Seeding the social network
29 March 2018
Mike Hoefflinger has 25 years’ experience in Silicon Valley. After working directly for Andy Grove and as general manager of Intel inside program, he moved to Facebook in 2009 and served as head of global business marketing. During his seven years with Facebook, he helped in the growth of the advertising business. Currently he is a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur in residence at Xseed capital. In this interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about the journey of Facebook, the challenges it overcame and the implications of social media on human relationships.
What inspired Becoming Facebook? How and when the idea to write this book happen?
Well, in a 25-year-long career in Silicon Valley, I spent seven years at Facebook and personally saw the struggles it had undergone. This was back in 2009 when they weren’t yet at the top. It was only in 2015-2016, they gained the top position and I thought this coming of age story of Facebook in the span of those seven years between 2009-2016 was the best story that happened in Silicon Valley.
Having experienced it from the inside, I felt I could do a good job in highlighting those 10 challenges that it faced and how it overcame them. This would also be a good lesson for all entrepreneurs in the process.
You were with Intel earlier and then went on to handle advertising for Facebook. Considering these two areas were on the opposite side of the spectrum, how challenging was it for you to adapt to the new role?
In some ways, it wasn’t as odd as it may seem. As an electrical engineer for Intel, I ran an inside program internally, which was an advertising program. So, this role in Facebook wasn’t that big a leap.
I had worked for Andy Grove, building microprocessors and then for Mark (Zuckerberg) on marketing and advertising. Both of them had a clear vision on what lay ahead and how they wanted to execute their plans. I did my marketing job mostly through the lens of reminding myself of having been an advertiser. What an advertiser is trying to accomplish and how does this emerging platform called Facebook do that better than how they were doing it earlier, were the lines I was thinking on. I was able to market the new functionality of Facebook through the lens of having been a customer previously.
Coming to your book, you have mentioned a term called “Clever foolish” visionaries in your book — those who see things that others dismiss. In an era where social approval is regarded highly, what does it take for a person to stick to an idea which is labelled foolish by others?
The point of being a ‘clever foolish’ entrepreneur or leader is that you have to realise that the idea that you are pursuing may be considered foolish at that time but proves to be quite clear as you develop it.
If you are developing an idea which everybody thinks is clever, then you are going to have a large number of competitors. It will be a phase where you are going to be in a battle every day in your life.
So as an entrepreneur, you have to have both the vision and the guts to pursue a course that’s considered less obvious. Do continue to have confidence in what you are doing and the way to maintain this confidence is to always feel you know something and that you possess data or information about your target customers that no one else has.
Retain something that you know the best until it’s too late for your competition to discover how smart you really were.
As a follow up to the question, the primary aim of Zuckerberg was to create a change rather than proving detractors wrong. However, sometimes the creation of this change eventually ends up proving your detractors wrong. What do you think entrepreneurs should primarily focus on — change or proving their detractors wrong?
Having observed entrepreneurs especially in multiple generations from Andy Grove to Mark Zuckerberg, I realise that its always much more valuable to believe that you can bring something to the world that didn’t exist before.
Something like internet or connecting people. Both Andy and Mark believed in these two ideas very strongly. These are missions that take decades to really implement. So, they focused on trying to take one step after another towards the mission instead of making a list of the top 100 people whom they were trying to prove wrong.
The desire to pursue a mission is of high priority to a leader but it’s also important to find a way to attract people towards what you are trying to accomplish. That was one of Mark’s key insights. He focused immensely on trying to make Facebook a company as he felt that was the best way by which he could lure other people to join the mission that he was trying to pursue.
You have mentioned in your book that innovation comes in all sizes and success has many definitions. What is your definition of success?
As we were talking earlier, I do think you need to have perspective on what you want to change in the world. Sometimes that can be huge or it can even be a smaller project or product. That was my point how innovation can come in different sizes.
I do think you have to have a strong view point on what you are trying to build, independent of what exactly that end goal may be. You don’t necessarily have to have Zuckerberg’s aim or scale or growth to be innovative, but you need a strong point of view and you need to be building your ideas towards that. It will show you and your target customers whether your short-term idea is on track with your long-term mission.
The long-term factor will define the macro-notion of success. It’s this large thing you are trying to do for decades and I do think you need to show that the short-term ideas which you have are consistent with regards to attracting the customers that you are looking for. With short-term success, you have ability to detect whether you are connecting to your customers in a way you want to, with the product or service, in a shorter period of days or weeks. But you also have to keep observing that very closely to understand whether the thing you believe in the short term is the next best step towards your long-term goal. Detecting this trans success is essential for success in the long road ahead.
You have talked about Facebook’s news feed as one of the greatest media. When it was introduced initially people did not have a favourable response. So, what made Mark stick to the idea despite the poor response?
It was in 2006 and the company was barely two years old. At that time, they discovered that the users were constantly going from one Facebook profile to another Facebook profile of their contacts to understand what was new with their friends. Facebook realised that it was an inefficient thing for people to do, so it decided to do something about it. It thought it could bring to users in a chronological order about their friends’ updates in the form of a news feed.
The idea of this newsfeed was not something that randomly popped into Mark’s head one day. It was through observation of Facebook users and with the intention to make it easier. At first people were surprised and taken aback by this feature. They were apprehensive about what was being shown on the news feed and the privacy settings. So, Facebook had to spend a lot of time explaining this new feature and benefits. It figured that most users wanted this and if it stuck to it, communicated carefully and with sensitivity to privacy settings, it would be an interesting feature. After 12 years we see that it’s a big hit now.
