We like to kid my uncle. He's very smart. He's also old school, and he likes being contrarian.

I remember a dinner 20 years ago, when he confidently assured us that the Internet was a fad, and that it would one day look as anachronistic as the CB radio culture of the 1970s.

Ha ha ha, right? Except that for the last 18 months, the backlash has grown--maybe not against the Internet per se, but against the most ubiquitous sites, applications and companies on it, Facebook top among them.

And, for many people, what's the difference?

Cambridge Analytica, fake news, privacy scandals, intrusive ads, phones that literally come with a feature to help you spend less time on your phone. It's as if I were writing a Billy Joel song about the late 2010s. We're collectively fed up.

So amid all that, Facebook made a surprise announcement Thursday that it's losing its chief product officer, Chris Cox, who has been with the company for 13 years, and who, like the CEO and founder, has really only ever worked for Facebook since leaving Stanford in 2005 at age 23. 

Cox has been described as "Facebook's most important executive not named Mark Zuckerberg." A year ago, he took charge of the entire "family of apps" at Facebook, which includes Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook itself. 

But last week, Zuckerberg announced a major pivot, in which the whole "family of apps" will shift away from its social media roots and toward privacy and encryption.

Now, a week later, Cox announces he's out. His goodbye message hints that maybe he's not on board with the new direction. 

("As Mark has outlined, we are turning a new page in our product direction . ... This will be a big project and we will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through.")

Chris Daniels, 43, who has been in charge of WhatsApp, is leaving, too, and the pair join an exodus over the last little while: Facebook's head of policy, its general counsel, its chief security officer, and the founders of WhatsApp and Instagram have all left.

As we look at this I think there are some big lessons for almost any smart business leader -- two key things to think about, in fact.

  1. The first is that no matter how big a splash your company makes, if you're successful there will probably come a time when people lose their passion for you. Maybe you're not a forgotten fad, but your reward for surviving the early years is that you reach corporate middle age. Prepare for that. There's always someone who wants to be next. 
  2. The second has to do with teams. We all like to say that our people are our most important resource, and I think it's often true. But  people leave. They have lives. They move on. They burn out. They even die. So, your real goal is likely to build a company that can ultimately operate without you or your key team members. That's even more important if you're working with the same time for many years at a time.

Maybe Zuck is right about the privacy pivot, even if Cox disagrees. And obviously, my old school uncle notwithstanding, the Internet is no fad. For that matter, Facebook isn't over, either.

But either way, to paraphrase Churchill, this may not be the beginning of the end, but it's starting to feel like the end of the beginning. 

There you go. In a story about one of the most powerful companies of the 21st century, I managed to work in references to CB radios, Billy Joel, and Winston Churchill. How's that for old school?

Here's what else I'm reading today:

Published on: Mar 15, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.