10 Lessons Every College Student Should Learn from Mark Zuckerberg

mark_zuckerberg_ceo_facebookIt is a story that gets told hundreds of times over and will continue to be told a hundred times more. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, along with many of his Harvard computer science contemporaries, set up the wildly popular, time-sinking, “it’s complicated”-touting social networking site in 2004 from their dorm room. From single-school directory featuring a high-contrast male mascot with a hauntingly creepy expression to worldwide phenomenon, according to Forbes it eventually led Zuckerberg to a net worth of $1.5 billion in 2008. Computer scientists and college students hoping to start their own business have a few broad lessons to learn from his success that may apply to careers and life alike.

1. Be open to change without losing sight of your goals.

facebook_log_inFacebook grew because of Zuckerberg’s flexibility and willingness to change his product based on consumer demands and financial opportunities. “Change,” of course, does not have to necessarily indicate inherent compromise. As his brainchild expanded from a Harvard dorm room to a global community, Zuckerberg never strayed away from its two most basic premises. At no point did he charge users to take advantage of the networking service – profits came purely from advertisements. Nor did Facebook ever mutate beyond its core ideal of connecting people with one another. While the artifice grew and shifted and modified to fit requests, the social networking service never quit being a social networking service. Because of this, Facebook stands as a perfect example of exercising a great deal of adaptability without ever having betrayed its initial intentions.

2. Engage people.

Individuals of all ages and companies and services of all industries swarmed Facebook for reasons other than its nonexistent cost. Though it sat perched on the internet, it opened up social portals to connect old friends and allow new ones to get to know each other better. What Zuckerberg did right is use humanity’s inherent need for interaction and allowed them a venue through which they can connect with loved ones without ever having to pay a cent. Over time, the site expanded its offerings to let them share pictures, chat, play games, take quizzes, and send gifts to one another, acting as a one-stop shop for long-distance or schedule-blocked friendship. Facebook, love it or hate it, succeeds in keeping people interested and engaged in its content. The more the masses flock to the site, the more money they may sink on sponsors. The more money sponsors receive as a result of website traffic, the more Zuckerberg benefits. And all he had to do was simply keep people interested in what he had to give them and their connections with others.

3. Embrace technology.

Facebook never would have happened without a society increasingly reliant on the internet and an accompanying flexibility towards its evolution. Zuckerberg’s project succeeded not only because of its emphasis on community and connectivity, but because it understood the potential inherent in emerging and developing technologies and did its best to take advantage of them. As a result, its openness towards utilizing everything the internet and all its myriad codes and protocols and programs had to offer led it to become one of the cornerstones of the so-called Web 2.0 movement. Social networking and greater interconnectivity with more sophisticated characterized this era of internet history. Streamlining and improving upon the format of older sites such as Friendster and Myspace, Facebook currently boasts over 200 million participants and stands as the most popular web presence of its type.

4. Pay attention to trends.

When it comes to trends, it always pays to seek a grounded balance to prevent becoming a slave to them. As with financial opportunities and growing technologies, one must pay close attention to trends and developments in order to offer an audience what they want as well as what they need. However, one must avoid relying too much on kowtowing to the latest fads in order to prevent future irrelevance. Facebook, for example, may have added applications, gifts, and promotions for the latest media into its fold, but it also kept itself centered by focusing on its core, universal, and timeless goal – helping people connect. Such aims are not dictated by the ebbs and flows of society, thus keeping the concept well-balanced and able to adapt to change without

For the particularly bold, however, it is always possible to favor the Bowie model over the Facebook and start trends instead of following them.

5. Do not dismiss older demographics.

Although users initially decried (and, in multiple cases, still do) the fact that parents, employers, and assorted dirty old men could start using Facebook after the announcement that it was expanding its offerings to anyone over the age of 13, doing so proved far more profitable to Zuckerberg and his company than leaving it as the exclusive domain of college and high school students. With wider pocketbooks at their disposal, older individuals were more likely to patronize the businesses advertising on the site. They also enjoy playing games, such as the ubiquitous Farmville and Vampire/Mafia Wars, with their family and friends throughout the world – encouraging the people they care about to join in and build the Facebook community even more. Demographics beyond the initial college and, eventually, high school students logically built upon the main principles of networking and were instrumental in its rapid and lucrative ascent.

6. Sometimes simple ideas are the most profitable.

Facebook was not an original idea. Social networking existed from the very creation of society itself, and began its current internet incarnation as a series of special-interest message boards on Usenet and other services. All Zuckerberg had to do was simply build upon what was already there using new technologies, and he began by creating a small network of Harvard students and slowly but surely expanding from there. But in spite of its current status as a bloated space overstuffed with applications and probably more per capita exclamations of “OMG LOL” than any other website, Facebook rests snugly upon one solid, simple principle. Connect people. Such a basic premise resulted in a multibillion dollar corporation. Launching from an overly complex foundation runs the risk of too many possible issues and complications right off the bat.

7. Do it yourself.

scoble-zuckerbergWhen Zuckerberg first conceived of Facebook, he collaborated with other Harvard computer science students – Chris Hughes, Eduardo Saverin, and Dustin Moskovitz – to draw up the source code and collaborate on a design. The team never needed to outsource. At the time, all the skills the team needed to start were right there amongst themselves. Self-reliance is the best way to ensure a quality product and never have to compromise based on someone else’s preferences and limitations. For a small, insular, upstart project, it also does not involve hiring people the company cannot afford as well.

8. Stick with what you know.

In adhering to a DIY philosophy, it is also a good idea to stay within known abilities. Never try and push something that does not fit. Zuckerberg and his small band of cohorts succeeded because they started a project based on their strengths and experiences. Their computer science background led to a computer science undertaking. They did not try to overtake the world biology, or literature, or politics, or underwater basket weaving. Starting from a solid, comfortable, and knowledgeable base means the difference between offering a reliable product that people want and a questionable one that may elicit skepticism. Exceptions do exist, of course, but generally staying with known talents and resources yields more financial fruit.

9. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

Zuckerberg did not become a billionaire in a vacuum. He started off by collaborating with fellow computer scientists, and while the questions themselves remain unknown, it is a safe assumption that all cooperative efforts involve a series of problems, questions, answers, and solutions. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, invested $500,000 in the venture, inspiring others to follow suit. For those students hoping to someday open their own business, this is a lesson in never hesitating to put on an honest, convincing show for investors and others who may ideologically or financially contribute to the well-being and growth of the company.

10. Strive towards building communities, not profits.

windowsat1601californiaaveFacebook started out as a directory to help Harvard students recognize and better connect with one another. It was never launched as the surprisingly lucrative money-making venture it eventually became. This ties in with keeping an open mind regarding demographics and making an honest effort to engage an audience by acknowledging trends without fully relying on them. People love it when the emphasis lay on them and their needs as opposed to making money, and they ate up Facebook because that is how it advertises itself. There is no shame in thinking and caring about money, of course, as it is a legitimate concern necessary to sustain living. But profits flood in if the main focus lay less with finances and more with nurturing the health of families and friends.

In the end, Mark Zuckerberg never really did anything too complex to rake in his fortune. Simplicity and community dictated the route he eventually took towards billionaire status, and these relatively straightforward goals have plenty to offer college students aspiring to create their own businesses and services.

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