Facebook's Biggest Problem: Mark Zuckerberg Is a Kidiot

Last Updated May 13, 2010 3:51 PM EDT

As Facebook prepares for its all-hands meeting about privacy and the swamp of controversy in which the company wades, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on the eve of his 26th birthday. And that's a major reason for all the turmoil the company has seen over its privacy: Its CEO is still a kid and he's doing many of the dumb things a kid does.

Some legendary CEOs started at a young age. Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs and Microsoft's (MSFT) Bill Gates come to mind. Each co-founded their companies at age 20. But both were unusual. Few entrepreneurs create companies that grow so large, and even fewer can grow into the requirements of being CEO of a large corporation.

Most people in their early 20s, no matter how smart or well-educated, simply aren't in this class. They don't develop the emotional maturity necessary to be great leaders. Companies they start might succeed, but it's not always because of their leadership skills or insights. Often a business will find itself, largely out of dumb luck, in the right place at the right time and will profit mightily. In such cases, the CEOs can take only modest credit. It's not until you've seen someone effectively start another enterprise that you know you're in the presence of someone who knows how to build and run companies. Jobs has NeXT and Pixar under his belt in addition to Apple. Gates can point to stock image company Corbis and his foundation.

I'm not saying that Zuckerberg is dumb or a failure. I'm certainly not going so far as Mahalo.com CEO Jason Calacanis, who calls Zuckerberg "an amoral, Asperger's-like entrepreneur" and "clearly the worst thing that's happened to our industry since, well, spam." (The Calacanis rant is worth reading, if for nothing else than the list of allegations about Zuckerberg's past actions.)

And I agree with my colleague Ben Popper that the current litany of anger and outrage directed at Facebook won't succeed. The company will continue to make money.

However, it will do so while resented by increasing numbers of its users and under ever more antagonistic scrutiny by Congress. Facebook is a company that races to gain control of much of the Web before either a user uprising or regulatory handcuffs can trip it. Such a strategy is dangerous, because there were probably other ways the company could have succeeded with far less risk.

One point that Calacanis makes resonates strongly: Zuckerberg has overplayed his hand.

The biggest mistake most new players make at poker is overplaying their hand. They spend so much time thinking of the ways they can win that they forget all the ways they can lose. Overplaying hands can affect even the most seasoned players, especially after they've won a couple of hands in a row. Over the past month, Mark Zuckerberg, the hottest new card player in town, has overplayed his hand. Facebook is officially "out," as in uncool, amongst partners, parents and pundits all coming to the realization that Zuckerberg and his company are â€"- simply put -- not trustworthy.
I'd put it differently. Zuckerberg has overplayed his knowledge, experience, and talent. That's because he's still a kid. For all the ill he may or may not have done others in his ascent, he hasn't had the chance to see what it's like on the receiving end. Maybe he was a manipulator from the start, as Business Insider reports through instant messages Zuckerberg allegedly sent and received when he was still at Harvard.

Facebook has acted like an adolescent throughout its operations -- saying one thing while doing another, taking big risks, using its customers poorly, and apparently not understanding that actions really do have consequences. In some cases, the company in its early days allegedly seemed like a frat house:

As the Facebook boys started dealing increasingly with real business professionals, a reputation for rambunctiousness spread throughout the valley. "It's Lord of the Flies over there," one executive told an executive recruiter. Zuckerberg had to be careful which business card he handed out at meetings. He had two sets. One simply identified him as "CEO." The other: "I'm CEO ... bitch!"
If companies bear the stamp of founders' personalities, then Facebook is like Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe that's the best way to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the entrepreneurial wunderkind.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.