One of the nice thing about being a magazine writer who also has access to a clean, well-lighted space on the internet, is that I get to resurrect some of tasty tidbits of reporting which get cut in the often brutal process of making words fit into the time/space continuum of magazine-making. There were many people who contributed to my understanding of the Facebook phenomenon and who didn’t make it into print; one of my clear favorites is former Facebook senior engineer Karel Baloun.
Baloun was an interesting and generous source, and spent a lot of time helping me grasp the many personalities behind the company. (It was Baloun that tipped me off to the anecdote that became the lede to the magazine piece.)
He’d been one of ten engineers hired in May 2005, right after the $12.7 million Accel Partners cash infusion, when the 790 day old company had grown to accommodate a heady 800 college networks, and was still called thefacebook.com. One of the engineers hired along with him was Steve Chen, who would leave the company a few months later to found YouTube. (Follow the networking ball: Baloun was recruited by Matt Cohler through a trusted connection via LinkedIn. Those playing along at home will remember that Cohler had been working at LinkedIn with investor Peter Thiel when Mark Zuckerberg came in for his first pitch meeting in the summer of 2004. Cohler joined the company shortly thereafter, as VP of pretty much everything.)
The Accel cash meant new blood, but it also meant that the small, ragged band of coding brothers who’d been building the site on rickety furniture from rented flats around the area would have to give up their alt.business creds and move into real offices. Sort of. In a self-published eBook called “Inside Facebook,” Baloun has fun describing the casual nature of the early Facebook as they adjusted to their new space on University Avenue inPalo Alto. “Zuck would come into the office, and seeing every chair full, just lie down on the thin carpet on his belly, sandals flapping, and start typing into his little white Mac iBook.” There’s lots of “history of the product” stuff in there too; Facebook job-seekers will no doubt get a kick out of that.
There’s quite a bit of friendly dish in the book as well. For example, Baloun believes that Chen was looking to create, ramp up and sell a company from the get-go. “Steve was looking at two choices: be a critical early success at a succeeding start-up (since he’d done that before at Paypal) or start his own company with his buddy Chad.” In a funny passage, Baloun describes counseling Chen to stick with the steady paycheck of Facebook, since he’d just bought an expensive condo in San Francisco. “But when I talked to him about the risks of adjustable rate mortgages… his mind was obviously somewhere else. His vision had him worth millions.” Sixteen months later, YouTube had a $1.65 billion pricetag, and Chen was victorious. Baloun recalls good-naturedly, “I laugh to myself how insistent we were that he personally return his corporate laptop!”
Baloun is a soft-spoken, introspective man, who recalls feeling a bit like an elder statesman among such young talent. In the book, he takes the opportunity to share his philosophies about life, family, start-ups, materialism and how technology is changing the world. Baloun, a former LookSmart engineer, also shares his 1.0 battle scars. “One fond LookSmart memory is of an executive at an all-hands Q&A session in mid-1999, at an expensive San Francisco hotel ballroom, being asked about purchasing Google. He replied that such a move would dilute LookSmart’s stock.” Ouch. But in between philosophizing and reminiscing, Baloun makes a similar point as early Facebook investor Peter Thiel does in the magazine piece – that the Facebook founders’ youth is an asset, not a liability. “I loved my early Facebook days so much because Zuck and company were completely oblivious to [sic] cynicism and therefore immune to being paralyzed by it. I have some lingering business cynicism shared by many late-nineties dotcom investors and one canine sock puppet…”
Baloun left Facebook after nearly a year – both he and the Facebook crew are politely vague about why – but each recalls the other fondly and clearly wish each other well. In fact, Baloun is a frequent contributor to many online conversations on the future of Facebook.
Baloun has moved on to other projects. He’s launched ptrades.com, a niche social site for commodity traders to experiment with free paper trades. “It applies the strengths of web2.0 community to a financial application – members can see what other successful traders are doing and why.” He’s also built a social web application “on which I’m launching half a dozen niche sites this year.”
But one of the things he misses, I bet, is the Mexican hot chocolate over at the Coupa Café, where Facebookers occasionally spend too much time. It was one of a series of recommendations he made to me which were gratefully received.