Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chris Hughes @ MIT

Chris Hughes was at MIT on Monday, 09/15 addressing the "Founder's journey" class. He is the co-founder of Facebook and the brain behind the Barack Obama campaign. His visit was a hit among the students, many of whom related to him and the pressures he experienced building Facebook out of a Harvard dorm room. He was very engaging and had these great nuggets of wisdom to share:

When Chris, Dustin and Mark created Facebook, their goal was not to build the biggest website in the world. They started with brainstorming for a product they would all use themselves. He reiterated that it's about passion, a desire to build a great product, and not about the metrics or the money. He offered this advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:

- First, know what you are doing/working on. Second, make sure there's a need for it. Then, focus on it. Per Chris, the conversation inside Facebook was "How do we make sure the product is the best it can be for first, our end users, next, people who want to use our platform for marketing and advertising?"

- Don't get caught up in the formalities. He made it clear that he's not advising people to ignore the formalities (company incorporation, legal paperwork etc), but instead to understand that you will get caught up in it, and to be conscious of the fact that other, potentially more pressing matters, demand your attention.

- Value iteration and analytics. Chris provided an example from the Obama campaign: His first step was to understand what it was they were building. He was a newcomer to politics and like most of us with no political backgrounds, thought of TV related advertising when he heard "GEO TV" (it actually stands for "Get Out the Vote!"). He then set out to educate himself and started by clearing the slate and brainstorming. When he was short-staffed in the early days, he reacted by breaking up a big task (building the technology for the Obama campaign!) into the smallest possible pieces and tackling them one at a time.

For instance, the team first built the technology to publicize individual events, then the technology to publicize the events to different groups, and scaled from there. The focus was always on who's buying the product, who's using it, and how they are using it. On the donation page, the team tried several design changes such as the wording, the shape and color of the donate button etc. The iterations were rapid and repeated, until the team settled upon a version that increased the donation amount by 8%!

- Hire smartly. Chris advised hiring people who are smart, whose work and style you respect, are interested in your product, and are available to hire. He recommended going with the gut feeling whether or not a person is right for the job. If the feeling is one of indifference, his suggestion is to not hire them unless one's desperate!

- Don't let money distract you. Enough said.

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