When it was initially conceptualised, Facebook did hit a wall a few times, which the founders overcame by inventing new features. Now, that it’s one of the leading social media platforms, what do you think it should do to avoid hitting the wall, in order to retain the interest of users?
There were so many instances when Facebook was in an existential battle, which I have mentioned in the book. If they didn’t figure the solution, they would stop growing or be forced to shut down. In order to pursue his mission, Mark realised that he needed more than Facebook itself, which propelled him to later acquire Instagram and WhatsApp as people liked sharing in those other ways that are unique and different from Facebook.
Today news feed has become so popular and successful that it’s become a medium, the influence of which may be none of us really understood. Now we are asking ourselves if the news feed can be used by shadowy actors or as Facebook calls them the information operations, to manipulate how we think and feel. Mark himself has reflected openly on his Facebook page, whether news feed is considered time well spent, whether he can trust information on news feed, and whether activities done there contribute to his feeling of having productive time on Facebook as opposed to wiling away time on Facebook. We see him now saying this” I would rather have people commenting and interacting with each other than watching obscure videos.
He is faced with yet another challenge-how to grow the value of what he is creating. In other words, how to build a better Facebook and this is Facebook the company not just the application.
So that brings me back to an interesting line in your book says that ‘Zuckerberg and his team just have enough humility to neither be put off by failure nor to resist changing their approach.’ Is that the secret mantra to the success of Facebook?
Mark is one of the examples of many inspiring entrepreneurs building new things and a future for us by making things easier and more efficient for us. He is trying to build something that doesn’t exist yet and hence has to face a lot of resistance. Building anything new is usually associated with people wondering what you are trying to do or just ridiculing you. As an entrepreneur, you should have the ability to tune out negative noises and stick to your belief.
However, the hard part comes when you have to adapt and adjust to something different from what your understanding was before. For instance, if Facebook wants to grow, there comes a point where more people and more time spent on social media isn’t necessarily good. So instead of blindly saying people need to spend an extra few minutes, Mark has to adjust and find this balance of sticking to his views and adjusting to the world view. Last year when he was told that Facebook was influencing US elections, Mark found it ridiculous but later he was forced to see that maybe there was some truth to it. So, he began to adjust his world view.
You see as an entrepreneur, you are forced to ignore naysayers. However, if you want to continue growing a business for a long time, then you need to know the moments where you need to evolve and bend your thought process. In a way that’s why I titled my book Becoming Facebook. It was certainly a period of coming of age but Facebook is still evolving and when Mark started it, he was just 19. Today he is a father and grown as a CEO. It is fascinating to watch both Mark and the company mature over time as they face new challenges.
So, you were with the company when it was coming of age and you have almost been like a parent in a sense. How do you think it has changed you as a person?
Well, a parent in a very small way. By the time I joined Facebook in 2009, it was already five years old. There had already been a lot of parenting before I showed up. My involvement was to build a business that could be connected to this mission that Facebook was pursuing. This would allow marketing and advertising communication between businesses and consumers to be effective and powerful for advertisers so that they could invest in Facebook. In those days advertisers resorted to conventional tools like print, television or google. My job was to communicate how powerful Facebook was as a tool for advertisers.
In many ways, I have been extremely fortunate in my career to have come to Silicon Valley, worked with a phenomenal leader like Andy Grove, moved to another company with a great leader much younger than Grove but in many ways similar. Also, to have been part of a company which was an important evolution, is a very rare opportunity. When you find yourself in the middle of such an evolution, you are extremely energised by trying to contribute to large missions. I have learnt the importance of building profitable businesses and at the same time adding value to the world and take it forward.
A lot is being said about Facebook being evil. Many leaders have said that it tends to make people live in a bubble and manipulates their vision of what is reality. Social media addiction is leading to depression and a sense of isolation. What are your views on this?
When you bring something new like technology, which grows really fast it’s bound to happen. On one hand, you have positive feelings about being connected to people you know in your real life. However, it is not a replacement of real life but just an extension of the relationships that you already have in your real life. It gives you a sense of awareness of your friends and things that you care about.
If you become too reliant or too caught up in that technology connection, it might distort your view of yourself. We find ourselves at this intersection between the human connection and technology which is extremely complicated. Social scientists call this the social bubble. We filter these bubbles by choosing our friends who are in turn connected to us online. We want to feel a sense of belonging and the minute we read something that agrees with our point of view then we tend to believe it much more than the actual facts.
I don’t feel that personal relations are hampered. It goes back to the reason why Mark wanted to build something like this. He was that part of the generation to be connected to the internet. While Google assimilated facts and information, Mark wanted to create a platform to connect people. People are inherently more complicated than information. And there is an interplay between the technology that they use and how they feel in the world.
It’s not surprising that something like Facebook has led to a complex reaction than something like Google. It depends on how you use social media or who you are connected to or what’s happening in your life or in other people’s lives. Relationship on social media can get complicated.
What are your future plans? Any more books in the pipeline?
For me after 25 years, it’s been a fantastic opportunity to do some things that I never had time for before. This book is an example. I am also active in advising in the venture capital area. It’s great to share some things that I have learnt over time like evolution in technology or the multiple leaders that I had the chance to interact with closely. Writing this book was a great privilege as it’s an important story lead by fascinating people.
With regards to another book, I have lot of ideas in my head. I have wondered how do new things get built in the world. Is there a common thread? I am not just referring to Facebook but a lot of other companies which are trying to build a future.
In the next few years I see technology ramping up in the form of augmented reality of artificial intelligence and I see that being a significant evolution. It will be interesting to see humans assisted by technological figures. Residing in the Silicon Valley I am always eager to see how the future is going to be.