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

10/22/12Follow @wroush

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how these services grow so quickly. And Facebook did grow quickly. But I think it took a year for us to get a million users. And we thought that was incredibly fast. It wasn’t as quick as a lot of things are today. Having that time to bake it was really valuable.

PG: Didn’t all of Harvard get on it? Like 6,000 students?

MZ: I think there are like 5,000 undergraduates at Harvard. And we got something like two-thirds or three-quarters of Harvard in the first two weeks. The vast majority.

PG: Was there ever a school where you opened it, and it didn’t stick?

MZ: Some schools took longer than others. What we basically did was, we launched at Harvard first because I wanted it. I built it for myself. I really wanted to use this service. This is one of the ironies—I started building Facebook because I wanted to use it in college and then I immediately left college.

PG: But it’s expanded to everyone outside college, so it worked out.

MZ: But yeah, so then after Harvard all of these schools, a lot of students from other schools started writing to us and asking us to expand. And we weren’t looking to start a company right then. I thought something like this would eventually exist at large scale. But one of the interesting juxtapositions that was going on at the time was, I remember distinctly I had this one friend who I went for pizza with almost every night and we did all our problem sets together in computer science. And at the time I remember talking to him about how I was working on this Facebook thing and I thought it would be cool for Harvard and I really was excited about it because I wanted to use it, but at the same time I felt that over time, someone would definitely go build a version of this for the world. But it wasn’t going to be us, it was going to be, you know, Microsoft. Or someone who builds software for hundreds of millions of people. We were college students! We were not qualified in any way to build this. So back to your question—I went off on a tangent—the first set of schools that we launched at after Harvard were schools that had school-specific social networks. Stanford had something, Columbia had something, and I think Yale had something.

PG: Why would you choose schools that already had their own social networks?

MZ: Well, I wanted to go to the schools that I thought would be the hardest for us to succeed at. I knew that if we had a product that was better than everything else that the students were making at other colleges, then it would be worth investing in and putting time in. But I didn’t want to just get into a project where there would be this huge legacy of maintaining it and ultimately there would be [all these competitors]. So we thought this was going to be good and we launched it at Yale, Stanford, and Columbia.

PG: So you probably could have gone into random schools and succeeded, and you chose those because they had competition.

MZ: I think what we saw at those schools that people wanted to use something like this. So we wanted to make sure that what we had was way better than anything else that was out there.

PG: I read the Crimson article when you launched. It said “Hundreds of People Sign Up for New Facebook Website.” They said in this article that the Harvard computer services people were working on a university-wide face book. The problem was that they couldn’t figure out how to restrict the information. If you had come to Harvard and this had already existed, do you think you would have started Facebook?

MZ: I don’t know. There is this trend I was talking about earlier where each year people are sharing more and more. You can map out, at any given point you can look at the Internet and say okay there is enough sharing to support certain products. Wikipedia came before Facebook because there was a small amount of sharing of information about all of these public entities. But in order to have enough sharing to support some basic information so you could look up anyone and find some interesting stuff about them, we had to travel along this curve. A couple of years earlier someone could have done something more basic, but a couple of years later you would obviously have been able to build something that was more encompassing and allows people to learn more about the people around them. Our continual mission and job is to keep on building that next thing and that’s what we live for at Facebook and that’s what excites us.

PG: So if the university had built this face book, you would have built Facebook anyway.

MZ: It’s obviously hard to know how this would have played out. One of the interesting things about Facebook was that it wasn’t just a picture and some basic info. It pretty quickly gave people the ability to share more stuff. One of the early stories that is pretty instructive for anybody trying to build a startup is, we really listened to what our users wanted. That means both qualitatively listening to what they say and quantitatively looking at the behaviors they take. And in the beginning, we had one photo on your profile. And what we observed was this behavior where every day a lot of people would upload a new profile picture. And our takeaway from this was there was this very strong demand to have a service where people could share more photos. And actually it wasn’t until later that we had the server capacity and the engineering team to build a whole photo sharing service, and that now has become obviously one of the key parts of … Next Page »

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

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