The Social Network: A Caution for Entrepreneurs

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Image by: Columbia Pictures

Lies, betrayals, and no clear heroes to cheer for in the Facebook movie. In addition to being compelling entertainment, The Social Network offers a glimpse inside the eight-sides-to-every-story subtext of a startup gone huge. Entrepreneurs take note.

If you haven't seen The Social Network yet, go. I'll add my voice to the throngs of people singing its praises; it's a great movie, whether or not you care about the internet or social media or the young upstarts who run many of the most successful online companies. The Citizen Kane and Greek tragedy comparisons may be laying it on a little thick, but the film has the depth and intelligence of Aaron Sorkin's best writing and David Fincher's elegant direction, along with top-notch performances from a solid cast.

Casting the shadow of evil

A lot of the conversations I'm hearing about the movie hang on the question of who the bad guy is: Is it Mark Zuckerberg, the boy genius behind Facebook? Sean Parker, of Napster fame, who seduces Zuckerberg westward and winds up getting arrested for cocaine possession while partying with interns? The twin WASP-y rowing star brothers Winklevoss, who sue Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea for a Harvard dating website? There are a lot of contenders and a strong argument can be made in favour of each – though it bears noting that Sorkin and Fincher don't make it easy to assign white and black hats to this particular gang of cowboys. There's plenty of grey area in this fable and that's a big part of what makes it such a good story.

There's certainly one group of characters that doesn't get much of a chance to make a good impression: The venture capitalists who fund Facebook. The film paints a rosy picture of the first few bootstrapped months where Facebook grows from a Harvard-exclusive site to one that caters to dozens of campuses. Interns compete for (presumably unpaid) spots in a drinking-contest-cum-code sprint; developers with headphones jacked into laptops pepper couches and corners in Zuckerberg's rented Silicon Valley bungalow; and all of this is achieved with a measly $19,000 investment from founding CFO Eduardo Saverin. At this point in the story there's already plenty of drama, but the stakes are decidedly lower and nobody is suing anyone. (Of course, there's no money in the company, so suing it would be sort of absurd.)

When Parker comes on the scene, though, he starts introducing Zuckerberg to VCs, and that's where the trouble starts. Saverin gets jealous and upset that his efforts at winning advertisers are being scorned; the VCs sweep in and inject half a million dollars into the company; and it's not long before Saverin is unceremoniously squeezed out while Zuckerberg and Parker party on with the VCs.

The role of the venture capitalists

An interesting subplot amidst all of this is that Parker, who has some experience with VCs himself, seems to have run interference between Zuckerberg and the VCs; after Napster, Parker co-founded Plaxo but was later booted out by the VCs who invested in it, and a scene in the movie is dedicated to Zuckerberg helping Parker deliver a giant FU to those particular VCs. Clearly there's no love lost between Parker and the VC community, though he seems to recognize the need for outside investment. However in the end, it's not Zuckerberg or Parker who delivers the final blow to poor, naive Saverin – it's one of the lawyers who facilitated Facebook's first VC deal. And Parker winds up looking like a hero (despite his many flaws) for protecting Zuckerberg's vision from the worst that VCs could have done (pressing for monetization too soon, for example).

And here's where the real heart of the story – at least as Sorkin tells it – lies. Although the film's plot is framed by two litigation suits by allegedly wronged parties (the Winklevoss twins, two brothers who hired Zuckerberg to code a Harvard-only dating site they dreamed up, and Saverin, who sues Zuckerberg after his shares are devalued to basically nothing), the underlying story is Zuckerberg's fight to preserve his vision from a host of betrayals by others. (The film often paints Zuckerberg as the betrayer, but his betrayals of others are personal in nature, not betrayals of his – or anyone else's – ideals.) In Jesse Eisenberg's subtle portrayal of Zuckerberg, we see the Facebook founder pause considerably while considering the Winklevosses' initial offer; he sees the potential in their idea and very clearly sees, too, a great many flaws. (Not the least of those, no doubt, would have been wading through someone else's half-written code, a chore no programmer I know cherishes.) He spends weeks thinking deeply not only about the code but about the idea – the structure of the site, the motivations of the users, the actions they'll want to perform. At no time does he consult with the Winklevosses – rather, he keeps "thefacebook" (as it was then called) sheltered from everyone except his most trusted inner circle. One is hard-pressed to see much intellectual contribution from the Winklevosses (even the idea of Facebook, which they claimed was theirs, seems to bear as much resemblance to a Harvard-exclusive dating site as the Chrysler Building does to a nondescript mid-rise office building – or rather, a sketch of an office building that never got built).

Saverin, too, gets ousted only after months of pushing Zuckerberg to monetize Facebook in ways that Zuckerberg cleary states he does not want to do. The CFO is advertising-obsessed and despite his clear personal allegiance to Zuckerberg, he doesn't share his friend's vision. He doesn't even move west to join Zuckerberg when the rest of the Facebook team is working from California; Saverin stays in New York, riding the subways in search of advertising dollars, while Silicon Valley's investors beckon. So while Saverin's departure is tragic and unfair on a personal level, it's absolutely necessary from a business standpoint – and inevitable, since Parker's got ties to funding avenues Saverin doesn't.

The intrepid entrepreneur

In Parker, Zuckerberg finds at last an ally he can trust – someone who will help him navigate the shark-infested waters of venture capital while protecting the all-important vision. And that's why ultimately, I see The Social Network's ending as a happy one. Zuckerberg may have had to pay off his old helpers (the Winklevosses and Saverin), but he did what he had to, to stay true to his vision.

He stuck with the people who got it, and were capable of turning the vision into a global, profitable reality – and he ditched those who didn't. And that, in a nutshell, is how you get to be the world's youngest billionaire.



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