Dan Waldschmidt

by Dan Waldschmidt

January 12, 2013

How To Think Like Zuck.

EKATERINA WALTER is a social innovator at Intel. A recognized business and marketing thought leader , she is a regular contributor to Mashable, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and other leading-edge print and online publications. Walter has been featured in Forbes and BusinessReviewUSA and was named among 25 Women Who Rock Social Media in 2012. She sits on a Board of Directors of Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) and is an active member of the Thunderbird Global Council at Thunderbird School of Global Management.  Today she shares the first chapter of her upcoming book: “Think Like Zuck” 


People call him “The new Internet prince.”

Zuckerberg does have some imperial tendencies. When he was a boy, he favored Civilization, a video game in which the object is to build an empire that will stand the test of time. Some of his friends are convinced that it served as a valuable exercise to prepare him to run his company. A fencer in high school (a captain of the team, no less), Mark sometimes perceived the world as a fencing match, trying to build the right strategy and figure out the next move.

Sometimes, he would pick up his foil and walk around with it, thinking out loud, delivering sudden thrusts here and there. Mark can read and write French, Hebrew, Latin, and ancient Greek (or so it said on his college application). In college, he was known for reciting lines from epic poems such as The Iliad.

And in the early days of Facebook, you could hear the word dominate thrown around often in conversations among the boys. Zuck’s dominance was indisputable. In the early days, a tagline accompanied every page of Thefacebook that read “A Mark Zuckerberg production,” and on the About page, he was listed as “Founder, Master and Commander, Enemy of the State.” Given his knowledge of Latin, one can just imagine him proclaiming when reaching one billion users, “Veni, vidi, vici!” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) just as Julius Caesar reportedly said when celebrating a victory in 47 BC.

Zuck’s confidence is oftentimes interpreted as arrogance. His direct stare can be unnerving. His tendency to tune out if he isn’t interested in a conversation is well publicized. But isn’t that what a man on a mission would do?

From an early age, Zuck was smitten with the intersection of software and social connections. At Harvard, he studied psychology and computer science. He created multiple little programs that explored the ways people connect with each other online, and he learned something new with each one of them. He wanted to bring the ways we communicate offline to the exploding world of online interactions. It became his passion. His passion powered his confidence. Says Ellen McGirt, a writer for Fast Company, in one of her stories about Zuck: “But he’s not arrogant—he’s profoundly certain.”

Mark got the technology bug from his father, Edward Zuckerberg. A dentist by profession, Ed had an admiration for technology. He bought every early computer he could. His very first purchase was in 1978, a personal computer called the Atari 800 that was designed for the casual computing enthusiast. That was the computer Mark learned to code on. Shortly thereafter, the Zuckerbergs purchased IBM’s XT, which was installed in Ed’s home office. Ed wasn’t afraid to dabble in technology and learned how to code himself. Mark loved playing with machines as much as, if not more than, his father did. Ed cheered him on as well as his other kids: “You have to encourage them to pursue their passions.”

One of Zuck’s first social coding experiments took place in the mid-nineties when his father got tired of hearing shouting from one room of his home dental practice to another announcing the arrival of a new patient. He wanted a more efficient approach. That’s when Mark built a messaging system he called “Zucknet,” which allowed one computer in the house to message another. The system was popular beyond Ed’s office: Zuck and his three sisters, Randi, Donna, and Arielle, all used Zucknet to communicate with each other while working on their own computers in their rooms. The program he built was a simpler version of AOL’s Instant Messenger, which came out the next year.

Mark enjoyed developing computer programs, especially ones that gave people the ability to interact with each other. He would code into the wee hours of the night. His Harvard friends recall a T-shirt he wore often: it pictured a little ape with the words “Code Monkey.” In high school and during his first year of college, Mark built several smaller programs, including Synapse, CourseMatch, and Facemash. You could say Facemash was the reason he built Facebook. But more on that later.

Synapse Media Player, the program Zuck co-built in his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy, used artificial intelligence to learn a listener’s habits so that it could suggest other songs that matched what the user liked. The program caught the attention of both Microsoft and AOL. They tried to recruit Mark, but he chose to attend Harvard instead.

Zuck created CourseMatch during his first week in college. The idea was to help students identify who took which classes on campus. Whether you wanted to hook up with a hot girl or hang out with the “cool” crowd, the program appealed to the status-conscious students at Harvard. It was also extremely useful in helping students form study groups for particular classes. As David Kirkpatrick notes in his book, The Facebook Effect, Zuck had created a program students wanted to use.

