Tech, success, failure and sex - but not in that order

Kathryn Bice - AAP

7 minute read

Randi Zuckerberg, the former Director of Market Development at Facebook, talks about what digital disruption is doing for all of us.

I graduated from Harvard University. I wouldn’t say that except that I have a sibling who did not graduate from there.

What most people don’t know is that my dream in life was to sing on Broadway. So I went to Harvard, and I got rejected from the music major. That was my first entrepreneurial pivot, at age 18, so luckily I developed an interest in psychology, marketing and advertising.

Then I went to work for a big advertising and marketing agency in New York. Pretty well everyone else in our intake got staffed on some glamorous magazine, but I was staffed on the digital advertising and marketing section. I was devastated.

Two years later, all my friends were still fetching coffees on TV sets and I found I was right in the middle of the most exciting industry of all.


California calling

At that time I started getting messages from my little brother Mark, who said, 'I am starting this site called The Facebook. We need someone who knows about marketing. Will you come over?'

What he meant was, 'I need someone who will work for free'. That’s what he really meant by it.

When you work somewhere like an ad agency, you know exactly what the next 10 years will look like, and suddenly this world opened up.

So I thought it would be so amazing, off I went to California and I found this terrible mess. I think they ate only Twinkies for the first two days I was there.

But the thing that was amazing about what I found was the passion these guys had. Even in the middle of the night, hunched over their computers, coding, you could see they really believed in what they were doing.

Originally I told my brother I would stay for six months top, then I’m moving back to NY City. Ten years later, I moved back.

Facebook's secrets of success

People often ask why Facebook became so successful. Here are three things that I think set us up for success.

First, we launched with exclusivity. We created a sense of scarcity by rolling out to just a few colleges. That’s a strategy that Gmail also used when it launched, creating a sense of something special.

Second, we required people to use their real names, not pseudonyms. When we allow people to hide behind a screen - they become hateful. But we required people to verify their identities, and the site became a place where people behaved properly.

Third, we focused on our own company culture. In Silicon Valley, when you don’t have a physical product, the only thing you have is your talent. We made it feel like it was always a start-up, even when it was growing hugely.

We held hackathons and invited people to pull an all-nighter where the only rule was they had to work on something that had nothing to do with their day job.

The next day anyone who was still awake could present and get prizes.

Many of the ideas were really stupid, but what came out of it was that people felt free to be crazy.

And a lot of the features that you see on Facebook now came out of those hackathons.

Facebook Live

At one I started a “Facebook Live” television show, which was a total failure, only two people watched - my parents - and I went home early, dejected.

Then I got a call from Katy Perry’s manager who wanted to launch her new world tour on Facebook Live. I wanted to tell him it didn't really exist, but then I thought, What would my male colleagues do?

We did launch her world tour and it was suddenly a success.

Three months after launching, I got a call from the White House, and President Obama wanted to do a national town hall meeting on Facebook Live.


Then, not too long ago, Facebook launched a full-scale Facebook Live with more than a billion users.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

When you’re in Silicon Valley, everyone drinks the Kool-Aid. Everyone works in the same industry, and every conversation goes: ‘Yeah, we’re in tech! Who are we disrupting today?’

I wanted my sons to grow up in a world where they had a slightly more healthy relationship with technology.

I started questioning some of the things we had been building in social media. The fact that almost everyone in the world is reachable is great for our businesses.

On the other hand, it also means that if one person has a bad experience with your business or your product they’re immediately going to take our their megaphone and broadcast it to the world.

You can communicate with millions of people with one press of a button, but you can also ruin your career with one press of a button.

You can now give a fantastic backstory, share it with millions of people. But you have to develop a thick skin, because people might not like what you tell them.

The new workplace

The new workplace is a complex place, but it's in danger of becoming an "upstairs/downstairs" drama, with digital haves and have-nots.

The lines between "entrepreneur" and "employee" are now so blurred that even if you work in the biggest company in the world, you still have to think entrepreneurially.

The new workplace is a place where, even if you work for yourself, you need to ask if you are part of a bigger network.

The new workplace is creative. Try holding your own "hackathons" and let people try things and be safe to fail.

The new workplace is incredibly mobile. Working remotely has allowed people access to work to people who would not previously have had.

But all these upsides have downsides.

Apps can nag you, shame you if you don't go to the gym, tweet your weight, teach you to dance, break up with your boy/girlfriend, and even schedule text messages to your significant other so they think you're thinking of them, even if you're not.

The need to unplug and digital detox

And remember, no one has ever changed the world while they were glued to the screen answering their email.

Before you put rules around your children's use of tech, you need to have rules for yourself.

When people think about chidlren and technology, they immediately feel scared. They think of people sitting down and kids sitting down and spending hours on an iPad.

But screen time and tech time can be two completely different things. My kids are always playing with blocks, learning engineering skills, playing with toys such as the "coder-pillar" which moves differently depending on how you arrange the pieces.

But I don't think children should have make a choice about tech/life balance.

What would you give up to keep your smartphone? 

A survey of 10,000 people found that a significant proportion of women would give up chocolate, wine, coffee and even sex for an entire year rather than do without their smartphone for a whole year.

Digital detox has now become an entire industry. 

Get over the fear of failure

One of the worst failures I've experienced in my life was my first project after I left Facebook.

My plan was to make a television series that could put out more stories about entrepreneurial and tech-savvy women to inspire the next generation. We spent nearly two years filming and it got cancelled after just two episodes.

I felt dreadful, wondering if I would ever work again.

But just a year or two later, I wrote my book Dot and the same producer who had greenlighted my first project offered to walk me in to pitch again. NBC bought it and we have now made three seasons.

Then, two years ago I got a call from the producers of Rock of Ages, a musical on Broadway, who wanted me to come and star as  ... "a tech entrepreneur".

So you need to understand that failure often turns out to be the beginning of success.