This is the first installment of Networking Stories, a series of posts in which I’ll explore how some of the world’s most iconic ventures started and developed through the power of networking. In this first networking story, we will look at the networking story of Facebook, how it all started, and what role networking played in its success.
The way that Facebook emerged and grew is a tale of backstabbing and theft – if you can believe some of the allegations. It’s like something out of a soap opera and, if even half of the accusations are true, it’s a blemish on the face of one of the largest corporate behemoths.
The chain of events that led to the birth of Facebook start with Mark Zuckerberg, then an undergraduate at Harvard, creating a website called “Facemash” that allowed photos of students to be compared and rated “hot or not”. Although extremely popular, it had a short lifespan and landed Zuckerberg in trouble, forcing him to remove the site. However, this stunt made him notorious on the campus of Harvard, something that would lead to the next step of the journey towards Facebook.
At around the same time that Zuckerberg was dabbling in Facemash, three senior students – Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra – had been having trouble finding a developer that could build a social media website for Harvard students that would be called Harvard Connection. Having heard of Zuckerberg’s exploits with Facemash, Victor Gao – the last of their developers, who was forced to abandon the project – recommended the former.
Zuckerberg agreed to code the Winklevoss/Narendra site, but according to the three seniors, stalled them with excuses while he built his own version of the site. In early 2004, Zuckerberg teamed up with a fellow student, Eduardo Saverin (who styled himself as a wealthy investment guru) and the latter became the first investor in the new site, which was to be called Facebook. Saverin would go on to hold the position of CFO in the company.
Going Big Time
Facebook started to become popular on the Harvard campus and by March 2004 had spread to other universities. It was around this time that Sean Parker, the serial entrepreneur of Napster and Plaxo fame, noticed The Facebook on a computer somewhere and was intrigued by its virality. It must have looked like the type of thing he had been trying to achieve with Plaxo. Naturally, being the gung-ho guy he is, he reached out to Zuckerberg and Saverin and by the middle of the year was president of the company.
Having already played in the big leagues, Parker had connections with some heavy hitters and was able to convince Peter Thiel to invest half a million dollars in the fledgling startup. With Parker at the wheel, further investments were lined up and the rest – as they say – is history.
The Networking Chain of Events
Yes, there is a lot more to the story, especially around how Zuckerberg screwed the Winklevoss twins, Narendra and even Saverin, but for our purposes, this is not important. If we look at this from the way Facebook evolved from just another fledgling social media platform (and there were many at that time, all trying to cash in on the Myspace phenomenon) to the world beater, two things stand out.
First, where Zuckerberg meets Saverin and they agree to work on a social media platform together. Even though Zuckerberg would go on to stab Saverin in the back, their connection was based on friendship and trust in the beginning, two important factors in any professional relationship.
Second, where Gao recommends Zuckerberg to work on Harvard Connection due to his infamy after the Facesmash “incident”. If you are able to establish yourself as an expert in your field. You will find that your networking efforts will be made so much easier as others will seek you out.
Third, and most importantly, the ability of Sean Parker to bring serious investment on board by leveraging his connections. Without his step, Facebook would have been just another social media platform of the day. From this, we can see clear as day that having established relationships, built on trust, are essential for enhanced success.
Whether you love it or hate it, Facebook has become a social icon and corporate leader that has helped shaped human society as we know it. And although its beginnings were characterized by murky and devious actions and betrayal, we can see that even in the case of so important a company as Facebook, networking played a crucial role in its development.