Facebook needs a new CEO
Facebook has now gone through its first trial by fire as a public company, slightly exceeding revenue expectations (with $1.18 billion) but showing a big loss in its first reported quarter ($157 million). Facebook shares were pummeled in after-hours trading; the company’s market cap has been slashed in half in just 10 weeks.
This is a bad, bad situation for Facebook’s early shareholders, 97% of whom are individual, retail investors – unlike those at the other big tech titans, which are majority-held by institutions: Google (68%) and Apple (67%). That Facebook’s percentage is so high suggests that Facebook is a stock for the masses. The masses need a hero.
That hero is not Mark Zuckerberg. He needs to get out of the way – not because we can judge him a disaster based on a single’s earnings period, but because he isn’t playing to his strength. He’s letting down the average folks who saw something shiny and new, but are now seeing shades of overhyped tech redux.
Facebook needs its spiritual leader and chief innovator in a hoodie. But it doesn’t need him as CEO, placating investors in a collared shirt. There are plenty of people who could manage the Facebook business. But there’s only one Mark, who needs to focus on product strategy, not investor relations.
I’ve made no secret that I’m wary of Facebook’s prospects, that I don’t think it can become as successful as a business as it has been as a social network. Zuckerberg himself confessed the obvious only days ago: Mobile is the challenge, especially when it comes to making money. And it’s a big one as members increasingly use Facebook on smartphones and tablets instead of a traditional computer.
But the meta-problem for Facebook is how we think of the company. Now we think of it first as a company – not a service. Felix Salmon summed up the dilemma in a post headlined: “Why going public sucks …”
Zuckerberg — or any other CEO — has very little control over his company’s share price, but once a company is public, that’s all the public really cares about … Facebook could change the world – Facebook has already changed the world, and did so as a private company – but at this point people don’t care about that anymore. All they care about is the first derivative of the share price. And maybe the second.
The challenge, thus, is for Facebook to satisfy the Street as best it can under intense scrutiny, while continuing to innovate so that it extends its reputation as a game-changer (whether or not you like what it does and how it does it). Some people can keep these two plates spinning, but that’s a rare combination. You do need an innovative spirit in the corner office, but more important, you need incredible business savvy, swagger and salesmanship.
One quarter – the first, mind you – does not a verdict make. But Zuckerberg might consider this: If he isn’t the CEO and chief executive, he can concentrate on what he does really well, still strongly influence strategy, and silence critics who quite reasonably suggest that he doesn’t – can’t – have what it takes to run a company that went from 0 to 60 – billion dollars, that is – in seven years. Zuckerberg is at least partly responsible for the pipe dream that Facebook was worth $100 billion when it went public. He either strongly believed this, or was convinced or cowed by the underwriters. Neither speaks well of his CEO stripes.
I don’t think the Street would see a change in Zuckerberg’s status as a knee-jerk negative; founders go sideways all the time, for a variety of reasons, none necessarily associated with failure.
Bill Gates, to whom Zuckerberg has been favorably compared, stepped aside after a long run as Microsoft CEO to take the title of chief research and strategy officer (all right, Steve Ballmer may not be my best argument).
Dick Costollo succeeded Evan Williams as Twitter’s CEO. Williams
now focuses then went to work on product direction. (Correction: This post originally implied Evan Williams was still working on product direction. He is no longer with the company.)
Google’s Larry Page stepped aside for a while to let Eric Schmidt take the lead. He’s back in the corner office now, of course, but his biggest fiscal problem is how to make money on more than advertising alone (a problem Zuckerberg would kill for).
Even a case can be made for Apple: Jobs was fired, true, but his 11 years in exile arguably burnished him to return as perhaps one of the best CEOs in history, turning a floundering firm into the world’s largest public company.
Heck, even Craig Newmark’s realization that he wasn’t CEO material is informative. He demoted himself to customer support – and doesn’t even run that department – but is chairman of the board of Craigslist.
Zuckerberg is Facebook’s controlling shareholder and the chairman of the board, so nothing significant can be done without his acquiescence anyway. He’s a mere 28 – lots of time to invent and reinvent.
Get out of the line of fire and retreat to the lab. It’s the perfect time to get wired in again.
PHOTO: Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg attends the Allen & Co Media Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, July 12, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart