Over the holidays, one of my relatives referred to our Zoom gathering as a “Kodak moment.” The call-back made me grin, since the relative in question was born long after Kodak was a real player in the photography business.
The Kodak brand still resonates because the company successfully positioned itself as the vehicle by which people, and especially families, communicate and share memories with those they love.
By the time it became wildly popular, Facebook played the same sort of role in the lives of users that Kodak did. Facebook was one a few applications that was embraced by all age groups, who used it to revive old connections, make new friendships, and createshared memories.
Nevertheless, today Facebook’s brand is pretty much in the metaphorical toilet. In 2020, Mark Zuckerberg completed the transformation of Facebook from the company that brings you love to the company you love to hate. Here are his most egregious blunders:
1. Remaining the Corporate Spokesperson
For reasons I don’t fully understand but which probably have to do with hubris and vanity, tech founders seem determined to use their own face as the public face of their corporate brand. This works if the founder or CEO has the swashbuckling charisma of Elon Musk or even the Doctor Evil-ish villainy of, say, Jeff Bezos.
Mark Zuckerberg, by contrast, looks like a blinking mole emerging into the sunlight after a winter hibernation. On his best days, Zuck makes Jesse Eisenberg look like Chris Evans. But apparently Zuckerberg is too vain, or perhaps too clueless, to do the obvious: remain as chairman, but promote Sheryl Sandberg to CEO and let her media-friendly persona work its undeniable charm.
The lesson here for entrepreneurs is that, if you’re going to have your face be the de facto logo for your company, you’d better have a face that might not be best described as eminently punchable.
2. Sipping, But Not Drinking, the Kool-Aid
When Facebook was first accused of censoring the alt-right conspiracy buffs and their political enablers, Zuckerberg could have pointed out that Facebook is a private company and is thus not obligated to air anyone’s “Alternative facts.” Instead, Zuckerberg made public noises about free speech and cozied up to Trump, hoping that kissing the ring (as it were) might save Facebook from government regulation.
Kneeling oscalation notwithstanding, Facebook got clobbered with the first major anti-trust lawsuit that the US Department of Justice has brought in the past 25 years. Whoops-a-daisy!
What Zuckerberg failed to realize is that, when you’re in CrazyTown, there are no shades of gray. Either you’re all in or you’re the enemy. The only way Zuckerberg could’ve avoided that anti-trust suit would’ve been to turn Facebook into a Fox News clone. By trying to play both sides, however, he merely alienated constituencies that might’ve cut him some slack. As it is the Biden administration will probably join in the pile-on.
The lesson here for entrepreneurs is that you have to pick sides. Long gone is the time where you can pretend the politics don’t matter and that you’re going to appeal to everybody. Maybe you can avoid choosing sides if you fly under the radar, but if you’re under the radar nobody’s gonna know you’re there, right?
3. Utterly Failing to Innovate
Zuckerberg’s failure in 2020 to either scuttle, purchase, or imitate TikTok merely emphasized Facebook’s total lack of creativity under his leadership. The Facebook app looks and feels like it’s stuck in 2004 — ugly, bloated, busy, difficult to use, and easy to abuse. What’s worse, Facebook only has a single revenue stream, making it vulnerable to being kneecapped, if not by the government then, by Apple.
It became painfully obvious in 2020 that Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had an original idea since his college days. He’s like that guy who poses as a self-made man after inheriting a fortune, or the guy that thinks has friends because he buys drink for strangers in a bar. Zuckerberg poses as an innovator but he’s really just a one-trick pony with a lot of money.
The lesson here for entrepreneurs is that a strategy of acquisition is the last resort of the mediocre.