Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Accidental Billionaires

I love business books, especially those that provide insight into the creation, growth and sustainability of a business; some of my favorites include Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, Michael D'Antonio’s Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, Rich Cohen’s Sweet and Low: A Family Story and Jim Collin’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. Unfortunately, I will not be adding Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal to my list.

I decided to read The Accidental Billionaires after Citizen Reader, one of my favorite book bloggers, mentioned it in her post Why read business books?:

“So that's why I hang in there on the business books. Every now and then, as in John Bowe's Nobodies, Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires***, and Paul Midler's Poorly Made in China (as well as anything written by Michael Lewis), they actually open my mind in ways I never expected. So do consider a business book this weekend. It may not make you happy, but it might blow your mind OR give you a laugh. Both good things.”
***About the founder of Facebook, who is icky, and who could care less about your privacy, especially if he can sell it for profit.
The problem with the book is twofold. First, Citizen Reader isn’t kidding Mark Zuckerberg is icky and it isn’t just him. I was repulsed by everyone for most of the first 100 pages of this book. Zuckerberg hacking into Harvard’s computer system, stealing photos of students with the intention of creating a website that would compare photos of girls to farm animals is creepy, but so are Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins. Saverin, Facebook's first investor, spends his time trying to become a member of the Phoenix, a social fraternity at Harvard, so he can improve his social standing, meet girls and get laid. The behind the scenes story of the Winklevoss twins, who claim Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them, is also nauseating. They are Harvard seniors on track to make the Olympic team and members of the Porcellian Club the most prestigious, secretive and oldest of Harvard's eight all-male clubs. Most likely Zuckerberg did steal their idea, but I disliked them so much I found myself rooting against them.

The second problem with the book is the lack of any real insight into Facebook or its creator Zuckerberg. The book is more about Facebook’s co-founders and their account of how they were screwed by Zuckerman than the genius of Facebook. Ben Metrich writes in the first paragraph of the book:

“The Accidental Billionaires is a dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents, including records from several court proceedings.”
And then:

Mark Zuckerberg, as in his perfect right, declined to speak with me for this book despite numerous requests.

After only a couple of chapters in, I found Zuckerberg’s voice to be a noticeably absent; there are two sides to every story and the real story of Facebook probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Despite the issues I had with the book, The Accidental Billionaires is a quick engaging read and there are lessons to be had:

-Be daring. Be different. Be first. Getting there first changes everything:
Tyler Winklevoss claimed a lot of the features in Thefacebook were different from his site, ConnectU originally called Harvard Connection, but the overall concept was similar. The problem was that for certain industries, it wasn’t about the quality of the product or even corporate strategy. It was about who got there first. When Zuckerberg agreed to write the code for Harvard Connection then stalled for two months while he launched his own site he put the Harvard Connection a disadvantage. If Harvard Connection would have been the first site to launch and every college kid had signed up for it Thefacebook may have faded away unnoticed even if it was the better product.

-Put it in writing. I’ve seen more than one partnership end disastrously.
The Winklevoss’s should have put their proposal in writing and Zuckerberg should have signed it. The outcome may have been the same, but legally the twins would have been a stronger case.

- Eduardo Saverin should have drafted a written a contract with Zuckerberg before he lent him money. The act of drafting the partnership agreement may have clarified each party’s intentions and dispelled future problems.

- It really is all about the numbers.
Even if Zuckerberg’s actions are proven to be unscrupulous and Facebook is proven to be a huge tar baby (the humble opinion of my favorite librarian) it isn’t going to matter. With articles like Facebook surpasses Google as number one site no one is going to care that Zuckerberg is an unethical jerk or that spending hours on Facebook is really a big waste of time.

Please Note, I am an Amazon Affiliate


  1. I'll admit I just didn't know what to do about this book--although I'm glad you read it and formed your own opinions. Even without Zuckerberg's participation, I thought it was a good intro to the yuckiness and privacy-stealing of all the main characters, and I always appreciate a good, fast nonfiction read (especially on business topics).

    On the other hand, Mezrich has been taken to task many times for his less than rigorous approach to checking his facts, so I'm always a little hesitant to recommend him. I hope the next book on the history and founding of Facebook is a better one!

  2. Interesting assessment of this book! I read Mezrich's earlier book, "Bringing Down the House," and I think it faced some similar criticisms (about lack of depth and serious reporting). I was thinking about reading this one, but without Zuckeberg's perspective there's probably a lot to be desired. I would love to see a good, comprehensive history of Facebook though.