It's time for Facebook to unfriend its 24-year-old college dropout CEO. Mark Zuckerberg had a decent run. But he's the wrong person at the wrong time to lead his social network through its growing pains.
Three strikes and you're out is a good rule for baseball and startups. In the last six weeks, Zuckerberg has committed three management fouls that would have led to any normal CEO's firing.
The terms of service disaster. After Facebook revised its legalese to suggest it would keep users' information forever, even if they deleted their accounts, users got into an uproar. Rather than quickly roll out new language that satisfied their concerns, Zuckerberg introduced an absurd voting mechanism that would let Facebook user, in theory, vet future changes.
Facebook's awful redesign. After years of pursuing his own vision for Facebook and ignoring competitors' moves, Zuckerberg took his eye off the ball and grew entranced by Twitter, a message-broadcasting service which mimicked Facebook's status-update feature. He then introduced a new design for Facebook that was almost universally loathed, even among his own employees. And unlike the terms-of-service debacle, where Zuckerberg championed a user-run democracy, he told employees that they should ignore feedback from users.
Management chaos. The disgraceful, petty ouster of Facebook CFO Gideon Yu, a veteran of Yahoo and YouTube, on Tuesday, apparently prompted by a disagreement over strategy, is just the latest executive-suite blunder by Zuckerberg. He has prompted the departure of countless key employees over the past couple of years. At a time when he should be pulling the best talent in through its doors, Zuckerberg is sending it the wrong way. Facebook started with five cofounders. Zuckerberg alone remains.
Facebook first tried to claim that it fired Yu as CFO because it needed someone with public-company experience. (Never mind that Yu's resume includes Hilton, Yahoo, and Google.) Realizing the absurdity of that spin, Zuckerberg is now trotting out the line that Yu is "spending more time with his family," and trying to claim it's not a cliché.
It is understandable for a 24-year-old to be fickle, easily swayed, and vengeful. But that is the reason why we have very few 24-year-old CEOs running companies with 800 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues. The company is now conducting a search for Yu's replacement. But it ought to be looking for Zuckerberg's replacement instead.
Zuckerberg did a good job as Facebook's CEO during its startup years. He brilliantly conceived of Facebook's product, and pursued that vision unswervingly until recently. His hacker cred helped pull in likeminded engineers. When the Facebook application platform threatened to drown the site in spam, he reeled the appmakers back in, despite their howls of protest, proving he can sometimes correct his mistakes. But he has reached the limits of his abilities.
He has said that his most important job as CEO is to build the company's culture. And in that he has been an unmitigated disaster. It is a failing far worse than his three public strikes — though the depth of it is little understood outside Facebook's offices in Palo Alto. His executives are largely unhappy, consumed by infighting and backbiting while trying to accommodate a tempestuous boss's whims. Here's the Harvard man in Zuckerberg revealed: He has assembled a coterie of servants instead of building a team.
So what is Facebook's board to do? Firing him would be difficult. Zuckerberg owns 27 percent of the company and controls three of Facebook's six board seats. He could easily fight any attempt to oust him. And he is not unsalvageable. The right CEO could help Zuckerberg correct his failings and prepare him to take back the reins.
We think Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen is the one Zuckerberg needs. Already a mentor to the young entrepreneur and a Facebook board member, Andreessen has few undiscardable obligations. He has started a venture-capital fund, but that is nothing more than a few business cards to shred. Facebook could buy Andreessen's also-ran social-networking startup, Ning, to remove that excuse, using inflated shares to give him a graceful exit. His services would be worth the price. (Or Andreessen could simply return what's left of the $60 million it raised last year to investors, an honorable way to give up on a company that's going nowhere.)
It would be difficult to pull Andreessen out of semi-retirement. At his companies — Netscape, Opsware, and Ning — he has preferred to let someone else hold the CEO title. But it might be good for Facebook to have a CEO who's indifferent to the job, as opposed to someone who wants it all too badly, but doesn't know how to do it.