It is hard to describe what I felt watching The Social Network. I knew going in that much of the account it presented of Facebook’s founding was fictional. Certain things, however, hit too close to home not to make me at least a bit sentimental and a bit embarrassed as well. Why should I feel anything? It was a just a movie, right?
I sometimes pride myself with being one of the first people ever to have been friends with a personal computer for their entire conscious life; although this experience is a commonplace among today’s children. And so, I often wonder — how does my experience compare to that of Mark Zuckerberg and other Internet pioneers? How different of a person am I?
I watched The Social Network in the middle of a packed New York City audience — and each time a familiar experience was depicted on screen I felt self-conscious, or something like it — as in, how could this audience, seeing this, genuinely understand the excitement over Mark Zuckerberg’s achievement? I felt it acutely because it tasted so much like my own formative years — and I realized how much I would probably like Mark if he were even 50% like the caricature painted in the movie.
|Mark had an overnight success with Facemash.com at Harvard (20K hits in the first day, according to the movie). He was forced to shut it down by Harvard.||The summer 1999, between my junior and senior year at the University of Maine, I launched RateMyFace.com (the precursor to HotorNot – referenced in The Social Network), generating over 100K hits in the first weekend. I shut it down because it was too popular and I had to graduate. I later launched RateMyFaceOff.com (Summer 2000) – which was exactly the same concept as FaceMash – and for the same reasons cited by the Zuckerberg character in the film.|
|Course Match – an application Mark developed to help identify who else was in your class at Harvard||RateMyProfessors/RateMyTeachers – In 2001, I developed a ratings platform which millions of students have used to date – revolutionizing how students choose their courses and still among the most popular education websites ever created.|
|Conceived of Facebook (November 2004)||Conceived of IMConnected (Nov 2001)|
|Plenty of crazy people trying to leech away his creation||Plenty of crazy people trying to leech away my creations|
|The Social Network portrayed Mark as someone who walked quickly and/or jogged around campus, so as not to waste time getting from here to there. Not sure if this was the actual Mark’s habit.||This sounds minor – but it was one of the most curious parts of the movie for me. I used to be laughed at by my friends for doing the same thing at UMaine. I hated wasting time between locations and hated wasting time getting where I wanted to be.|
|Worked with Peter Thiel, the main angel investor of Facebook||I only once met Peter Thiel at a lecture here in New York and consider him a business hero of mine. Peter invested in an early and inferior competitor to PeekYou, Wink.com, and more recently in a legitimate competitor, Rapleaf (a similar data company with a different approach). I’ve wanted to work with Peter for years, certain he’d appreciate my take on the future of the Internet.|
|Net worth: X billions, liquid||Net worth: X millions, but almost entirely tied up in the net worth of PeekYou and RateMyTeachers.|
Did I waste 2002-2003, when I was sitting on business plans, some of which were foundational blueprints for Social Networking? I still am unsure of the answer. My fit-all excuse is that the Internet economy had crashed and investment dollars were scant, to put it mildly – and everyone I presented IMConnected to asked the same question, to which I did not have a good answer: How will it make money? Had I known then what I learned over the following years, I’m certain I could have gotten it off the ground for less start-up capital than I thought I needed but I was afraid to enter into the project without sufficient resources for scaling up immediately (I’d been through that with RateMyFace before and didn’t want to experience a failure to scale again). When Friendster launched in 2003 (as well as AuctionDrop – a copycat of another business plan I spent a lot of time developing) – I was starting to feel sorry for myself (the worst possible thing for an entrepreneur to do).
The lesson learned was that great ideas are often obvious – and even if they weren’t, someone else will probably think of them eventually and set about their execution. I had a two-year head start on Social Networking (I called it “affinitology”), but failed to execute. Despite knowing full well how important an innovation it was, there was always an excuse to put it off until tomorrow (when I would have the resources to “build it properly”).
In 2004, after Friendster had essentially failed to scale (my own biggest nightmare come true) and had come and gone from popular public consciouness, MySpace and LinkedIn were ascendant, and Facebook was on the rise (and, I assumed, destined to overtake MySpace by virtue of its well-structured architecture) – I began to obsess over the opportunity lost, but I also wondered about the fate of a site like Friendster, which had all the promise in the world, only to see its opportunity slip away overnight. I wanted to create something eternal – something that would change the way people think about the Internet forever. It was too late for that something to be IMConnected – but I knew I had it in me to think of something else, potentially better, and with the ability to make it happen. I also knew that when it hit me, I wasn’t going to waste a day. I thought about this at least every week for the next couple of years. It was an ongoing obsession and I enjoyed the thought process.
A couple of years later in April 2006, I woke up in a semi-conscious state of mind, with the crystal-clear concept of re-indexing the web around people almost fully formed in my head – perceiving right away that if I could identify the actual individual behind any given URL, I could create a database that would not only be relevant 100 years from now, but might rank as the most important web database since Google’s. I vowed not to waste a day — and three months later, I had a prototype of the database ready to go. … After much deliberation, I named it PeekYou.
Today the company is growing by leaps and bounds – month-over-month increases in revenue throughout the past year – we’re hiring great new people, and the markets we are entering into fit as a glove within the original vision. The sometimes ridiculous challenges I’ve faced in building this company are eventually worth writing separate stories about – but we’ll see how things stand a year from now. I’m thankfully surrounded with good people who share my vision for this database and we’re in that period of rapid growth all bootstrapped start-ups dream about.
The Social Network induced me to reflect back on the past decade. Here are some final thoughts on what I believe I’ve done right and what I’ve done wrong.
Some big mistakes I’ve made:
- Underestimating the urgency of executing my ideas.
- Feeling sorry for myself, for whatever reason.
- Assuming that everyone who says nice things has my best interests in mind.
- Not focusing on building and utilizing my personal network and goodwill – turning down opportunities and lifelines out of stubbornness or fear of failure:
- Example: In 2004, Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga (formerly founder of SupportSoft and Tribe), offered me an apprenticeship to learn the ropes of entrepreneurship under him. I thought Mark was awesome, I thought Tribe.net was an interesting approach to social networking, and I thought I could run RateMyTeachers on the side. In the end, I was afraid to move to San Francisco with no money in my pocket. I’ll always regret this – and now I wonder if Mark even remembers me.
- Accepting deals I knew were fundamentally flawed, hoping against hope that things would work out in my behalf because my own goodness would eventually win the day for me.
Best things I ever did:
- Retained a lawyer to review my contracts and to negotiate sticking points on my behalf
- Sought to create something eternal – I directed my ambition on building something long-lasting instead of placing too much focus on the immediate
- The day I conceived of re-indexing the web around people, I did not waste a day in developing a business plan and prototype.
- Marrying Kejda – for the first time in my life I was responsible to someone I love as much as myself. I was forced to defend my decisions to someone more intelligent than me. This didn’t stop me from making mistakes – but I have made many fewer mistakes because of her.