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

10/22/12Follow @wroush

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Facebook. I think we are over 300 or 400 million photos shared a day now. But obviously nothing that a university built would have supported that. If a university had built it, the little mug shot on your [I.D.] card would have been your picture.

PG: They would have chosen your picture for you.

MZ: Yeah.

PG: Do you remember when you first went to college what you planned to do afterward? Did you want to go to graduate school? Were you going to get a job?

MZ: When I first went to college, I was actually planning on being a classics major. I loved classics in high school, Latin and Greek. I find them fascinating. And my sister actually did go on and do that. When I was in college I actually wasn’t a computer science major, I was a psychology major. I didn’t actually get around to taking that many classes, because I left pretty quickly. So I took more computer science classes than psychology classes.

PG: So you had no plan. You were going to be a barista.

MZ: No … [laughter]

PG: At some point you got sidetracked into programming.

MZ: Growing up, I always had a lot of respect for Microsoft and what they had built. A lot of people from Harvard went to Microsoft. So maybe I would have done that. It’s obviously hard to say. Later, I made this bet with my sister, the classics PhD. I remember when I was starting college, she bet me that she would finish college before me. I’m like all right, I’ll take that bet. And then after I dropped out I was talking to my mom, and she was like, “Yeah, I always knew you would drop out of college.” And I was like, “Thanks Mom!”

PG: Did she mean that you would zoom out the top, or fall out of the bottom?

MZ: I never asked her.

PG: Do you think your parents knew that you would always want to run your own show?

MZ: They would probably say yes.

PG: Did you know you wanted to start a startup?

MZ: Now that is the interesting part of being in a place like this [Startup School] where a lot of you guys are thinking about starting companies. For me, so much of the lesson that I feel I’ve learned is, I think it’s really hard to decide to start a company. I didn’t start Facebook to start a company. I started it because I really wanted this personally and I believed it should exist and I thought it should be global and I wanted to play a part in doing that. It was just wanting to build it, and have it be this hobby, and eventually it got the momentum to become a company. But I never really understood the psychology of knowing that you want to start a company before you decide what you want to do. I know that’s different from your philosophy on this.

PG: No, believe me, I know too many people where their company started them rather than vice versa.

MZ: Going back to your question of why did we open first at colleges that already had competitors. I had this big fear, I think, of getting locked into doing things that aren’t actually the most impactful things. This is the trait, I think, that entrepreneurs have. They just have this laser-like ability to find where they will have the most impact. If you take on a project, especially if you hire people, you are going to do that project. There are obviously ways you can exit and all that. But I think having the flexibility to explore a lot of different things—which you can do when you’re in college, which is one of the amazing things about being in college, that you can work on all these hobbies and try out a lot of stuff—it’s this amazing flexibility that most people take for granted. Once you decide that you want to start a company, and you’re going to do it with somebody else, you now immediately have to check with someone else if you want to change your mind on something. I think people really undervalue the option value of flexibility.

PG: So stay in college!

MZ: I think, explore what you want to do before committing is really the key thing. And keep yourself flexible. You can definitely do that within the framework of a company. But I would be wary about starting a company too rigidly. Because you are going to change what you do. People talk about pivots all the time, as if your thing didn’t work so you pivot. Facebook pivoted many times. We were college, and then we were not college. We were a website, and then we were a platform. You are going to change what you do.

PG: There is another word for what you are talking about: Expansion.

MZ: Flexibility.

PG: I’m curious. When you first started: There is a difference between making something where people sign up, and making something where people keep coming back. What was the feature that kept people coming back to Facebook over and over again? Unless they were updating their profile.

MZ: I think it really just gets down to what makes humans human. This goes back to my study of psychology. The human brain is uniquely wired to process things about people. When I look out [at the audience] I see faces, I don’t see chairs or the room around people. We are hard wired to think about people. There are whole parts of the visual cortex that just process the slightest micro movements in faces. This is what people are. This is how we process the world.

I heard a story recently which is interesting, most humans if you take an MRI when they’re dreaming, they dream about social interactions. Humans are the only animal that does this. So, OK, when I thought about the Internet before Facebook—Google and search engines were amazing, you could get access to information about anything you wanted, but you couldn’t learn about the people around you. Most of this information was out there, it just hadn’t been indexed by a search engine. There had to be a service that … Next Page »

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

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