“Mark is fixing stuff.”
I’m killing time in the Frank Gehry–designed Building 20, whose signature feature is its soaring 434,000 square feet of open space, the latest addition to Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California. A PR handler is explaining why CEO Mark Zuckerberg is running slightly behind schedule for our chat. I express surprise. Mark still fixes stuff?
“To say he’s actively involved,” she confides, “is an understatement. He notices things that are broken before anybody.”
As recently as 2012, the year Zuckerberg set a personal goal to code every day, that might have meant he had detected something glitchy on Facebook’s site and was reprogramming it himself. When he emerges a few minutes later, unspecified stuff presumably fixed, we sit down on adjacent couches in a fishbowl conference room near his desk in Building 20, and Zuckerberg makes it clear that those days are gone. “If we’re trying to build a world-class News Feed, and a world-class messaging product, and a world-class search product, and a world-class ad system, and invent virtual reality, and build drones, I can’t write every line of code,” he tells me. “I can’t write any lines of code.”
The Facebook of today—and tomorrow—is far more expansive than it was just a few years ago. It’s easy to forget that when the company filed to go public on February 1, 2012, it was just a single website and an app that the experts weren’t sure could ever be profitable. Now, “a billion and a half people use the main, core Facebook service, and that’s growing. But 900 million people use WhatsApp, and that’s an important part of the whole ecosystem now,” Zuckerberg says. “Four hundred million people use Instagram, 700 million people use Messenger, and 700 million people use Groups. Increasingly, we’re just going to go more and more in this direction.”
To further grow these services and any others that Facebook develops or acquires, Zuckerberg is betting his company’s future on three major technology initiatives. One is developing advanced artificial intelligence that can help Facebook understand what matters to users. The second is virtual reality, in the form of Oculus VR, the groundbreaking company that Facebook acquired in March 2014 for $2 billion, which Zuckerberg believes will be the next major technology we use to interact with each other. And the third is bringing the Internet, including Facebook, of course, to the 4 billion–plus humans who aren’t yet connected, even if it requires flying a drone over a village and beaming data down via laser. Given the robust health of Facebook’s business, Zuckerberg is comfortable lavishing attention and resources on these visions. Facebook gave Fast Company wide-ranging access to Zuckerberg, his senior leadership team, and others to delve into the company’s audacious plans to shape the next decade.
In the tech industry, there’s nothing weird about setting goals so lofty that they sound unachievable. Google CEO Larry Page, for instance, is so invested in the virtue of gambling on disparate, wildly ambitious projects—from self-driving cars to smart contact lenses—that he restructured his company around the concept in August, making Google’s core businesses a division of a new idea factory called Alphabet. Zuckerberg, by contrast, isn’t interested in doing everything—just the things he views as deeply related to his company’s central vision, and crucial to it. “There are different ways to do innovation,” he says, drawing a stark contrast without ever mentioning Page, Google, or Alphabet. “You can plant a lot of seeds, not be committed to any particular one of them, but just see what grows. And this really isn’t how we’ve approached this. We go mission-first, then focus on the pieces we need and go deep on them, and be committed to them.” Facebook’s mission is “to give everyone in the world the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” as Zuckerberg says, explaining that he is now spending a third of his time overseeing these future initiatives. “These things can’t fail. We need to get them to work in order to achieve the mission.”
When Facebook was morphing from Ivy League college project to Silicon Valley startup, Zuckerberg had not only “never run a company—he’d never been in a company,” marvels Marc Andreessen, the browser pioneer, venture capitalist, Facebook board member, and longtime Zuckerberg confidant. “He’s learned everything he knows about business in the last 10 years. And now he’s one of the best CEOs in the world.”
Whether because Zuckerberg, 31, started so young, or because he retains his youthful demeanor and gray-T-shirt work uniform, he has been underestimated for almost as long as his company has existed. Facebook wouldn’t work outside Harvard. It wouldn’t work outside elite colleges. It wouldn’t work among the general populace. It couldn’t topple MySpace. It couldn’t make enough money to justify its valuation. It couldn’t hold on to teenagers once their parents signed up. It wouldn’t matter as much on smartphones as it had on PCs. It couldn’t make enough money on mobile to satisfy Wall Street.
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