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

The mob scene outside Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium this Saturday resembled the prelude to a big rock concert, and in some ways, it was. For today’s generation of young tech entrepreneurs, Mark Zuckerberg—the headline speaker, for the third year running, at Y Combinator’s Startup School—is like Mick Jagger, Madonna, and Justin Bieber rolled into one.

In his on-stage interview with the Facebook CEO, Y Combinator founding partner Paul Graham focused on Zuckerberg’s brief time at Harvard and the forces that brought Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) into being in early 2004. Conscious that he was speaking to an audience of aspiring entrepreneurs, Zuckerberg hit on a few key lessons, which I’ll summarize here before diving into the full interview transcript.

—It might have been possible to start Facebook before 2004, but users would have shared much less information with each other. Zuckerberg said he perceives an exponential curve of social sharing—he called it a “social networking version of Moore’s Law”—and predicted that within 10 years, Internet users will be sharing 1,000 times as much as they share today.

—When it began to expand beyond Harvard, Facebook deliberately targeted campuses that already had their own social networking systems (Stanford, Columbia, and Yale) because Zuckerberg wanted to prove that Facebook was “the best service out there.”

—Facebook grew slowly at first (only adding a new server when there was enough ad revenue to support it), which gave the team time to work out the kinks. “It took a year for us to get a million users,” Zuckerberg said. “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.”

—Young entrepreneurs shouldn’t focus on starting companies; they should focus on finding fundamental problems where they can have a big impact. “I didn’t start Facebook to start a company,” Zuckerberg said. “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 … I never really understood the psychology of knowing that you want to start a company before you decide what you want to do.”

—If you start a company too soon in your career, you might get locked into something that isn’t important or rewarding. “One of the amazing things about being in college [is] 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.”

—Zuckerberg said that if he hadn’t started Facebook, he probably would have finished college and wound up with a job at Microsoft. On the other hand, a succession of people, including his mother and investor Peter Thiel, predicted (correctly) that he’d drop out somewhere along the way.

Zuckerberg also talked about university e-mail systems as Facebook’s first layer of identity management; his love of classics and psychology; his propensity at Harvard for hacking instead of doing homework; whether the Dunbar Number really puts an upper limit on human sociability; Facebook’s competition with MySpace; and the company’s (non-)decision to move to Palo Alto.

What follows is a full writeup of the talk, based on my recording and typed notes. Note that there was a jocular tone to many of the interactions between Graham and Zuckerberg that doesn’t really come across in the written transcript. Also, the photo above is from Zuckerberg’s 2010 appearance at Startup School—YC didn’t allow cameras in the room this time around, perhaps in deference to Facebook’s new status as a public company.

Paul Graham: I’m going to ask a lot about the very early days of Facebook. How long before 2004 could something like Facebook have succeeded? What were the last things that neeeded to fall into place? Could someone have done it in 1995 or 2000?

Mark Zuckerberg: Interesting question. There were certain elements we bootstrapped off of and used to hack early identity. One of the things that people don’t think much about today is that early on we wanted to establish this culture of real identity. There weren’t really any other online services or communities where people were their real selves before that. One of the ways we determined that someone was who they said they were and that their credentials were real were everyone had school e-mail addresses. I don’t know how much before 2004—it was probably around 2000 that all schools began issuing e-mail addresses but that was really this critical thing. This counterintuitive thing.

PG: So school e-mail addresses were the original source of identity.

MZ: That’s how we knew what school you were in. It also kept people from setting up fake accounts, because people only had one school account. Being able to bootstrap off that was this nice early thing that helped establish this culture of identity. Before we got to a million or 10 million people, we were able to bootstrap off that culture and we’ve been able to keep it, even though … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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