Facebook Grows Up: Do startups need to change their culture to succeed?

by Nicholas Skillicorn

Zuckerberg1

By all accounts, Mark Zuckerberg should have the world’s biggest hangover today. Yesterday was his 30th Birthday, and as one of the most successful and richest 30 year olds in the world he has a lot to celebrate. In Feb this year, Facebook also turned 10 years old.

But what you may not realise is the huge cultural shift which has occurred in the past year, led by Zuckerberg, to help the company “grow up”. The aim has been to develop a company culture that is more mature, but that still enables their people to innovate in exciting ways. And this cultural shift has coincided with the time when Facebook as a company has actually started reaping exceptional financial success. Over the past year, this mentality has apparently been producing real dividends, with the new mobile-platform strategy Mark Zuckerberg is championing has led to profits up over 190% YoY in their latest financial reports.

So here I want to pose the question: If companies want to ultimately become financially successful, do they at some point all need to grow up and get a more serious / mature culture?

Let me explain. Within the technology industry, Facebook has long been held up as a shining example of how to succeed by having smart people, but also having a cool mentality and cultural values. The founder Mark Zuckerberg was a genius university dropout, who would wear hoodies to business meetings and resisted selling his company for Billions of dollars. Employees would have their skill and imagination tested by programming challenges in alcohol-fueled hackathons. And there was the semi-official mantra of the company, even quoted by Zuckerberg in the filing of their IPO, which become a legend in Silicon Valley:

Move fast and break things

It represented a mindset that was willing to try out new ideas. Programmers could write crude versions of new functionality, and then release them to a subset of users, knowing full well that it wasn’t perfect and would need to be iterated upon. It was this mindset that enabled Facebook to roll out and test a multitude of new features, some of which have been game-changers (the newsfeed, graph search, the “like” button), some of which have been failures (facebook currency, notes, games which spam you), and many behind the scenes innovations (server design, databases, flash storage). Either way, it resulted in a huge amount of innovation.

Facebook2Then, at this years F8 Facebook Developer conference, Zuckerberg announced that the motto had changed. He spoke on stage that now it was the decidedly less sexy: Move Fast with Stable Infra[structure]

“We used to have this famous mantra … and the idea here is that as developers, moving quickly is so important that we were even willing to tolerate a few bugs in order to do it. What we realized over time is that it wasn’t helping us to move faster because we had to slow down to fix these bugs and it wasn’t improving our speed. It might not have the same ring to it and might not be as catchy… but it helps us build better experiences for everyone we serve and how we operate now.” – Mark Zuckerberg

More than a billion people now use Facebook regularly, and a huge number of developers relying on their platform. Not to mention the millions of shareholders of Facebook stock, who now expect the company to behave more prudently.

So does this mean that the company has moved their mentality away from innovating and towards having a super-stable but less flexible platform? The answer to that is a resounding no. At the same F8 conference, Facebook announced a number of new initiatives and features it is currently working on, which not only extend the functionality of Facebook for its users and advertisers, but also external developers. One of the exciting announcements was for Applinks, an Open Platform which Facebook has developed enabling apps on mobile devices to interact with each other directly, instead of going via a web browser. Time will tell how developers choose to use it, but it could be a big change in the way you use your devices in the next 18 months.

Facebook isn’t the only company which realised it needed to grow up in order to become a more manageable and sustainable business, especially after going public. Google is another fine example. They used to be lauded for an internal programme whereby staff could spend one day a week working on whatever they wanted, known as 20% time. Then in August last year, reports came out that Google had effectively killed off this perk. But insiders weren’t all that shocked. 20% time was a bit of a relic from when Google was growing so quickly that roles weren’t clear and staff didn’t always have enough work to do. In today’s Google, innovation seems to be a lot more focused and aligned with company strategy, with incremental innovation done as part of everyday work, and Google X Labs working on breakthrough / disruptive innovation like driverless cars and smart contact lenses. All the while, Google’s stock price continues to rise.

Eventually, all companies need to grow up, and reconsider certain aspects of their culture which differentiated them when they were startups. What becomes apparent is that many of the perks or cultural values which many startups put so much pride in turn out to be extremely superficial, with little to no impact on that company’s capability to innovate or likelihood to succeed. There is no correlation between the number of games consoles in an office or amount of beer-pong played to the quality of innovations produced in a startup. But becoming successful doesn’t mean also becoming overly bureaucratic or slow-moving either.

A real innovation culture is based on a belief that everyone can and should be constantly involved in innovation, but also have clarity on how this energy should work towards the company strategy. And that is a trait which isn’t necessarily lost as a company grows up.

If you need any proof, just look at the wise words of a young man who just turned 30. Happy Birthday, Mark. The next round of drinks are on you.

Do you think that companies need to let go of a Startup mentality in order to be successful? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to get my weekly Innovation Insights newsletter along with my report on the Secrets of Ongoing Innovation Success using the form below.

[originally published on May 16 by Improvides]
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Nick SkillicornNick Skillicorn is an Innovation consultant and Creativity coach in London. Find out what Improvides can do for your organisation, and get your free copy of his new book The Secrets of ongoing Innovation Success. Follow Nick at @improvides

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