Being Mark Zuckerberg

It was late December 2005 in Palo Alto, California, and Silicon Valley’s newest wunderkind wasn’t feeling the holiday glee.  Upstairs in a busy loft decorated with Christmas lights and Family Guy posters, Facebook’s 21-year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg ambled from an elevator.  I had come to talk with him about his life and site, which was just then gaining steam.  He was followed by his business partner and former Harvard roommate, Dustin Moskovitz, on a Razor scooter.

“You want to ask us some questions about sexual harassment?” Zuckerberg asked me, half-jokingly, as he flopped into a chair and kicked off his worn Adidas sandals.  Moskovitz brandished a fistful of papers with an impish grin.  The two had just left a lengthy seminar on the subject, a requirement for doing business here and a small part of being the Internet’s next big thing. 

Today, nearly five years later, Facebook has become the biggest thing of all.   In the coming weeks, a fictionalized version of Zuckerberg’s startup days – a film called The Social Network – will be coming to theaters. It got me thinking about my first meeting with him, and how many of the goals he mapped out then ultimately came to life.   At his heart, he struck me as a determined engineer – more interested in building something genuinely cool than selling out (as impossible as that was to believe at the time).

Though the site had just been dubbed by Fortune as “the most buzzed-about company in Silicon Valley this side of Google,” Zuckerberg repeatedly told me that he had no interest in cashing in.  “We’re having too much fun,” he says.  He was particularly proud of how Facebook was systematically changing the way college students were communicating with each other. “We’ve effectively removed the need to get someone’s phone number,” Zuckerberg said, proudly.

On his desk there were two boxes of business cards.  One read, “CEO,” and the other, ‘I’m CEO…Bitch.”  As he flipped through the dozens of new emails on his laptop, Zuckerberg told me he was fazing out the latter after inadvertently handing one to a reporter and seeing it wind up in print.  “I’m a little more careful now about who I hand them too,” he said.

While Silicon Valley had seen its share of whiz kids, Zuckerberg was so young, he seemed larval.  But even then with his ruddy just-played-in-the-snow cheeks, he was noticeably adjusting to his new multimillion dollar role.  When Moskovitz made a crack about Facebooking attractive Harvard girls, Zuckerberg awkwardly smacked him in the arm.  “Dude, we just got out of a sexual harassment seminar,” he snapped.

Later that night, we went back to his apartment for a break.  He lived just a few blocks away in a modest rental that suited a monkish coder his age.  In the living room, was just a mattress on the floor.  The shower had no curtain.  The only indication that a budding dot com mogul lurked inside was the sweet Infiniti FX35, a gift from Facebook’s first investor, PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, parked in the alley nearby. 

Zuckerberg retreated to the tiny kitchen to boil up a pot of water for green tea.  Despite the fortune he knew he was facing, he was discovering himself to be a guy of simple needs.  His only splurge was an electric guitar, leaning up against the wall.  He had started meditating every day and, after getting off work at two or three a.m., unwound by driving aimlessly through the streets with his radio on. “I just want to build cool stuff,” he said, sipping his tea, “and not let anything get in the way.”

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