Encouraged by the success of CourseMatch, Mark couldn’t wait to try out new ideas. The next month, he created Facemash, a program aimed at finding out who was the hottest person on campus. In a bold move, he invited users to compare two different faces of the same sex and vote for the hotter one. The project, completed in an eight-hour stretch, became an instant hit. People couldn’t stop using it.

That is when the trouble started. Harvard turned off Mark’s Internet access, and he was called before Harvard’s disciplinary administrative board (along with the other two students who helped create Facemash). The problem was that he had hacked into the university system to obtain names and photos of the “participants” without permission from the university or students.

He was able to get information on students from nine of Harvard’s twelve houses (either through hacking in or getting a log-in from his friends). Harvard decided his actions constituted an inappropriate and unauthorized use of personal information. He was put on probation and asked to see a counselor. Before the site was shut down, students voted on 22,000 pairs of photos.

The success of these experiments clearly showed Zuck that he had a knack for creating simple and addictive software. He also had passion. To connect people. To create an open world.

It didn’t matter in what format or for what purpose; Mark Zuckerberg had a strong desire to help people connect and, through that, to enrich their lives. He wanted to build a “social utility.” At one time on his personal Facebook page, Zuck listed his personal interests as “openness, making things that help people connect and share what’s important to them, revolutions, information flow, minimalism.” Today, the “About Mark” space on Zuck’s page simply states: “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.”

That passion is what helped him move on from the “failure” of Facemash toward the creation of Facebook. Except he didn’t consider Facemash a failure. He considered it a monumental success. For one, it proved to him that there is a huge need for young people to bring their offline connections online.

This stunt also came at a time when students were asking their universities to develop a site that would include key information about each student to facilitate easier connections on campus. He learned a lot from his experience. And those lessons,

I believe, were critical to the success of Facebook’s design and its early features.

When Facebook launched early the following year, Mark ensured that the sign-up was voluntarily and that students had the power to decide if they wanted to share any information with others. Students had to opt-in in order to participate and had the freedom to identify what types of information they wanted their friends to see. No hacking into systems or borrowing others’ log-ins this time.

Lesson here? An experience such as the one Mark had with Facemash could be either a failure or a learning experience, depending on how you decide to look at it. If you are passionate about something, you most probably consider such an experience a valuable lesson and will apply it toward the next iteration of your idea. If you truly believe in something, nothing will stand in the way of making your idea a reality.

Passion is a thin line between success and failure. There is no such thing as “failure” if you really want to pursue your dream. False starts are simply invaluable learning experiences toward the next iteration of an idea or a product.

That’s the core philosophy behind the “hacker way”: your product is never final; your work is never done. “For us,” says Pedram Keyani, engineering manager of Facebook’s site integrity team, “hacking is about passionately working toward a goal and not being afraid of failure.” Zuck has real vision, and he wants to see that vision executed. That is the reason he has ever let go of his control of the company, even after its IPO.

Some might call it “being a control freak,” but I regard it as sheer brilliance on his part. “So many businesses get worried about looking like they might make a mistake, they become afraid to take any risk,” Zuckerberg says with conviction. “Companies are set up so that people judge each other on failure. I am not going to get fired if we have a bad year. Or a bad five years. I don’t have to worry about making things look good if they’re not. I can actually set up the company to create value.” Creating value (even if you make a bunch of mistakes in the process) trumps everything else.

There is another lesson in Zuck’s experiment with Facemash: perseverance. Mark heard the pleas of students and decided that if the university wouldn’t provide something that students were asking for, he would be the one to build it for them. And, knowing Mark, he probably vowed to do it better than the university would anyway. He knew that after his stunt with Facemash, students worried that Harvard would reject similar projects altogether.

He wasn’t about to sit on sidelines and watch that happen. Hence, along came Facebook.

What I noticed is this: the most successful entrepreneurs always have one trait in common: they never give up. They know what they have to do, and there isn’t a lot that can stop them. They fall, they get up, they move on. You move on because you have a goal, you have passion, and you have purpose. They cannot not do it!

People with passion, propelled by their purpose, don’t wait for the sunshine; they find the storm and ride it. In the words of Steve Jobs (during his 1995 interview with the Smithsonian Institute): “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”

To read more, go to: http://ThinkLikeZuck.com

About the author

Dan Waldschmidt

Dan Waldschmidt doesn’t just talk about leveling up. He’s obsessed with it. He's set records as an ultra-runner and been the personal strategist for the leading business leaders of our time. He wrote a book, called EDGY Conversations that accidentally became a worldwide bestseller and continues to share his insights from the stage as a keynote speaker and on the blogs and podcasts you will find here. Most days, you'll find Dan heads-down, working on breakthrough strategies for his clients at EDGY Inc, a highly-focused, invite-only, business strategy execution company based out of Silicon Valley.