“I graduated from Harvard University in 2003,” begins Randi Zuckerberg. It’s a fact she says she only mentions because her famous younger brother, Mark Zuckerberg, did not.
Zuckerberg is wearing bright yellow – a burst of colour on the stage at the Australian Chambers Business Conference in Melbourne. She’s bubbly and charismatic, gushing about how much she loves Melbourne. You half expect her to break for cheers, but judging her sombre corporate audience correctly, she doesn’t.
Her connection to Facebook began when her brother begged her to leave her New York advertising job to come work for free in Silicon Valley. “He needed a free marketer, and I was his big sister,” she says.
She refused. She had her “dream job” at global ad house Ogilvy. So Mark Zuckerberg called their mother. Eventually she relented and headed to California for a week to check it out.
“I was blown away,” she says. “Though, to be fair, I had very low expectations.”
She entered Facebook when it consisted of four or five adolescent boys coding around the clock. “They had such a sense of energy and passion,” she says. “They knew they would change the world.”
She stayed, becoming Facebook’s head of marketing for the next six and a half years. In that time, she helped Facebook become what it is today.
Facebook’s marketing in the early days rested largely on the concept of exclusivity, allowing signups only to certain colleges at first. “We waited until lots of people at a school were begging us to launch Facebook there before we would do it,” she says.
As Facebook grew, she says the team was often overawed by what they had created. During the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, users changed their profile pictures to black ribbons, and used Facebook to organise to help those affected however they could. The Facebook team watched an organic social movement build before their eyes. “It was the first time [I saw that],” Zuckerberg says.
But there were lows as well.
The team worked for more than a year on the newsfeed – Facebook’s front page that shows what your Facebook friends have done since the last time you logged in.
“We were so sure it was going to be awesome,” she says. On the day it launched, users were directed to a page with a big green button, with ‘awesome’ written on it, that would redirect them to their news feed.
“But people protested. Hundreds of protestors came to our office with signs. People joined groups called ‘a million against timeline’. We were like, we’ve created a platform so viral people used it to protest our own product!”
Over time, Facebook learned how to deal better with its users. The team learned the importance of pre-launch testing, and of allowing users to become involved.
This was especially the case with translating, when Facebook invited its multilingual users to help translate the site into other languages. It took 48 hours for the site to be translated into Spanish. A few years later, it took only 24 hours for it to become fully functional in Farsi.
Intriguingly, Zuckerberg says during this period, even she wondered about how her team should manage their Facebook accounts. “I wanted them to be on Facebook as much as possible, to be brand ambassadors,” she says. But on the other hand, finding the line between what should and shouldn’t be part of their professional image was complicated at times.
Part of Facebook’s success, Zuckerberg says, lies in how it was able to preserve its start-up culture as the company grew. “There are so many Silicon Valley companies who, as they grow to several thousand employees, become corporate… they become not cool to work for.”
She says Facebook avoided this by emphasising that good ideas – ideas that could change the company – could come from anyone. Facebook still runs hackathons, where its employees have all night to work on a project outside their area of work, which then has to be presented to the company. “People did really fun things,” Zuckerberg says. One group made a giant QR code on Facebook’s roof that can be scanned from passing airplanes. Another group combined their love of Facebook with their love of beer, making a keg that would update Facebook whenever you poured from it.
But Facebook’s employees have also made really useful things. “Most of these great ideas didn’t come from the top. They’d come from interns or low-level employees.”
Zuckerberg’s own contribution was Facebook Live. “I was always interested in traditional media, and how it interacted with social media,” she explains. So she made a live video program that streamed on Facebook. At first, she was just interviewing Facebook engineers about what they were working on that day. But then, British pop star Katy Perry wanted to be interviewed. The next week, the White House called and said President Obama was keen to do a ‘Town Hall’ on Facebook Live.
Soon the Facebook Live team was reporting on the news. In 2010, Zuckerberg was nominated for an Emmy Award for her coverage of the 2010 mid-term elections. “I didn’t realise,” she says. “I thought if you were nominated for an Emmy they’d roll out a red carpet to your house. They don’t. And why would we check?”
It was at this point that that Zuckerberg decided to leave Facebook. “I caught the start-up bug,” she says. “How could I not.”
Today, she runs R to Z Studios, a social media consultancy firm.