Entrepreneurship isn’t a formula: 3 lessons from The Social Network

As I was visiting the Cambridge area in Boston, ten days ago, where’s The Social Network was set, a Harvard grad friend who hadn’t still seen it mentioned that the movie was sold out that evening: Harvard students had apparently bought up all the tickets!

It made me reflect on what such a traditional setting, steeped in centuries-old tradition and architecture, had played in bringing about the huge shift in social networking as we know it today.

The simplistic answer is in David Kirkpatrick’s book and in the movie version: Mark Zuckerberg, he suggests was sticking his finger at the authorities who had been stalling on a version of a college network comprising faces of students and their contact information.

Less than a month after Mark Zuckerberg launched the early version of his Facebook (then he called it The Facebook), Harvard authorities were still scrambling. They had had their no-frills ‘facebook’ online since 1996, but it was nothing more than a contact list. Kevin S. Davis, then Dir. of Residential Computing  noted that they were working on their new faceboook.

“We’ve been in touch with the Undergraduate Council, and this is a very high priority for the College. We have every intention of completing the facebook by the end of the spring semester.”

But the world was not going to wait a few months for the perfect online social application.

Zuckerberg quickly learned –or perhaps was smart enough to decode human behavior — that people were ready to make a big leap into social sharing. Digital generations had prepared the ground for an experience of social trust, notwithstanding so many privacy issues.

In The Social Network (Mark’s story set within a boring board investigation that’s probably highly dramatized) the people in charge at Harvard, including those in IT, are ticked off. This guy doesn’t conform! He’s hacking tradition!

Isn’t this very familiar? Every organization welcomes a new hire by some sort of on-boarding employee experience, just to ensure  some conformity. There are traditions to uphold. Mission statements to memorize. Then you are asked to go forth and be creative –within the boundaries, of course! Entrepreneurs don’t work that way, it appears.

I was immediately struck by how Zuckerberg’s story is a parable for entrepreneurship. On our radio show, we talk to a lot of these kinds of people; the common thread seems to be the fact that they have dared step out of the boundary that others drew for them.

Having said that, these are the three lessons I derived from the movie about Facebook.

1. Cultivate a huge appetite for empathizing with  what people need. We set up a lot of feedback mechanisms that deliver great insights into what people want to tell us But what about something they don’t articulate? In one moment in the movie, when Mark’s friend asks him if he knows if a girl is ‘available’ or not, he retorts something to the effect of ‘people don’t go about with a sign saying they are single.’ he then rushes back to his laptop and codes Facebook to include that feature, and pretty much says it is now ready for launch!

2. Be comfortable with making mistakes. There is no perfect solution. Mark tells his friend that  nothing is ever complete. In real life he was reported to have said (of Facemash, his web site that let students rate others on their ‘hotness’), “I understood that some parts were still a little sketchy.” It’s easy to scoff at this. He probably knew that there would be many iterations before his idea really took off, but (unlike the Harvard authorities) he was not waiting for all the chips to fall into place. His mistake got him into big trouble, but paved the way for a better idea!

3. Intellectual capital beats money. There is a video of an interview about the shoe-string startup, where Zuckerberg reveals that he had run the site for just $85 a month, renting computers for the first three months. In the movie, and in interviews with the student paper he shows disinterest in the money he would make through advertising. His co-founder, Eduardo Saverin has said this: “Intellectual capital, and not just monetary capital, will spawn the next great product or idea.”

The book makes another point, almost in passing. The Facebook was launched at a crucial moment in the life of students at Harvard: they were registering for classes that week, and Zuckerberg knew that many signed up for classes based on knowing who else was in that class. The Facebook provided that insight, just as today’s version of social networks provide those key insights that make them so valuable.

The authorities had the data. The entrepreneur had the insight. That’s what made his creation priceless.

3 thoughts on “Entrepreneurship isn’t a formula: 3 lessons from The Social Network

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.