Facebook's Social Mail and Innovation

When Amy and I started this company, 1×57, one of the things we wanted to do was pursue innovation. To create an environment where discussions can be open and frank, and lead us all to a better understanding of our world.

In this post I want to discuss social mail, Facebook’s latest innovation. I think this idea is innovative and revolutionary, but like any idea it is all in the execution. As the email wars heat up with AOL and Yahoo releasing updates to their webmail, it is clear that Google is in the lead. They recently released their Priority Inbox and the idea and execution are near perfect, in my opinion. Now, Facebook is entering the fray and here is why I think Google is scared..

To understand Facebook you have understand Mark Zuckerberg. The company does have countless managers, senior executives, VC’s, and nearly 2,000 employees but Mark is still king. The interesting part is that he doesn’t seem to be a good of a CEO but he is the boss for one reason and it is what drives Facebook. He wants to digitize our lives.

A process that I would argue is painful and frustrating for the average person. I think the frustrations over privacy and global domination are a thin veil for the truth. Of the 500 million users only a small fraction worry about that. The rest of us are more concerned about having our parents linked to us, or our ex-girlfriends, lame high school friends, etc.

When criticizing Mark Zuckerberg, as Debbie Weil does in her piece, I think its important to keep this in mind. Mark is not an evil genius, nor is he a polished executive. He is just a geek who regularly publicly humiliates himself. It sounds like such a familiar stereotype that I shouldn’t be surprised when the popular kids then make fun of and deride the geek. It is possible that we are blaming Mark for our own anguish over this digitization of our personal lives, even though any number of sites are pursuing this and it would have occurred anyways without him.

If you do pierce that veil you can start to see things a little more clearly. An objective business analysis shows that Google is deeply afraid of Facebook because their business model is built on turning weblinks into Page Rank. They maintain their edge over their competitors in the search market by jealously guarding that algorithm and relentlessly improving it. Facebook is built upon personal links between friends and colleagues and classmates. They maintain their edge in the same way by jealously guarding it and relentlessly innovating. The scary thing for Google is that their innovations are step based, meaning that they are only incremental improvements. In this area Google faces stiff competition from Bing and can only win by engaging in an arms race. A process that takes all the creativity and fun out of the job. It becomes a factory floor where stamping out regular new improvements is the job.

Contrast that with Facebook where innovation is exponential. This means big ideas, lots of creativity, and a real push to make it work today and you have an engineer’s dream job. It is easy to see why employees are leaving Google and joining Facebook en masse. Even though Techcrunch and most others would have you believe that it’s because of salary or a potential IPO. The real truth is that top talent cares more about the work they do than the money. Especially considering the environment they exist in where 100k salaries are paltry and talent is always paid well.

An example of this is Facebook Photos. In a silent but deadly way Facebook has come to dominate the entire online photo market, putting Flickr, Picasa, MySpace, and all the other niche sites in a distant second. It seems ridiculous how Facebook can ingest all of our photos, provide no vision for getting them out or even still having ownership of them, and still become the dominant player. Then you remember that all the other sites offered amazing features but no friends. It’s like if a (photo of) a tree falling in a forest and no one is around to see it, does it really fall?

This shows the power of personal relationships. Once you have that network built you can add countless pieces to it and people will love it. Video, links, threaded comments, events, groups. Each step adding millions more users and billions more dollars.

That is as long as each addition mimics real life as much as possible. You have to digitize our lives not filter them, because any filter will have a bias. Mark has learned this lesson many times over and now seems poised to move past it. He has a clarity of vision and is becoming very convincing to many of Silicon Valley’s brightest players.

Imagine if Mark came to you and said, ‘I want you to take your passion and create it online. I don’t want you to create one small part of it or even put your own mark on it, I want you to create a lasting perfect recreation of human culture online.” Then he shows you how he has done it before and how incredibly successful it has been. I don’t know about you but I would go googly-eyed and maybe even drop my company to do so.

This brings us back to Social Mail as Facebook’s entry into the email market. If you watch the announcement video and see it through the lens I just laid out for you, it becomes very clear. They are creating a message service that mimics our social lives as closely as possible. You want to talk to friends then talk to your friends and we will remove all the extra stuff like CC and Subject Lines. We will even add in caller blocking and other features that will make it easier to communicate. Each chapter of the video is designed to show you how much like real life Social Mail will be.

I think the idea is brilliant. The execution is the tough part. However, it seems that Mark Zuckerberg is putting all the right pieces into play, top talent, clarity of vision, and a relentless drive to make it happen.

Maybe he isn’t such a bad CEO after all…

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