By Josh Constine
This was no sweaty, hoodie-clad boy genius. Tuesday at TechCrunch Disrupt, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated he's a business man, a mobile product visionary, and most importantly, a leader Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) employees can look up to.
Speaking quickly but confidently, he admitted mistakes. But Zuck's accomplishment was meeting his biggest questions and criticisms head on. With the smile of man holding a royal flush, he laid out his vision for the next phase of Facebook's evolution: a mobile-first product we love to use but that gives advertisers unique ways to reach us through the devices we can't put down.
Zuckerberg began by recapping Facebook's IPO, noting that despite being "disappointed" with the $FB share price, "It's not the first up and down that we ever had," possibly in reference to past privacy stumbles.
He's always run Facebook as a long-term company, delaying monetization in favor of the user experience. He espoused that value, noting that this is not the year to judge Facebook by. Instead, the next three to five years are the ones to watch as the company transitions from a web to mobile advertising company.
Before the money could start flowing, though, Facebook had to get its mobile product squared away. That meant Zuck owning up to drinking the mobile web Kool-Aid too soon. "The biggest mistake we made as a company was betting too much on HTML5." While building native apps that were basically just a wrapper for the mobile web standard let it experiment quickly, it made the apps run way too slow. "We burnt two years."
But it's on the right track with mobile product now. The latest version of the Facebook for iOS app ditched HTML5 and went all native, which will be its strategy from now on with a similar update for the Android app on the way.
Zuck said since the update, iOS users are consuming twice as many mobile news feed stories. That means twice the opportunity to serve ads, and could have been the moment of the talk most responsible for bumping up Facebook's share price by 3.3% in after-hours trading. He drove this home, declaring "on mobile we are going to make a lot more money than on desktop." That's bold, but he has to do it without annoying users so much that they leave.
Facebook's founder also took the opportunity to shut down some rumors while verifying others about the company's future. "It's a juicy thing to say we're building a phone, which is why people want to write about it. But it's so clearly the wrong strategy for us." Instead he talked about being a social layer across every device.
On the other hand, Facebook is building a search engine, and that could be another way to keep Wall Street from jumping ship. "Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have. At some point we'll do it. We have a team working on it."
What was most reassuring wasn't necessarily what Zuckerberg said, though, but how he said it. He seemed genuinely optimistic. Not quite stately or tranquil, but composed and mature. Facebook scored a huge war chest from its high-priced IPO, but many feared that the sinking price would crush morale, send veteran employees packing, and make it difficult to hire new rockstars. Even if Zuck had come out will smart words, a hesitant demeanor or sense of confusion could have shook the confidence of his team and potential recruits.
Instead, Zuckerberg outlined his strategy with such depth and bravado that the typically fierce interviewer Michael Arrington seemed pressed back on his heels, having to repeatedly ask to "unpack" the Facebook CEO's statements. He no longer seems to begrudge his duties. Zuckerberg has come to grips with the fact that being CEO of a public company is a public position - that he can't just be a maker.
When I first learned Arrington would be the interviewer, I imagined Zuck squirming under the heat of tough questions. But at just 28 years of age, Zuckerberg looked seasoned and firmly in command.
That's fortunate, because what Facebook needs now is a commander-in-chief executive officer. One who can inspire his troops to follow him on the long road to mobile monetization. That though their stock might be worth half what it was four months ago, they shouldn't leave or sell now. That the mission to connect the world is worth believing in.
But now the real work starts: Convincing advertisers that Facebook ads have superior reach, determining how to measure those ads to show their true worth, and designing them to be so subtle yet helpful that it can serve them at scale without scaring away the users.