SThe great hope of the Valley, the startup everyone thought was the next Google, the company whose IPO might restart the stock-market gold rush for everyone, is not well. Why? Look to its founder. Mark Zuckerberg is mismanaging his creation's transition to greatness. In Facebook's own parlance, the company's plight is "complicated." It will take in $300 million to $350 million in revenue this year, thanks in part to a lucrative ad deal with Microsoft. But its $15 billion valuation is premised on a far brighter future — a future that may never materialize. The biggest symptom of Facebook's ailment is the flight of technical talent. In the Valley, success attracts smart people, who attract other smart people. Yes, they're after money, too, but having brilliant coworkers counts for a lot. These great minds bond and form, yes, a sort of social network of their own. When they leave, the network frays, weakening the company's ability to attract new talent.That's why, for days before it was announced, top executives at Facebook desperately hid technical lead Dustin Moskovitz's plans to leave. They dithered as Mark Zuckerberg tried to persuade his cofounder and college roommate to stay, and others, led by COO Sheryl Sandberg, concocted a plan to spin his departure. That spin has now been dutifully printed in the pages of the Wall Street Journal: Facebook's changes are the "type of evolution you see among young growing companies and specifically young growing companies in Silicon Valley," company flack Larry Yu told the paper. Sandberg, who closely directs the company's PR, would have us think that the uproar that has taken place at the social network since her arrival is a healthy evolution. It is not. The internal politicking she has introduced to the company is destructive, and has sent many of the company's best and brightest fleeing. The list of the departed includes data guru Jeff Hammerbacher, product VP Matt Cohler, platform director Ben Ling, and most recently, Justin Rosenstein, a top engineer who's leaving with Moskovitz. Operations VP Jonathan Heiliger may be next. The defections all hurt. But most of the blame lies with Zuckerberg himself. Zuckerberg has always styled himself as the company's "founder," relegating the likes of Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, now Barack Obama's Web campaign director, to "cofounder" status. Never mind that this distinction doesn't exist in English; those who start a company are all equally founders. Zuckerberg clearly considers himself first among equals; he once referred to Moskovitz as "disposable" and a "soldier." The former Harvard roommates patched over those insults, and Zuckerberg said he will rely on Moskovitz's counsel even after his departure. If Moskovitz really thought he could guide Facebook's evolution, he would have stayed at the company, right? Zuckerberg has a history of churning through confidants. Napster cofounder Sean Parker helped establish Facebook in Silicon Valley as its president, only to be disappeared from the company. Former COO Owen Van Natta was in favor, then out. Sandberg had his ear for a while, but may be losing it. Lately, I hear he favors Christopher Cox, the twentysomething recent Stanford grad he recently tapped as the company's director of product. We'll see how long he stays by Zuckerberg's side. This fickleness may be predictable from a 24-year-old. But it's fundamentally bad for the company. Yahoo thrived, in its early days, on the partnership between CEO Tim Koogle and founders Jerry Yang and Dave Filo. Google's triumvirate of its cofounders and CEO Eric Schmidt improved on that management form; the troika lends the company some stability by making sure decisions at the top are never unilateral. Zuckerberg's insistence on the "founder" title suggests that he always planned to rule the company alone. It's a bad plan. His instincts on what kind of website will attract a 100 million users have been spot-on. But he has no business sense. At one point during the Facebook redesign process, he suggested getting rid of advertising altogether, having grown disillusioned with both old-style banner ads and the company's experiments with targeting ads to users' behavior. Will Zuck ever find an equal partner, a sounding board who can help him turn Facebook into the large, ongoing concern he envisions? Dustin Moskovitz may not have been the right person. Nor, it seems, is Sheryl Sandberg. Yet to staunch the bleeding of Facebook's technical talent, Zuckerberg will have to find someone to ground him — someone for whom he has enduring respect, who can moderate his worst impulses. Without it, there will be one word describing what's going to happen to Facebook: "founder."
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