Facebook Should Not Fire Sheryl Sandberg - A Retraction
What is the value in having a conversation? In being part of a large conversation?
Well, I wanted to be a part of a big conversation, so I wrote an inflammatory blog piece last week to see if I could elbow my way into it. And I was successful at that.
After getting into the conversation, I have been convinced some of my thoughts were wrong - while other thoughts I have are emboldened. That is the great thing about peer review - it allows you to separate the chaff of your lousy ideas from the wheat of your good ones.
What I Got Wrong
Let’s list out some facts:
- I am a consultant developer from Warren, OH.
- I have a B.S. in IT from The Rochester Institute of Technology
- I earn a middle class income.
- I have never had any employees, ever.
- I have attempted to co-found 7 startups - all failures.
- I have never met a single executive that works at Facebook.
- Before Saturday (8/25/2012), I could not spell Sheryl Sandberg’s name (Cheryl Sanberg)
- Sheryl Sandberg is a Silicon Valley executive
- She has a B.A. and an MBA from Harvard University
- She made $30mm in 2011 and is a billionaire
- She is partially responsible for over 3000 employees
- She has helped build the ad business at Google and Facebook.
- She has been called warm, nurturing, hardworking, and effective by many people.
So this begs the question - in what universe would I be given any authority to decide the employment future of Ms. Sandberg?
Thankfully, not this one.
So why did I write an article stating that she should be fired? The same reason that the tech blogosphere and the web in general is littered with inflammatory pieces like mine everyday:
The Fire Sandberg piece was by far the most trafficked article I’ve ever written. I’ve had probably a dozen blogs over the years on a myriad of topics from Nintendo to politics to TV and Movies, sports, technology, and creative writing. Nothing, so far, has been as effective at attracting eyeballs as calling for the corporate head of technology’s favorite daughter.
So now I understand the temptation to be inflammatory, and I’m sorry to say that I have given in to that temptation. I pride myself on my integrity, but the piece that I wrote was not intellectually honest. The ideas were half baked, and the execution was sloppy. It’s a shame that an article like that, of all the ones that I have written, was the most trafficked.
Another item that I got wrong was not making it clear that I don’t think Facebook should just abandon their advertising business at the drop of a hat. They need to start running experiments with a developer friendly API for which they charge an access fee. If those experiments don’t work, they should stick with advertising. If they do work, and the business grows, then they won’t be a slave to advertising anymore - and that would be a good thing because advertising, no matter how unobtrusive, weakens the product.
What I Got Right
Some quotes from the piece that I am very proud of:
I agree with Zuckerberg completely. The true value that Facebook provides is not its ability to attract eyeballs or organize your photos or create pages to promote how pretty your cat is. The true value of Facebook is to create user experiences set within the backdrop of the social graph - something nobody else can do without Facebook’s permission.
When a company lacks a customer, the product is built for the user. The selection of a customer is the most important user experience decision a company makes. Pick the wrong customer, like advertisers, and the user experience is destined to get worse. Pick the right customer, and your business will grow to the delight of your users, instead of to their despair.
The point is simply this: Zuckerberg is the CEO of Facebook. He was never interested in devising a way for Facebook to make money on the social graph. His instinct was to avoid the problem of monetization and focus on the Facebook product. So he empowered Sandberg to solve the problem. His instinct was correct - he needed to have someone else find a solution. However, he should have been empowering the developers building apps on the social graph to fix the problem - even if they had to pay for the right to do so. Those developers can then figure out if advertising, or micro transactions, or payed access is the best way to monetize the social graph.
The belief that selling access to the social graph cannot generate the revenue that advertising can is terribly misinformed. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Amazon, Gillette, Standard Oil, and Comcast are all examples of companies that invested heavily in user bases only to extract value from those user bases another way. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo sell their gaming hardware at a low margin or a loss so that they can make money on their own software sales and the licensing fees of the developers on their platform. Amazon uses their enormous web traffic to enable 3rd party sellers to sell into that traffic. Standard Oil gave away lamps in China to increase the demand for kerosene.
What all of these examples show is the massive variety of methods available to monetize a large user base. The methods mentioned in the Facebook Effect during the monetization bull sessions only began to scratch the surface. If the conversations at Facebook about monetization never got any deeper than that, then everyone involved in those meetings plus Zuckerberg should feel ashamed of themselves. That includes Sheryl Sandberg.
Can I sit here and say, absolutely, that Facebook would be better off selling access to their API for a business model? No, I can’t. But that’s the startup game - there are very few absolutes. What I can say with certainty is that they owe it to their investors, their employees, their users, and their industry to find out. And if the passages I quoted in my last piece are an exhaustive list of their ideas for monetization, then Sandberg, Zuckerberg, and everyone at Facebook has failed those stakeholders.