Launching a start-up? Think like Zuck: 5 lessons from Facebook's founder

22 Feb 2013

When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in 2004 as a site for Harvard University students to connect with each other, he had no idea it would become the $100 billion-plus company it is today, but he did know one thing – he wanted to create an open world through a "social utility".

This passion Zuckerberg had for connecting people hasn't changed. The "About Mark" section on his Facebook page states: "I'm trying to make the world a more open place".

It's this clear vision and passion which author Ekaterina Walter believes drove the success of Zuckerberg and others like him, and all entrepreneurs should take note.

Walter's new book Think Like Zuck: The Five Business Secrets of Facebook's Improbably Brilliant CEO Mark Zuckerberg details five areas crucial to the success of any entrepreneur.

Walter told Women's Agenda sister site SmartCompany she was inspired to write the book because of her own background working with big companies and start-ups.

"I've been working for big brands my whole life and on the side I advise a number of start-ups. I've watched them grow and watched companies like Facebook develop and equally I've watched small companies grow. I looked back and discovered there were specific trends that successful large and big companies all possess and I wanted to explore those and find the similarities.

"My philosophy is that every single one of us is an intrapreneur (people with an entrepreneurial streak who choose to align themselves with a large organisation), but there are certain things that people can do to make them successful," she says.

In Think Like Zuck, Walter takes the reader through the five Ps to success: passion, purpose, people, product, partnership.

Walter spoke to SmartCompany about the five Ps and what entrepreneurs can do to actualise their dreams:

  1. Passion

    Walter says passion fuels perseverance, "one of the key ingredients of success".

    "I believe a lot of people can be a little cynical and people look at passion as a fluffy word. But passion fuels everything, every advancement and innovation, everything that's really great. Zuckerberg has a passion to connect people around the world and make it more transparent so everything he does is helping this. That passion always serves as a lens for how we see the world," she says.

    Walter acknowledges passion alone won't make you successful, but it's a differentiating factor which can make a business fail or succeed.

    "I think it's a combination of factors, including things like timing and luck. But at the end of the day luck and timing and market readiness is not enough. At some point your business succeeds because of your purpose and why you're building it.

    "If you're just passionate about something, you won't create anything unless you act on it. I've also seen some really smart entrepreneurs who aren't great leaders and they're just not going to be successful," she says.

    In the book, Walter says businesses shouldn't "be afraid of failure", instead, be willing to embrace adaptability and be able to change with the environment and the consumers' needs.

    "Everybody fails. The reality is the smartest start-up is about adaptability; you can't try new things if you're not accepting risk. A lot of the time you don't know how the idea is going to go because entrepreneurs are trailblazers. You've got to learn from your experiences," she says.

    Walter says Flickr is a good example of a company adapting to their environment.

    "Flickr started as a gaming company but noticed their picture-sharing feature was getting more popular. You have to be able to adapt," she says.

    Similarly, Zuckerberg is constantly updating and altering Facebook based on user behaviour.

    "Only a small number of businesses create something and it works straight away, even Zuck created previous applications and learned from them.

    "He learned from his failure, listened to criticism and created something better. He continues to stay successful because he looks and listens to the data, he sees how people use things and adapts," Walter says.

  2. Purpose

    The chapter on purpose begins with the tale of four Soviet soldiers who were lost at sea on a small self-propelled barge for 49 days with only two days of emergency food rations. The four men survived despite their adversity and Walter writes "the purpose that drives a strong mission can mobilise colossal physical and spiritual strength."

    Walter says it's important for businesses to stay focused on their core goals, rather than focusing on turning a profit.

    "If you fly off the handle you become absolutely distracted and things start falling apart. Look at Myspace, they got bought out and they were super successful, but they got a new director who put the pressure on making money. The overflow of this monetary focus turned a lot of people off.

    "Zuck would never have been this successful without balancing user needs and the needs of the business. Don't chase the money or opportunities that aren't part of the core goal," she says.

    Walter says every successful company stems from its purpose.

    "Great companies don't just create great products; they create movements."

    Apple is given as an example in the book of how, ultimately, the loyalty of customers and their ability to relate to a company and its product is paramount.

    "We look at Apple's higher pricing and smaller market share and wonder how it succeeded," she writes.

    She believes the company's "think different" slogan inspired a generation and kept them coming back to the brand.

    "Products that represent a belief or a purpose allow people to indirectly communicate their sense of who they are and where they belong," she writes.

  3. People

    The long-term success of a company is driven by its human capital. A business needs a team which shares "your vision, your dream and your goals", Walter says, if it is to reach its potential.

    Walter says it can be difficult for business to find talent and the right people for the company, but sometimes they miss the people who are "right under their nose".

    "The best businesses bring people in who are passionate. They hire people based on their attitude and their passion and then they train them. Companies work so hard and look high and low, but sometimes the right people are right under their nose – the ones who want to work for them, that perhaps don't have as much experience," she says.

    When businesses start expanding too quickly, Walter says, they often start hiring too quickly and lose their internal culture.

    "Businesses fall apart because they start growing too fast. They then start hiring too fast because they don't have time to evaluate each candidate," she says.

    She cites shoe and clothing company Zappos as a prime example of good business culture.

    In 2012, Zappos was ranked 11th on Fortune's list of the 100 best companies to work for (Google topped the list).

    In 2004, the company created its "Zappos Culture Book", and now all its employees and even vendors are able to contribute to the book. None of the entries to the book are edited (with the exception of typos) and includes both good and bad responses. Inspired by the book and further consultation with employees, the company's leadership group compiled a list of 37 core values.

    Walter says Zappos' approach to the organisation's culture has led to its institutionalisation among the staff.

    "Here you have a culture of where people say we're not afraid! We want our employees and our vendors to speak up. The culture map is prized and the leaders lead by example, this leads to a consistent reinforcement of the culture," she says.

  4. Product

    The chapter on products opens with a quote from Zuckerberg: "I believe that over time people get remembered for what they build, and if you build something great, people don't care about what someone says about you in a movie... they care about what you build."

    Throughout the chapter Walter details the final steps of Zuckerberg's journey in creating Facebook. In September 2006, despite criticisms from his own staff, Zuckerberg opened Facebook to the public and people joined at a rate of 50,000 a day. Zuckerberg's dream was becoming a reality and as Walter calls it "the cult of Zuck" was born.

    SmartCompany asked Walter what people can do if they have an idea, but don't know where to start.

    "Break it down into steps – everything is achievable. For example, think about who will help me get you there, do research and find potential investors, find people in your network who could introduce you to those people and what do you need to do to ensure the conversation is productive if you do meet them," she says.

  5. Partnerships

    Entering into a relationship of any sort is accompanied with an inherent risk, but never more so than when it's a business partnership.

    The partnership between Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook's chief operating officer) is a well-known one; one that Walter says represents the relationship between imagination and execution and she terms it "the visionary and the builder".

    "Zuck has never been good at managing the operational side so he needed a different perspective. But Sandberg is perfect because she's totally different. All this together and you've got a complementary set of skills.

    "In successful partnerships there is always somebody who is the visionary and someone who is the builder," she says.

    Walter cites the working relationships of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as another example.

    "More and more people seem to partner – some partner poorly and others smartly. It's all about working together through teamwork and collaboration... you need two partners who complement each other.

    Walter concludes the book with a quote from Henry Ford: "If you think you can or you think you can't, you're right". But says her last piece of advice for entrepreneurs is to act.

    "If you're passionate, know what you want to do and go ahead and do it, just act."


Yolanda Redrup

Yolanda Redrup is a business journalist with Women's Agenda sister site SmartCompany.

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