of quality so that your product is the best thing out there. We really had to that one, we had to do enough of those things or else we wouldn’t have been the best service out there.

PG: Do you recall when you stopped adding course catalogs?

MZ: It was when we expanded beyond colleges.

PG: Really? So you kept doing courses?

MZ: I think we eventually figured out a way to crowdsource this so it was a bit easier. We had enough data that we could extrapolate from the colleges that were in place. But we did it probably way longer than was rational.

PG: Do you remember how much your first server cost?

MZ: $85 [per month].

PG: $85?

MZ: Yeah, I remember that, because that was the gating factor for us launching new schools. We had this philosophy from the very beginning where we didn’t want to be this project—it wasn’t even a company at the very beginning—but we didn’t want to be burning a lot of money. We weren’t planning on raising a lot of money. We didn’t want to be one of these things where you raise a bunch of money and lose a bunch of money and somehow pull it through at the end. So $85 for the first server. We had this thing in the beginning where we were running some kind of ad network.

PG: Do you remember what your first ad was?

MZ: Um … No, I don’t. This was Eduardo [Saverin]’s job. Basically he was responsible for making sure that we had enough money to keep things running, in the beginning. So a server was $85. Dustin and I worked to make sure that you could fit more schools on each server. And whenever we had more money we would bring in another $85-a-month server.

PG: You didn’t spend money if you didn’t have money.

MZ: Not really.

PG: That was a real strength then.

MZ: Yeah, it was actually good because sometimes it’s really nice to have the time to get your product to be awesome. One of the things that was interesting was, you know at the time, I don’t know how many of you will remember but at the time Friendster was having massive scaling problems. They grew quickly and they couldn’t scale. The fact that we could go college by college and offer new features and make it more efficient and make sure they worked, I think that was really key. You are talking about people who had never built a company. We had never built any large-scale software for anything. So having that period where we could just bake it. People like to talk these days about … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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