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‘Make Cool Things and Don’t Let Anything Stand in Your Way’: Looking Back at A Titan at 21

‘Make Cool Things and Don’t Let Anything Stand in Your Way’: Looking Back at A Titan at 21: Mark Zuckerberg in 2007/Photo courtesy of Fast Company

Mark Zuckerberg in 2007/Photo courtesy of Fast Company

11 years after Mark Zuckerberg launched the social network in his dorm room, Facebook shows no signs of slowing down. In the past week alone, Facebook has announced a set of virtual reality apps for the Oculus Rift headset to launch this summer, a massive new complex to house 2,000 workers in Seattle, and “legacy contact” option so you can designate someone to manage your page after you die. And, despite its dipping allure for the millennial crowd, it still boats 890 million active users a day. Did Zuckerberg have all this in mind when he was still ramping up his company a decade ago?

It didn’t seem that way when when I showed up to interview the bushy-haired 21-year-old founder in 2005 at his first office in Palo Alto. Dressed in Adidas sandals, he shook my hand and passed me his business card. “I’m CEO…bitch,” it read.

Back then Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t yet the Mark Zuckerberg. He had just moved to Silicon Valley six months earlier, after launching the site in his dorm room and dropping out of Harvard. At the time, Facebook was still only available to universities, which had begun suspending and even expelling students for posting party photos. And though Zuckerberg had gotten a $500,000 investment from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, he was living modestly in a small one-bedroom nearby with nothing more than a guitar, a tea pot, a mattress on the floor, and an amp.

I was doing one of his first major magazine interviews, for Rolling Stone, and he seemed cautious as he glanced nervously at my digital audio recorder. Sitting at his cluttered desk, he told me he’d just come out of a mandatory sexual harassment seminar—part of the drill for any burgeoning new company. He came off like a young guy with big plans who was hustling to keep his company, and his shit, together—not the robotic mercenary portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in the biopic released five years later.

These never before published excerpts from our interview give a rare glimpse into how the wee mogul saw himself and his dot com at the time. It easy to forget that he didn’t originally see Facebook as a social network driven by relationships. To him, it was something more elemental: an online “directory,” as he put it, that had the simple elegance of a digital rolodex. It’s hard to say why this was important to him then, but perhaps it had something to do with distinguishing Facebook from the competition over at MySpace. Of course, plenty would soon change for the newly-legal boy wonder, and the site would come to epitomize everything people love and hate about social media—from the sense of connection, to the fears over the erosion of privacy. Just don’t call the 21-year-old Zuck a dropout…bitch.


So how are you adjusting to life in the Valley?
When we first came out here, we really had no idea about how stuff worked in the Valley. We didn’t have any money or anything. We actually worked out of our house for a while. We were planning on going back to school. I thought it’d be an interesting place to be for a period of time. There are a lot of cool startups are here. Things like Google and Yahoo! started here, you know? And a lot of stuff comes out of tech hubs.

But you stayed longer than you imagined.
I guess midway through the summer, we realized this is taking a lot of time to maintain the site during the spring term. We were just like, all right, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to both be in school and maintain this site. So, at that time, we decided that it’d probably be smart to get some money and start growing, and we got our first seed money from Peter Thiel.

How much did he give you?
It was half a million, and at that point, we’re just going, “all right. We’re not going back to school in the fall,” which was actually fine at Harvard because they let you take indefinite periods of time off and then return whenever you want. So it’s like, “all right, we’ll spend the term out here, and then if it seems like it’s going well, then we’ll just continue to stay out here.” I guess it was like, February or March that we got our first office. We had it before then, but no one was there. So we didn’t have any furniture.

A lot of people wonder why you haven’t sold Facebook yet. But you actually turned down a substantial offer from Microsoft in high school, after you made an MP3 player right?
That was a project that some friends of mine and I worked on for our senior project, and we started doing it because it was fun. But the thing that I take away from that and a bunch of the other projects that I worked on with friends is that I like making things, you know? And then we sort of ditched that, even though there were some opportunities for us to go expand some other companies and do whatever, I think that I just like building stuff. I just want to make cool things and not let anything else get in the way.

You’ve told me you see Facebook as a directory, not a social network, what do you mean by that – compared to sites like, say, MySpace?
We try to make the distinction between social networking and a directory. A directory is a very simple application. It’s something that you can type something in and get a bunch of listings and you can get more information out of it. A social network is like a site where people generally connect through friendship. I think that social networks simply help the site out because they make the user base more linked together, and a lot of times they encourage people to invite their friends to the site because it’s just better for you. In a lot of ways a social network is more the distribution mechanism than an actual feature. MySpace is not a directory. They have no place on the site even though it’s a social network, where you can’t type in someone’s name and get a listing of people who match that name. I mean you can find people who like a band or something like that but the specific name directory just doesn’t exist. If you go to Facebook.com, […] Facebook is an online directory.

And not a social network?
The point is to get people to feel comfortable sharing whatever information they want to share. […] One of the things I think made this pretty important for a directory is contact information. I mean it’s pretty sensitive for a lot of people. You’re not going to put your cell phone up there if all six million people on Facebook are going to be able to see it. You want to have more control over it. You want to be able to limit it to your friends, people at your school or something. I mean, I think that that is really important to the application.

Is there something you like about the distinction of it being a directory?
Well, I just want to make it clear that we’re a directory because that’s what we are. […] If we just defined ourselves as a social network company then what would we want to build next? Maybe we want to build email or instant messaging.

But isn’t Facebook all about making friends now?
The way that we always positioned that within the site is that friends provide valuable information about you. When I look you up and want to get more information about you there are a bunch of different things that are interesting. It might be interesting for me to know what classes you’re in or what your contact information […] or what house you’re living in or what other people are saying about you or what groups you’re a part of or who you’re friends with. This is all pretty useful stuff. I mean, I think we don’t, for example, plan to have email anytime soon or instant messaging. That’s not really where we’re going.

You’re growing so quickly now, and don’t want to sell the company: What’s your biggest challenge?
The evolving challenge has been: how do you continue making cool things as you get to be more people? Like, now that we’re a large organization, how do you take advantage of the fact that there are definitely people sitting out there [in the office] who have better ideas than the stuff that we’re putting out there? Now that we have some money, what’s the right stuff for us to be working on? We just launched a photo album application, which I think is pretty important information for someone and that should be in any kind of social directory. That wasn’t something that we could do right off the bat.

How do you feel about hearing the stories of college students getting reprimanded for what they’ve posted on Facebook?
The site was designed in such a way that people have complete control over what they put up. We did it that way so that people could have their privacy. The site wasn’t designed to be like a complete safe haven from everything. It is a place where you share information and you express stuff about yourself. Obviously, we’re not happy that people get in trouble using our site but I feel like we pretty much arm people with whatever tools they need to control who sees their stuff. At a very minimum, we don’t force anyone to put anything up. If you want to put up a picture of you doing something stupid or illegal that’s just not smart.


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