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Technology Leadership Lessons drawn from The Social Network

10 October 2011

The Social Network is a screenplay that explores the meaning of success in the early 21st century from the perspectives of the technological innovators who revolutionized the way we all communicate. The year was 2003. As prohibitively expensive technology became affordable to the masses and the Internet made it easy to stay in touch with people who were halfway across the world, Harvard undergrad and computer programming wizard Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) launched a website with the potential to alter the very fabric of our society. At the time, Zuckerberg was just six years away from making his first million. But his hearty payday would come at a high price, because despite all of Zuckerberg’s wealth and success, his personal life began to suffer as he became mired in legal disputes, and discovered that many of the 500 million people he had friended during his rise to the top were eager to see him fall. Chief among that growing list of detractors was Zuckerberg’s former college friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose generous financial contributions to Facebook served as the seed that helped the company to sprout. And some might argue that Zuckerberg’s bold venture wouldn’t have evolved into the cultural juggernaut that it ultimately became had Napster founder Sean Parker () not spread the word about Facebook to the venture capitalists from Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) engage Zuckerberg in a fierce courtroom battle for ownership of Facebook that left many suspecting the young entrepreneur might have let his greed eclipse his better judgment. The Social Network was based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi. Watch the trailer here.

The Winklevoss Twins

Some lessons especially for technology entrepreneurs, could be drawn from the events and happenings from the movie. Firstly, it is worth noting that ideas could grown to become a billion-dollar venture. Further, especially because we find ourselves in the information age, it is important to be careful who business ideas are shared with. Ideas given out should be based on mutual trust cemented by and in some legal framework and paperwork. In the case of the the Winklevoss twins, it could be argued out that it was their idea of Harvard connect that gave shape to Zuckerberg’s social connection side idea. If they had guarded and worked it out on their own it could have become something else other than Facebook. Even though they won some $60m in the lawsuit, it is nothing compared to the billions Facebook is now worth. Some kind of stake/shares could rather have been sought instead of settlement for damages.

Secondly, if the unfortunate happens, where your idea seems to be implemented by someone, it is important to know that getting there first counts. If the other party arrives first, there would always be the playing of catch up. He who arrives first and in style, gets all the traction and attention, and establishes the brand in the consumers’ minds. This could go a long way in increasing switching costs. For example, even before the Twins mentiond harvard_connect, Zuckerberg had already established himself by creating facesmash which drew 12,000 hits in two hours.

Thirdly, development of technology products and services seem to be based on already familiar ideas. This could be disputed considering some products that was clearly revolutionary, like the graphical user interface. However, it is evident from the movie that Facebook had some fundamentals of already existing platforms like MySpace and Friendster. What was added was exclusivity; that one needed a harvard.edu email to sign up. Then the coolness; no popup advertisement. Like Justin Timberlake put it, not telling the attendees that the party ends at 11pm. Two lessons here are that, before tech products come up, there should be some feature that attracts a critical mass of followers and/or adopters. Immediate monetary returns should not be the prime motive. This seems to be in line with contemporary companies’ focus on offering “customer delight” instead of mere client satisfaction. Such focus is depicted in how Facebook spread through various college campuses and hiring more interns to keep working on the website.

To add to the above, technology leaders need to see the big picture when developing new products. This big picture should be a core part of the target group’s life. Sometimes it would not make sense in the initial stage. For example, facebook created an avenue for friends to share pictures and updates. However, the most important image it created was that, it served as an extension of one’s physical lifestyle. Seeing the big picture thus needs the ability and skill to defend it. Those who do not see this big picture would divert efforts and somewhere else. This makes it an all-important skill to be able to defend and/or convince such people as investors to be able to pool resources towards the achievement of the final goal.

Move to California or not!

The moral aspect of the movie is quite downplayed and overlooked. This seems to be ‘normal’. Mr. Saverin in the movie is blamed for signing his own proverbial death warrant; his shares are diluted to 0.03% whilst Zuckerberg’s 30% and the other’s remain untouched. This he does based on the trust he had built with his partner over the years. For whatever reason Mark tows that line, it is unclear. It seems however to be based on Parker’s advice (because he mocks Saverin when he confronts Mark). Parker eventually gets himself also in a situation that could have jeopardised the company’s image. Even though it is business, the social and moral life could have effects on the company’s reputation, because the media tend to be on the lookout for negative news.

How would you like it settled, sir?

More positively, it behoves on technology leaders to identify and enter into partnerships that have positive growth potential. Saverin kept on looking for deals to push Facebook until the meeting with Napster founder. This seems to be the turning point because it leads to an angel investor that brings in half of a million dollars.

In all the lawsuits and the excessive partying about the company’s successes, Mark is seen to party less and keeps working on facebook. The lesson that could be drawn here especially in the light of continuous recent updates is that technology products cannot afford to be static. It needs to evolve in features as consumers’ tastes also evolve. Such evolution however, needs to be customer-centric.

Reviews from Rottentomatoes.com

You will know The Social Network is something very special from its first scene. by Charlie McCollum
San Jose Mercury News.

 There’s a cool precision and honesty to The Social Network, the story of the founding of Facebook, which guarantees its entertainment value even as it limits its emotional impact.  Tom Long, Detroit News

Somehow the results come together like the perfect status update. Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News

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