Five years ago this month, I sent senior writer Ellen McGirt to Palo Alto to stalk a cover subject. Our prey was a 22-year-old college dropout. He ran a free online service for college students.
McGirt called me on her cell phone that evening. Her story target was walking his bicycle down the sidewalk, right in front of her. She had an officially sanctioned interview scheduled for the next morning, but what if it was canceled? "Should I go up to him now?" she asked. "What do I do?"
This was before The Social Network, before Facebook was a global phenomenon, before Mark Zuckerberg was famous. McGirt decided against the ambush and got her interview the next day. Thus began a warm relationship—between Zuckerberg and McGirt, and between Fast Company's readers and Facebook.
The cover line was "The Kid Who Turned Down $1 Billion." Newsstand sales were strong. We figured that some of Facebook's users bulked up our audience. After all, there were 19 million of them at the time.
Zuckerberg did not like the cover line (which was my creation, not McGirt's). But the article—which held the title "Hacker. Dropout. CEO."—captured both him and Facebook at an important inflection point. It also foreshadowed much of what would come: Among other things, the fourth paragraph began, "Zuckerberg's life so far is like a movie script."
Zuckerberg has been written about plenty since then. He can't go anywhere without being stalked now—at a recent New York Knicks game, he was gawked at almost as much as Jeremy Lin. He is a singular figure in our business culture, and in our culture, period. He's become a celebrity, an idol. In this issue, on the verge of Facebook's IPO, with that "kid" now worth somewhere north of $25 billion and his user base past 845 million, McGirt takes us inside that transformation—the maturation of Zuckerberg as a leader and the distinctive philosophy at the core of his decisions. Facebook may be in the midst of its quiet period, but McGirt draws on years of analysis and reporting, including a visit to Facebook late last year.
Zuckerberg's success can be attributed to many things: an unusually high intellect; an intuition about how the Internet could provide a new kind of social interaction; a confidence, both to push forward his own agenda and to convince others, whether funders or engineers, to join him. But what most defines him, as McGirt explains in "How Ya Like Me Now?", and what has unquestionably driven his company's growth, has been a willingness and even eagerness to change his business, even when it is booming. The Silicon Valley word for it is to iterate. But that dry, intellectual term gives little context to the challenge involved.
Facebook was already a marvel in 2007. It had spread from college campus to college campus. When Zuckerberg decided he wanted to throw open the gates and let anyone join, many colleagues at Facebook resisted. Zuckerberg insisted. The company would not be what it is now if he had been more prudent, less bold.
This is a posture Zuckerberg has taken repeatedly. When he launched the News Feed feature, users seemingly revolted. Media coverage was negative, about how he'd misread his customers. It seems hard to believe, since today News Feed is at the core of the Facebook experience. It didn't drive his users away; it brought them closer together. Time and again, Zuckerberg has made the progressive decision, the one that keeps his service moving forward. To iterate once is difficult enough. To continually iterate, to build a culture where the goal is to disrupt yourself before someone else can do it, is rare indeed.
I am often asked, What is the next Facebook? It's an intriguing question, but one that largely misses the point: The likelihood of another Facebook emerging anytime soon is remote. Facebook is a once-in-a-generation occurrence. Our coverage this issue includes "Designing Happiness," an inside tour of Facebook's design process, by E.B. Boyd, and "The Morning After," a blunt five-point prediction, by Farhad Manjoo, of where Facebook will go next. This is the latest installment in a captivating saga with a protagonist who remains, despite his notoriety, on the early edge of his development. We will continue to chart Facebook's evolution, and Zuckerberg's, for what we expect to be a very long time.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.