October 26th, 2010
During the 1993-94 academic year, as a visiting professor at the Kennedy School and resident faculty member at Quincy House, I discovered facebook. At the start of the year, the house published its facebook: a softcover booklet with pictures of and biographical information about all the students there, as well as lists showing the students by categories such as roommate groups, first names, birthdays, home towns, and majors. I thought it was a great way of helping the students connect with one another, and evidence of what I found was a much more friendly and caring attitude on the part of the College than when I was an undergrad there in the late 60s.
Flash forward to 2003. Most of the houses’ facebooks are now online, and Harvard’s more entrepreneurial computer geeks are thinking about how to join them up into a college-wide facebook and then scale up from there. And I’m sure there were students at other universities with facebooks working on the same idea.
Such was the origin of the renowned social networking website Facebook, as chronicled in Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires and the Fincher-Sorkin movie The Social Network. I just saw the movie, and liked it very much, in particular because the creators used a very clever narrative strategy.
In The West Wing, Sorkin privileged dialogue over plot, emphasizing policy wonk speak about a set of issues in play, and often unresolved, in any given episode. In The Social Network, Sorkin didn’t try to recreate computer geek speak, which would have left most of the audience baffled. The plot structure revolved around two conflicts, the one between Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg and the brothers Winkelvoss about whether he had stolen their idea, and the other between Zuckerberg and his initial partner Eduardo Saverin and the validity of the agreement forcing the latter out of the company. The two conflicts are conflated in a legal deposition-taking, so that the history of Facebook unfolds in flashbacks, with the conflicts portrayed as they happened and then discussed by the protagonists afterwards. This approach has stimulated considerable critical and audience discussion about which of the conflicting parties were justified in either a legal or a moral sense. It is a great example of narrative multi-vocality, conflicting stories presented in a given text.
Thinking about the movie has led me to formulate (at least as a first cut) an entrepreneurial narrative genre, which I’ll describe in terms of both the players and events. The genre’s hero is the entrepreneur, the person who has a new idea and attempts to put it into practice.
One important issue is the entrepreneur’s motivation. Is (s)he doing it for intrinsic reasons, namely to realize an idea and make the world take notice? Is (s)he trying to get rich, particularly if there is a family to support? In Zuckerberg’s case, there was no family and, initially at least, money didn’t seem to matter to him. The intrinsic satisfaction and subsequent renown from building the best social networking site did. The film also makes clear that, in the company of women, he was an aspie-loser-geek, so doing something so impressive that a Victoria’s Secret model would gladly show him her secrets was an important motivator.
Competition is an important element of the entrepreneurial fable. Smart people (for example Newton and Leibniz on calculus) are simultaneously working on the same problem, and entrepreneurship is often a race against the competition for first mover advantage. So Zuckerberg was competing against the Winkelvossim, whom he had contact with, and all the other social networking entrepreneurs at Harvard and elsewhere whom he didn’t have contact with, but whom he knew were also trying to scale up their facebooks.
The mentor is another key character. In Zuckerberg’s case, the mentor was Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who held out to Zuckerberg the attractions of Silicon Valley, in particular access to the leading VCs, as well as the lifestyle that attracted the Victoria’s Secret models (though Zuckerberg was more interested in the sex than the drugs). Parker didn’t remain a mentor for long, but he was in the right place at the right time.
If Parker was in the right place at the right time, cofounder Eduardo Saverin wasn’t. When Zuckerberg went to the Valley for Facebook’s first summer, Saverin stayed in New York. When Zuckerberg, with Parker’s help, could see that venture capital funding was the way forward, Saverin visited the salons and even pounded the streets of New York trying, without much success, to sell advertising. Saverin represents the initial partner who doesn’t understand the company’s evolving opportunities and strategic direction, and who is thus left behind.
So the archetypal story is that the entrepreneur gets the idea and starts to work on making it into a product or service. Along the way, (s)he finds the resources, fights off the competition, benefits from the advice of a mentor, dumps the clueless partner, and realizes the entrepreneurial dream. My hypothesis is that this pattern fits the first chapter of many other entrepreneurial narratives (Microsoft, Apple). But that remains to be demonstrated.