In my experience the best founders develop a fighter mentality. Mark Zuckerberg was a fighter, and without that mentality Facebook would never have achieved its full potential. Here’s what I saw over 13 years working for Zuck:
One of Mark’s first big fights was with his own board + exec team. They tried to convince him to sell the company to Yahoo for $1B in ’06. At the time FB had 5M users (all college) and was 2 yrs old. At the age of 22, Mark stood to gain $300M personally. How could he say no?
Everyone told Mark to sell. Friends said he’d be crazy to pass up $1B. His management team wanted an exit. His board put pressure on him. But Mark knew something they didn’t – FB was on the cusp of launching new products that would completely change the trajectory of the company.
I joined FB in mid-2006, right after Mark made the decision not to sell (I’m glad he did!). He had the courage to go against everyone around him, and he was promptly vindicated the following year when we raised our Series C from Microsoft at $15B.
Within a couple of years after the Yahoo near miss, Mark replaced his entire management team and reconstituted the board. He needed people around him who believed in his vision, people he could trust to fight alongside him. I was one of them.
Mark hired a professional CFO around that time, someone with gray hair who had taken companies public. This guy struggled from the beginning with the fact that his boss was barely older than his children. When he tried to launch a coup 6 mos after joining, Mark fired him.
Early on, the music industry threatened to sue us into oblivion if we didn’t give them what they wanted – money, equity, subservience. Facebook didn’t actually have any music on it, but YouTube had grown on their backs and now the labels wanted a pound of flesh from everyone.
I wanted to cut a deal. Mark wanted to fight. When I organized a meeting behind his back to discuss my strategy, he sent me a pointed email: if I ever did that again, I’d be fired. He was open to discussing my views but there would be no discussion without him in the room.
In 2010, Mark started sweating profusely on stage at a large tech conference with hundreds of execs in the audience. He looked nervous and unsure of himself for the first 30 minutes of the interview before finding his feet and recovering by the end. I was in the audience that day
Many attendees approached me afterwards to say how much they admired Mark for his gritty recovery. I texted him that night to pass along the encouragement. He responded by saying his performance was unacceptable, he had let us all down and he wouldn’t let it happen again.
The Social Network came out in 2010. Mark had been warned it would portray him in a negative light, and he was appropriately concerned about its impact on team morale, FB’s brand and his personal reputation. His advisors told him to ignore it, keep his head down, stay focused.
In one of the greatest jiu jitsu moves of all time, Mark rented out the Shoreline cinema complex and bussed in the entire company to see the premier of the movie. His first (and probably only) viewing of The Social Network was in a giant cinema with the rest of his employees.
Adding to the surrealness of this scene, Mark’s admin asked me to sit next to him – she thought my positivity would be a calming influence. When the character portraying him was being seduced by a girl, he leaned over and whispered “now this is awkward.” We both laughed out loud!
You don’t have to be mean to be a fighter. Some CEOs struggle with this (famously Steve Jobs), but Mark pulled it off gracefully. He didn’t yell at people, never threw furniture or lost his temper. He was just ruthlessly decisive, always willing to make the hard call.
In his first 5 years, Mark went through multiple product leaders, 3 CFOs, and many executives. When someone wasn’t scaling with the company, he would ask them to leave or take a smaller role. His co-founders all quit too, they were tired of fighting. It’s lonely to be CEO.
But it’s more lonely to lose, or to regret that you didn’t try hard enough to win. Business is the ultimate game, it never ends and you are never done. Going from the garage to the boardroom requires incredible grit, determination, ambition, and yes…fight.