This is not a book review, but if one feels like reading the book after this piece, my recommendation: go read it. The Social Network was stimulating; David Kirkpatrick’s book The Facebook Effect is both stimulating and inspirational. The movie is about “who owns the idea”; the book is more expansive and throws light on the whole process of how Facebook has grown to the phenomenon it is — the twists and turns in its life. Though written simply, its content provides fodder for idea lovers, whether entrepreneurs or advertising and marketing people. There is much to learn about how ideas emerge and how to grow them in stature.
First, big ideas are born small, sometimes seemingly wild and untenable. Yet, they evolve through careful nurture and development. Facebook started as “Facemash”, a site in Harvard that allowed students to rate their classmates. It brought Mark Zuckerberg into a controversy with the Harvard management and, thus, could have derailed there. However, it evolved into an online directory for colleges and then became a forum for social networking, first in the US and later for everyone across the globe in multiple languages. Great ideas aren’t born in a day and there is always a danger that ideas can be killed early if not nurtured patiently.
Second, big ideas need passion — more than just that of the originator or the creator. It is true that committees don’t create ideas — it’s said that a donkey is a horse created by a committee. But big ideas need a group of people committed to making it happen, to keeping the flame of the “creator” burning. Zuckerberg through this journey had a large number of such believers: from Dustin Moskovitz to Eduardo Saverin to Sean Parker to Matt Cohler to Sheryl Sandberg. Each played their role in supporting Zuckerberg and helping him keep the idea alive — with encouragement, execution help, funding and ideas to monetise. Their role in making Facebook happen cannot be ignored or undervalued.
Third, big ideas are based on strong human insights. Facebook grew because it was based on the fundamental human need to connect. It was based on the truth that man is a social animal; no man can live his life as an island. All the idea did was to provide people with a “virtual” forum where they could connect. It became more relevant in a world that was getting globalised, with people getting disconnected from each other in a fast-paced world. As it grew, it evolved into a forum that allowed people to display their creativity, make themselves heard, and where people could “let themselves go”— many things that people in the real world do among friends and often nowhere else.
Fourth, big ideas need a lot of nuts and bolts of execution to make them happen and remain sustainable. Behind all the romantic charm of the idea of Facebook are stories of how the team ran helter-skelter multitudinous times to get server space so that the site remained open and easy to access. Ideas in the mind remain unknown until they are seen in flesh and blood, and never should anyone ignore the importance of the on-ground execution. The story of Facebook highlights the value of technologists and their expertise to keep the site running smoothly as it expanded. It sounds grimy and less exciting but it’s part of idea reality. It cannot be taken for granted.
Fifth, as an idea evolves, different skills are required at different stages. That’s something the entrepreneurs in particular need to recognise as they grow their business. At launch, chaos is okay — simple dreams can make things happen. At growth, passion is key to keeping energy and hope going. Then, as size increases, there is a need for order and systems. Sometimes, tough decisions need to be taken and people who were with you at the launch may have to give way to new skills as you grow and consolidate. The Facebook story has cases of people having to be dropped so that the idea could be preserved and grown to its “deserved” glory. Sounds a little ruthless — but that’s the hard truth.
Sixth, failures are part of idea development. The manufacturing world, once it fixes its formula for production, has an anathema for mistakes. However, in the “intellectual” idea world, life is more dynamic — and hits and misses are given. Facebook had its share of mistakes from Beacon to News Feed to platforms and control. The challenge is not so much to avoid them as to manage them.
Seventh, friction is integral to how big ideas grow and continue to take shape. There will always be a conflict between dreams and reality; the ideal and the practical. Facebook has faced the dilemma between growth and monetisation — keeping the purity of user interface, yet meeting the needs of advertisers. Creativity and commercial interests always clash and this is where the harmony in the team ensures the project stays on track. Zuckerberg was lucky that through the journey he had the right partners to find his way.
Finally, hidden in a big idea is often a larger cause — a dream that the creator has which makes the idea instinctively worth supporting. It’s this larger purpose that keeps the team together. Facebook, beyond social networking, is about promoting transparency in society, creating empathy among people and, thus, bringing diverse cultures and thinking together and giving people the courage to drop masks and reveal their true faces. Zuckerberg repeatedly states this larger purpose: calling Facebook users “citizens” and its management pseudo-government with responsibilities to protect “citizen interests” while promoting the causes of transparency, mutual empathy and citizen courage.
There are two other interesting side lessons, especially for marketers and advertising agencies. One, cultural sensitivity is important. Facebook remains an American concept; so it has had its share of hiccups with the audience in the east, where culture is different. And two, very interestingly, there is no consumer testing or research through the book. Big ideas are based on consumer understanding but don’t necessarily need consumer ratification before implementation. News Feed created resistance at first but grew thereafter; Beacon had to be shut down. But perhaps neither could have been fully pre-tested. So it proves there is merit in the Nike school of advertising creation — immerse yourself in the consumer before you create but don’t get consumers to judge advertising. Something worth thinking about.
Views expressed are personal