Sheryl Sandberg, the new COO of Facebook, is the subject of an article in Fortune.
Sandberg’s hiring was, in my opinion, a sign that Facebook’s investors know the company needs to get serious and that if Mark Zuckerberg won’t give up the CEO role, somebody with experience who doesn’t demand that title still needs to be brought in to do what he can’t.
The move has attracted attention because the social network, which has been valued at $15bn by its most recent investors, has increasingly been questioned about its ability to develop into a real business commensurate with its popularity.
The former Google executive will thus essentially serve as Facebook’s adult supervision.
In the words of Fortune reporter Jessi Hempel, Sandberg “is in charge of helping the Valley’s most popular startup grow.“
Of course, some clarification should be added here. Facebook doesn’t have problems with certain types of growth – its audience grew 300% between February 2007 and February 2008.
Where it does have problems is sustainable revenue growth. The company posted revenues of $150m last year; much of which reportedly comes from its deal with Microsoft, which guarantees it revenue regardless of how well the software giant is able to monetize the inventory it gets.
With growing costs and an increasingly obvious inability to develop a profitable and scalable advertising platform that delivers as much for brands as it does for Facebook, the hiring of somebody to fill in the significant gaps created by founder Mark Zuckerberg’s inexperience was necessary.
“Facebook is betting that, if anyone can figure out how to turn social networking into cash, it’s Sandberg.
“As vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, she built the operations to support Google’s international strategy, and she ran its lucrative AdWords program.
“She managed the division that handled sales for nearly all of Google’s online advertisers.”
Sandberg certainly did a lot at Google and her role at Facebook will be equally demanding.
In her first few weeks on the job at Facebook, she’s already been given a list of top priorities, including “tackle international growth” and “round out the leadership team.“
And then comes the hope:
“Sandberg also hopes Facebook will figure out new advertising models for social networks.”
Facebook’s fiasco with Beacon demonstrated that doing this won’t be easy, and Sandberg - to her credit - acknowledges this.
Unfortunately, her comments to Fortune don’t inspire much confidence:
“You can think about it more in terms of form, which is usually banners, pictures, things like that, or you can think about it how I think about it, which is, it’s awareness building.
“If that’s what we mean by brand advertising, I’m very hopeful that we play a significant role in pushing the envelope.
“How we get there, I don’t think we know yet. In terms of what brand really is we could be enormously important in the market and that’s a long-term goal I have.”
In other words, Sandberg doesn’t have a clue.
Even her former employer, Google, has admitted that cracking the riddle of advertising on social networks has been more difficult than anticipated.
Few people seem to be willing to consider a very real possibility; that the nature of the social network inherently means it will never serve as the killer advertising platform many hoped for.
Therefore, social networks will matter far less to marketers than many think they will.
The reason, of course, that few people seem willing to consider this is that so much money has been invested in social networking based on the belief that social networks could revolutionize advertising on the internet.
While I have no doubt that social networks can serve as marketing platforms in some capacity, I’d argue that the size of the opportunity does not realistically support a $15bn social networking company staffed by thousands of people.
That means Sandberg will probably learn the hard way that her experience at Google is the exception, not the rule.
And Facebook will probably learn the hard way that no matter how many smart, creative and experienced people it hires, intelligence, creativity and experience can rarely take a business that isn’t viable and turn it into one that is.
But that aside, if anything I’ve read highlights the problems Facebook is facing; it is the closing paragraph of the Fortune article:
“But on day 13, that seems a very long way off. Sandberg’s immediate challenge is to meet her employees, and she has spent the better part of the first two weeks checking in with them.
“Enthusiasm about her arrival emanates. Outside the glass-walled conference room, her head of human resources, a 2004 Stanford grad named Christopher Cox, ripsticks across the floor. (It’s kind of like a skateboard, but cooler.)
“Earlier he stopped in to say how excited he was that Sandberg had arrived. ‘It was like Sheryl came and kicked everybody in the ass and said this is going to be hard,’ he said. ‘And then gave everybody a hug.'”
The vulnerability of the prototypical Millennials who apparently fill the Facebook office in Palo Alto has given me good reason to pray for its success.
I would hate to see Sandberg have to give a hug to Christopher when she informs him that he’s being laid off and that his severance consists of the ripstick he used to glide into her office on.
I simply wouldn’t fit in with the Facebook culture. I’m not much older than Zuckerberg and the average Facebook employee. But when it comes to business, I don’t need hugs and I certainly don’t give them.