Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg seemed to many a wunderkind until he and COO Cheryl Sandberg burned the company's reputation to the ground. Their attempts to protect the company backfired.

A long-standing problem of Facebook's has been Zuckerberg's total control of the company. And a one-time mentor of the CEO, investor Roger McNamee, has finally broken his public quiet in Time.

I liked Zuck. I liked his team. I was a fan of Facebook. I was one of the people he would call on when confronted with new or challenging issues. Mentoring is fun for me, and Zuck could not have been a better mentee.

Well, maybe not that last point. Before the 2016 election, McNamee emailed Zuckerberg and Sandberg, saying that after more than 10 years of association, "Now I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed." But he thought Facebook had been a victim, not that "success had blinded Zuck and Sheryl to the consequences of their actions."

The entire company lived in a bubble, with the people at the top assuming anything that could push forward the supposed mission was justified. When caught, the company undertook what had long, long been a pattern: Deny the problem, promise to do better, and then keep going the way it had.

McNamee says that he has a solution to the problem Facebook has become. The fix involves many things people have previously advocated: more privacy, more user control over data, government regulation, and to look to "empower users rather than exploit them." But those are all designed to deal with the aftermath of an ongoing business disaster, not to address the process that brought the company there, just as it has too many other successful startups, especially in the tech space.

The problem is the myth of the omniscient and omnipotent founder, even though few major successful companies were founded by a single person. Where once there were Hewlett and Packard; Jobs and Wozniak; and Gates and Allen--plus however many other people were pushed out of the limelight, no matter how important their contributions--now there are mostly single names you hear.

Of course, this is bunk. Jeff Bezos needed a lot of help--and received a lot from MacKenzie Bezos, who was heavily involved in Amazon's early days. Zuckerberg didn't magically code everything, make all the deals, and come up with all the winning strategies. There were the allegations that two Snap co-founders conspired to cheat a third of his share.

But investors want tight groups of people who can heed what they say. The press loves myth because it makes great narrative fodder and doesn't require so much digging, analysis, and business knowledge. And the lionized people like the money, fame, and control.

Sad, because no one is ready to run a company alone. Everyone, even the most seasoned executives and entrepreneurs, needs feedback that can help them see what they're blind to. Or hear what they don't want to hear. It's why corporations work best when the CEO and board chair positions are held by different people.

Zuckerberg didn't stay in touch with mentors who still might know more than he did. And McNamee didn't push hard enough to learn the truth--or keep enough business skepticism to consider that he wasn't getting the whole story. Lord knows there were plenty of clues clear to many others.

This is why smart entrepreneurs have boards of advisers with whom they stay in touch. Not just in the early days but over the years. The real solution to a Facebook doesn't come at the end. It's built in as a protective mechanism from the earliest days. Because someday an entrepreneur is going to do something stupid. Only trust in mentors and advisers can help avoid the mistakes that follow.

Published on: Jan 17, 2019