In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his Harvard University dorm room, hoping to see what his classmates were up to on campus. The following eight years brought international fame, unimaginable wealth, a hit Hollywood movie, a disastrous initial public offering, a sagging stock price—and one unprecedented achievement. On Sept. 14, the company reached 1 billion active users. In an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone and Ashlee Vance, Zuckerberg reflected on the milestone and what’s next for his company as it resurfaces from a wave of negativity.
Bloomberg Businessweek: Congratulations on your first billion users. What does this mean for Facebook?
Mark Zuckerberg: The No. 1 value here is focus on impact. We’ve always been small in terms of number of employees. We have this stat that we throw out all the time here: There is on the order of 1,000 engineers and now on the order of a billion users, so each engineer is responsible for a million users. You just don’t get that anywhere else. I was talking to [Facebook board member] Marc Andreessen about this and he said the only two companies that he thought of that had a billion customers are Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
That wouldn’t surprise me. It’s really humbling to get a billion people to do anything.
Did you guys think about doing anything with the billionth user, grocery store-style?
I wanted to, but we didn’t want to leak that we got to a billion people. Doing data analytics at this scale is a big challenge, and one of the things you have to do is sample. So it’s funny, we were all sitting around watching us get to a billion users but it was actually just a sample of the users. It’s like you’re not going to try to pull a billion rows from a database, so you’ll pull a sample and project out. I don’t even know if we knew who the billionth person was.
How did you celebrate the moment?
Well, just everyone came together and counted down. Then we all went back to work. We have this ethos where we want to be a culture of builders, right?
We don’t want to overly celebrate any particular milestone, so what we do is we have hackathons. We have themed hackathons for different things. We’re having a hackathon to celebrate this when we announce it publicly, and the theme is going to be the next billion. So people will be thinking of ideas and working on prototypes and things that we’ll need to do to help connect the next billion people, which I think is pretty cool.
What’s possible at a billion-plus users that wasn’t possible at, say, 500 million?
There are two ways that I look at this. There’s what we can build internally and then there’s what can be built externally using Facebook. I’ll start with the external stuff. The big thing we’ve focused on is getting everyone connected and assembling this map of who people know. That way we can start to build interesting products like News Feed, or show who’s online for chat, or rank your friends so they’re in the right order for a search. But even when we were at half a billion people, you got these large-scale services like Skype or Netflix that also had big user bases. And we weren’t yet at the point where the majority of their users were Facebook users, so they couldn’t really rely on us as a piece of critical infrastructure for registration. A lot of startups did, but the bigger companies couldn’t. Now really everyone can start to rely on us as infrastructure. That’s a pretty big shift.
So for the next five or 10 years the question isn’t going to be, does Facebook get to 2 billion or 3 billion? I mean, that’s obviously one question. But the bigger question is, what services can get built now that every company can assume they can get access to knowing who everyone’s friends are. I think that’s going to be really transformative. We’ve already seen some of that in games and media, music, TV, video, that type of stuff. But I think there’s about to be a big push in commerce.
On the internal side, just to give a full and complete and very long answer to this, there is this Facebook equivalent of Moore’s Law. Each year the amount of stuff that each individual shares is growing at this exponential rate. And that lets us project into the future and say, “OK, two years from now people are going to be sharing twice as much, [in] three years, four times [as much], four years, eight times as much.” So what types of products are going to be possible when you project out into the future and all this information is going to be available?
The whole vision around News Feed was it should be like a newspaper and shouldn’t just be a list of posts your friends are making. I mean we should be able to really show you interesting trends and things that are happening. There are already trillions of connections between friend requests and all the content that’s being pushed into the system. At some point, that will start to be a better map of how you navigate the Web than the traditional link structure of the Web. I think there’s an opportunity to really build something interesting there.
How big are Facebook’s ambitions in areas like health care, finance, and government?
There is so much complexity in transforming those. But I do think down the line we will get to this state where you can see things like finance, or even health care, or some aspects of governance having this be really tied into it. My wife is a doctor and she always tells me about examples of things that you don’t think of as traditionally contagious diseases but that actually are highly correlated in social networks—happiness, smoking, obesity, things like that. I mean, happiness isn’t a disease but they’re actually highly correlated. So it seems like there’s something about social networks that should be factored into health care and keeping people healthy that just isn’t today.
How do you get to 2 billion users? And do you want to make a prediction of when you get there?
No. The big thing is obviously going to be mobile. There are 5 billion people in the world who have phones, and a billion people using Facebook. There are actually already 600 million people using Facebook on phones, so that’s growing really quickly. And as more phones become smartphones, it’s just this massive opportunity.
Have you thought more about entering the Chinese market?
I hope at some point we’ll be able to do that, but that’s a long-term thing. We need to show we can do it in a way that’s going to make everyone happy, including ourselves.
People at Facebook stress the company’s culture of moving fast and breaking things. At some point are you moving fast just for the sake of moving fast?
I actually think as we’ve gotten more mature, we’ve focused a little bit less on the “break things” part of “break things and move fast.” I would like Facebook to always operate as fast as a company that’s 10 times smaller than we are. So if we’re at 1,000 engineers, I’d like us to be moving as fast as a company that has 100 engineers. If we can do that sustainably, then when we get to the size of some of the biggest companies in the space, we’ll be moving at a much faster clip than them. It’s also more fun and it means you can learn more.
Microsoft and Google would say they move fast, too.
Different companies have different goals. Obviously nobody wants to move slowly, but that doesn’t mean everyone is as focused on moving fast as we are. That means we’re trading off other things. We make more mistakes than other companies do. You can’t have everything so you just have to choose what your values are and where you want to be. For example, Microsoft has a huge focus on really rigorous, bug-free code. That’s cool. I think that’s the right decision for a lot of the markets they’re in. But for us, this is the right way to go.
What do you know about the public markets and about institutional investors that you wish you had known maybe six months ago?
We’re focused on the long term. That hasn’t changed. And sometimes people ask this question, which is like, all right, how is going public going to change the culture of the company? My view is that’s actually a choice. Nothing has to change the culture of the company. That’s a leadership decision we get to make, how we choose to prioritize.
The performance has obviously been disappointing. I mean, we care about all the investors and that’s really important. And I think the only thing we can really do is focus on making the company worth as much as possible over the long term. I suppose there could be short-term things that we could do, but we’re not going to focus on those; we’re going to focus on the long-term stuff.
There are a lot of different bets that we’re making. A lot of it over the next few years is going to come down to mobile. There is this funnel that I think is pretty clear and in our favor, which is there are going to be more people using mobile devices. There are already 5 billion so that’s where the user growth is going to come from. We already know that people who use Facebook on mobile use it more, spend more time on it.
Over the long term I also think we’re going to make more money per amount of time that people are spending on mobile, because it has this focus as a device. It’s more like TV, where you’re doing one thing at a time. The advertising and monetizing has to be integrated in, whereas on desktop we kind of reached this equilibrium where there’s the content and then the ads off to the side of it. So I’m really optimistic about that.
Let’s go back to the billion. You started by saying it was significant for you.
It feels like an honor. We get the honor of building things that a billion people use. I mean, there’s no core need. It isn’t a core human need to use Facebook. It’s a core human need to stay connected with the people you care about. The need to open up and connect is such a deep part of what makes us human. Being in a position where we are the company—or one of the companies—that can play a role in delivering that service is just this … it’s an honor.