It was Oct 28th of 2015, 2.30 a.m. and I was on my way to the airport. This is not totally uncommon, although it is never comfortable. I have to be in various cities for board meetings a few times a month. But this day was different. I was leaving from Bangalore to Delhi to attend the Mark Zuckerberg Townhall at Dogra Hall in IIT Delhi. Why would I do this when I could have chosen the comfortable option of watching it being live streamed?
The answer is in a recurring thought I have played out in my mind many times before– what if Mark Zuckerberg pitched Facebook to me in 2004.
It’s a perpetual nightmare of a venture capitalist to go down in history as the one who didn’t see merit in the next big thing, not gauging the worth of an idea that could conquer the world and rewrite the ways of life.
I firmly believe that when great ideas flourish into global enterprises, they invariably take the personality of their founder(s). This trip was one of curiosity to experience the “personality” of brand “Facebook” up-close.
An innovative idea — Staying true to it
When Facebook first appeared on the horizon, how many of us would have thought that it would be a world conquering idea? How many of us would have realized that it would form an integral part of our lives in the next ten years? Today, the platform has spread over the world like a tumultuous cloud (no pun intended) and more than a billion users have actively latched on to it. India is the second fasted growing market for Facebook with over 150 million users.
How did Facebook end up being so appealing to more than a billion people? To imagine that over a billion people would actively use a platform, share parts of their lives, know more about their close ones would have been a far-fetched business plan to fund. To see it as a platform that could be the best in contextual marketing would need us to re-imagine a world where we enjoy sharing many private details of our lives daily. Mark had a very strong belief and sense of conviction in this idea called Facebook. This conviction and self-belief often finds tough invigilators on the entrepreneurship road.
While I was thinking about this, Mark Zuckerberg made a rock star entry. To the IIT Delhi students, he was what Justin Bieber is to teenage girls. The welcome was pulsating with energy and the excitement was palpable.
No one documented his earlier trip to India, to a temple, as advised by one of his mentors- Steve Jobs. The reception of this visit couldn’t be more different.
A Flying Start
Mark managed to match the cheer with a flying start. He said he was excited to be in India. He emphasized that his aspiration at Facebook is to connect the world and it is not possible to connect the world without connecting India. He went on to talk about internet.org, Facebook Lite for basic Internet access, Augmented Reality, Artificial intelligence and so on. He tackled some googlies from the crowd about handling candy crush requests and superpowers. In fact, the answer that superpowers could be imagined and built using technology was very impressive. Teleporting to come together for an experience was his way of using the question to pitch an innovation Facebook is up to. He went on to explain teleporting by talking about simulating gravity and playing Ping-Pong with a friend in space.
While his Townhall gave a great insight into the person he is, I think there is a lot to learn from him for not only young budding entrepreneurs but also people on the other side of the table, Venture Capitalists like me.
Five things that young entrepreneurs can learn from Mark
1. Staying true to the idea and living it: While his first visit to India was to reconnect with himself, he has led the way to a “connecting the world” revolution. He was seen at ease with the college students, always seeming approachable, positive and willing to click pictures. He is practicing the need to connect in his very fabric and that is surely rubbing off on the entire behemoth that Facebook is.
2. Being humble, being approachable: He looked relaxed in his jeans and grey shirt. He connected with the audience by convincing them that he was one among them not so long ago. He instilled in them the belief that all of them could become a leading global innovator. Did he sow the seeds of focusing on a great idea to create a great enterprise in the audience’s mind? He definitely did.
3. Building a Team and delegating responsibilities: He shared in his address that the probability of success of organizations with co-founders was higher. He emphasized the value that he puts on a team. Bringing on board some great leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg bears strong testimony to this fact. It is great teams that build great companies and Mark has proven that even young entrepreneurs can lead large companies by excelling in team building.
4. Constantly thinking what’s next: Be it internet.org, Facebook Lite, or teleporting; constantly thinking where the world will move will enable creation of a future and Mark has mastered this art.
5. Continual improvement: He talked about many mistakes he has made. He said that no one is born with the knowledge of building teams and companies. While Facebook and Orkut were pretty much same in terms of objective, Facebook managed to survive and flourish because of its constant innovation. Facebook managed to stay relevant and attractive to a user base that was seeing new innovations by the day. “Trial and error; learn and improve” was the mantra he proposed. Move fast and break things, as they say.
As a venture capitalist, the Townhall and the experience therein, have helped me reinstate my belief that evaluation (of an idea/ startup) is not a methodology. It is an answer based on one’s life, and personal and professional experiences. I believe Mark would have ignited a lot of young minds that would come up with some zany ideas that we can’t yet imagine.
Every time I encounter one such idea from the other side of the table, this experience would remind me to listen to it and evaluate the zany idea without any bias; re-imagining the future through the young entrepreneur’s dreams.
What’s the future?
India with its population and its thriving startup ecosystem is a huge market for Facebook. Mark realizes it just like all of us. I do imagine mass disruptive ideas from the Facebook stable of followers.
Democratizing Internet means democratizing knowledge and growth opportunities. This is a much-required step, especially in India, to realize equitable and sustainable growth. And Mark was pitching Facebook as the champion for this.
Coming back to my question, would I have invested if Mark has pitched Facebook to me in 2004? I wouldn’t know. But I certainly hope the next Facebook inspired entrepreneur will find a receptive venture capitalist in me.