Giving Zuckerberg permission

When you’ve had a movie made about you, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has, it’s no surprise that every word you say is going to be heavily scrutinised.

And so it is with his latest public appearance, at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. In an on-stage interview and Q&A session that lasted for the best part of an hour, Zuckerberg was probed on everything from Facebook’s new email function through to web advertising and strategy.

During the interview, Zuckerberg gave some great insights into the entrepreneurial process, but what stood out for me was the point he made about building a very strong relationship with customers.

While Zuckerberg admitted he has made mistakes, he said that by concentrating on building a great product he had essentially been able to get the permission of users to stuff up.

“I’ve made so many mistakes in running the company so far,” he said.

“Basically, any mistake that you can think of I’ve made or will make in the next few years. [But] if you’re building a product that people love you can make a lot of mistakes.”

It’s hard to argue with that. While Facebook has made some errors in the last few years – most obviously some major spats with users over privacy concerns – the size of its user base just keeps growing, as does the valuation of the site, which is now put at about $40 billion.

And in a way, I guess every business relies on this philosophy to a certain extent. We all make mistakes from time to time, but we just hope that the product we sell is good enough to ensure that we will be forgiven.

The question: Is there are limit to customers’ tolerance? When you are making changes as quickly and as often as Facebook does, you are more likely to do things customers or users don’t like. Yes, they’ll forgive you for awhile, probably a long while, but Zuckerberg would have to be wondering if there’s a point he could reach where the users start to turn.

And if he’s not, he should be. Digital consumer expert Jeffrey Cole, who is director of the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California and a director of the World Internet Project, told a forum in Sydney that Facebook has “five years at best” before the social media world would splinter, as it did previously when MySpace was at the height of its popularity.

I’ve no idea whether Cole is right or not, but it’s a good reminder that trends can turn quickly in the online world, and Zuckerberg shouldn’t rely on the sympathy of users forever.

And just finally, I thought the Facebook founder made a great point about his key values at Facebook, which are to “move fast and be bold”.

“Technology companies are interesting, they get slower with scale. One of the things I think about everyday is how do we make this company move as quickly as possible. That’s a really big deal.”

It’s a great insight and should raise a question – does your company value speed and ideas as it should?

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