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Why I doubted Facebook could build a billion dollar business, and what I learned from being horribly wrong

Facebook, early 2006
Sometimes, you need to be horribly, embarrassingly wrong to remind yourself to keep an open mind. This is my story of my failure to understand Facebook’s potential.

In 2006, I was working on a new ad network business that experimented a lot with targeting ads with social network data, broadly known as “retargeting” now. The idea was that we’d be able to take your interests and target advertising towards them, which would lead to higher CPMs. As part of this project, we did a meeting with Facebook when they were ~12 people. I had read bits and pieces about the company in the news, but since I was a few years out of college, I hadn’t used their product much. We got a meeting and since I was based in Seattle at the time, I flew down with some coworkers and chatted with them at their new office in Palo Alto.

We met the Facebook team at their office right next to the Sushitomo on University Ave. The place looked like a frat house – a TV and video game console on the ground, clothes and trash everywhere – the result of a handful of young people working very hard. After waiting a few minutes, we were escorted into a meeting room where we met with Sean Parker, Matt Cohler, and Mark Zuckerberg. Sean led the meeting, and told us a lot about Facebook, the amazing job he did raising their recent VC round from Accel, and all the good things that were happening at the company. Mark and the other folks there didn’t say a thing.

Ultimately, we didn’t get to work with them though we did eventually sign 1000s of publishers including MySpace, AOL, Wall St. Journal, NY Times, and others. But that meeting opened my eyes and convinced me of a horribly wrong thing: Facebook would never be a billion dollar company.

The metrics for Facebook – high growth, very low CPMs
As part of our meeting, we talked a bit about the metrics around Facebook, and I was immediately struck by a few things:

  • Facebook was growing fast- very fast, and impressively handled by a super young team (like me!) sitting on a site with millions of uniques/month
  • Their CPMs were terrible, lower than $0.25 (the revenue earned per thousand ad impressions) and the site was covered (at the time) with crappy remnant ads like online poker, dating, mortgages, etc. (ironically, which we now associate with MySpace)
  • They didn’t know much about advertising, and that their CPMs were really bad and unlikely to improve- their monetization strategy seemed superficial at best

From these numbers, I did a quick calculation:

$0.25 CPM * 5 billion ad impressions per month max?
= $1.25M/month = $15M/year = $150-300M value business?

I figured that Facebook hitting 5B ads/month would be incredible – after all, it was just a college social network, right? Hitting 5B impressions/month would make Facebook bigger than our largest client at the time, ESPN.com, a top 10 internet property. The only thing larger were big portals like Yahoo, MSN, and AOL. The idea that Facebook would one day be bigger than all the portals never crossed my mind.

I was confident especially in the CPM number staying low because I had multiple proprietary datapoints from across the industry – from MySpace, Friendster, Hi5, Dogster, and many other social networks. I was convinced that I had a unique understanding about Facebook’s true potential – that convinced me even more that it could never be big.

And of course, I was totally, horribly wrong :)

The case at Yahoo for buying Facebook
While I was doing these calculations after my meeting, Yahoo was also doing a similar analysis on the value of Facebook for their ill-fated attempt at buying the company. I would first read about it in the WSJ, but later saw this fascinating slide on Techcrunch.

The slide below starts out with a projection of how many registered users Facebook had at the time and projected very logically what it would mean for them to saturate more of the core userbase of “high school and young adult” – I’m sure at the time, these felt like aggressive projections to ultimately be able to justify a big purchase price:

If you look at these numbers and compare them to what really happened, it’s pretty hilarious. Comparing their projected 2010E and what actually happened, they were only off by a few hundred million users!

Furthermore, I would say that even the Yahoo numbers were very optimistic about the increase from CPM going from $0.25 to >$5 over time. There were a lot of problems with brand advertisers putting themselves next to user-generated content that had not been worked out, and these numbers would have also ultimately involved Facebook doing homepage takeovers and such. And in fact, it’s true that no large user-generated content or social networking site has been able to generate CPMs close to the $5 level, at scale.

So what was wrong with my reasoning?
Ultimately, all my conclusions were wrong by several orders of magnitude – Facebook would go on to become the #1 site on the internet and would break all attempts at reasoning based on historical datapoints, interpolation, expert opinions, etc.

To contrast how silly my reasoning turned out to be:

My 2006 prediction: Facebook would max out at 3-5B pageviews/month
Reality
: Facebook is at 1 trillion pageviews/month, and growing

I was ultimately right on the CPMs not improving by much, but it didn’t matter because I was off by 200-300x on pageviews/month! Total fail. The big insight, of course, was that Facebook wouldn’t just stay a social network for college students – ultimately the product targeted the market of everyone in the world. Confined within this the college niche, the idea that Facebook would one day reach a trillion pageviews per month seemed ludicrous. But because of the vision of the founding team, Facebook broke through this niche to build a new product that the world had never seen, and got to the numbers I had never predicted.

The most exceptional cases defy simple pattern-matching
As I mentioned in my previous post on group think vs innovation in Silicon Valley, there’s a strange contradiction between the mental tools we use to analyze and categorize businesses versus what it looks like when there’s an exceptional company that takes off. Pattern matching, deductive reasoning, and expert opinion tell you how things work in the “typical” case, but of course, we’re not interested in the typical case – we’re trying to find the exceptional ones, the rocketship companies that define the startup landscape.

That’s exactly when our logical reasoning and historically-based reasoning fails us the most.

For example, after years of failures from the entire category of social shopping sites like ThisNext, Kaboodle, and others, Pinterest has become the hottest company of the year. After years of Google impressing upon all of us that every startup needed to have an algorithm called X-rank and a 10X technology advantage, a simplistic webapp known as Twitter would emerge. And after 10 VC-funded search companies were started, and people at Yahoo thought search was a loss-leading feature that would best be outsourced, Google emerged. The list goes on and on.

Legendary VC Mike Moritz, who invested in Google/Yahoo/PayPal/Apple/etc has a relevant quote here:

I rarely think about big themes. The business is like bird spotting. I don’t try to pick out the flock. Each one is different and I try to find an interestingly complected bird in a flock rather than try to make an observation about an entire flock. For that reason, while other firms may avoid companies because they perceive a certain investment sector as being overplayed or already mature, Sequoia is “careful not to redline neighborhoods.

There’s a lot to be said for investing in the ugly duckling. When Don Valentine led Sequoia Capital’s investment in Cisco, many others had passed on the husband and wife founding team of Len Bosack and Sandy Lerner.

Never has a more profound thing been said about birdspotting :)

The biggest lesson I took away
The concrete lesson to be learned from this is: In the modern era, business models are a commodity. I never want to hear about people asking, “But what’s their business model?” because in a world where you can grow a userbase of 1 billion in a few years, displaying remnant ads and getting a $0.25 CPM will do. Or just throw some freemium model on it, and monetize 1% of them. If you can build the audience, you can build a big business.

The more abstract lesson to learn is: Be humble, and keep an open mind towards weird new companies. After a few years in Silicon Valley, you can gather a lot of useful heuristics about what’s worked and what doesn’t work. That will help you most of the time, but when it comes to the exceptional cases, all bets are off. So keep your mind open to weird, young companies that you meet that don’t fit the established pattern: Maybe the founders will all be recent MBAs, or be a spinout from a stodgy old corporation. Or maybe it’ll be in a slow-moving market, or it’ll be a married couple, or there’s 10 founders, or some other stereotypically bad thing. Remember that you’re helping/investing/working for the company right in front you, not a mutual fund of all companies with that characteristic!

If you had looked at social networking companies as a group, as I did, you would have found a flock of companies with questionable business models. However, if you had been prescient enough to pick out Facebook specifically, then you would have seen a company break through all historic precedents and become a huge success. Hats off to all 12 employees I met that day in 2006.

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