Randi Zuckerberg: How I Learned to Balance Business and Creativity

An excerpt from Randi Zuckerberg’s new book, Dot Complicated, describes how she went from Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘ridiculous sister’ to the brains behind Facebook’s marketing strategy.

11.04.13 10:45 AM ET

In the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s older sister moved from New York City to Menlo Park help grow the start-up. She spent years finding her role in the company amid a community of coders and the long shadow of her sibling.  In this chapter, excerpted from her upcoming book Dot Complicated (HarperOne, Nov. 5), she describes trading a capella antics for team-building leadership.

And so I came to California and to Facebook.

I officially joined on September 1, 2005. But it was a few more weeks before I was in the office full-time. After hurriedly wrapping things up in New York, I still had to transfer my life to the West Coast.

Soon enough, I found a Craigslist posting for a room in a house in Menlo Park with three grad students, which didn’t sound too shady. The location was perfect, and that was enough for me. Without seeing it in person, I took the room.

If I had been starting any old job at a more conventional company, the experience of uprooting my life and adapting to a new life in suburban California might have been more daunting. Besides Mark, I barely knew anyone in the SF Bay Area. At Facebook, I didn’t have a team and was one of only a few non-engineers. Our offices were pretty modest—the usual start-up digs—and located above that sketchy but surprisingly good Chinese restaurant and a deep-dish pizzeria.

But I never felt lonely or bored or out of place. I arrived at an amazing time. Shortly after I joined, we celebrated reaching five million users. Investor Peter Thiel threw us a party at the Slanted Door, a fancy Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. I remember sitting at the table in that small, happy group, feeling we were on top of the world. Five million users! How could it get better than that?

Even if I had wanted to stress, I didn’t have the time. From the moment I stepped through the door on my first day, I was rushed off my feet. The company was only a few dozen people, so the arrival of one new person was a substantial increase in capacity. Everyone wanted a little bit of help. Just a small favor. Pretty please?

I was not opposed to being bribed with cupcakes.

I pitched in wherever needed. I relished the chance to experiment with my role and live the start-up experience. In the early days of a start-up, it’s not uncommon to hold many jobs and wear many hats.

Toward the end of my time at Facebook, I joked that I had worked on every single team except the IT help team. For a few months, my business cards listed “samurai warrior” and “ninja” as my title, because I was working on so many different teams it would have been confusing to simultaneously list them all on one card.

As a non-engineer, I was given non-engineer stuff to do. In the early days, I had a hybrid marketing–business development–sales role. We weren’t doing much “traditional” marketing at that point, so I was supporting several other teams within the company. Facebook was still only available at American colleges and universities, and the site was succeeding so well within this market that it was doing a pretty excellent job of marketing itself. In fact, my total marketing budget for the first year at Facebook was about a hundred dollars, which I used to print up T-shirts for students when we filmed a video on the NYU campus. And I probably overpaid.

Most of my first year was spent working with the sales team, helping build larger marketing packages and campaigns that they could sell to companies that wanted to reach students on Facebook. I helped put together our first back-to-school campaign, building a back-to-school hub with companion ads. It was the biggest sales and marketing program we had done to date.

Because the company was small, we worked all the time. Days bled into nights and into weekends. Hours at the office turned into hours hanging out at someone’s house or The Old Pro, our favorite bar in downtown Palo Alto. Colleagues became close friends, and several “Facebook couples” arose.

The early team felt an intense closeness—the kind of bond you form when everyone works together toward one unified goal. I knew that it would probably be a fleeting experience and that one day we would all go our separate ways, but it was awesome at the time. Facebook was our job, our community, our social lives—our lives, period. And I loved it.

Dot Complicated: Untangling Our Wired Lives, by Randi Zuckerberg, 256 pages, HarperOne

We shared pride in the mission and proudly wore our finest Facebook swag—hats, T-shirts, hoodies. To this day, no designer handbag, bought during a moment of shopaholic weakness, has ever elicited as many comments from strangers as my old Jack Spade Facebook laptop bag.

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In New York, it seemed everyone kept an almost religious separation between his or her career and social life. In California, it felt like the company was one huge family.

It wasn’t all roses, though. During that first year in the company, I faced two major challenges. First, I had to get used to the fact that while marketers and business folks ruled the roost in New York, in Silicon Valley they were the background noise. Out west, engineers are thought of as rock-star gods. Everyone else is barely a roadie. If you weren’t the one doing the coding, you had to shout pretty loudly to be heard.

Second, there was the issue of my being Mark’s sister. I worked my butt off, and I bled Facebook blue, but no matter how hard I worked, many thought of me as just the boss’s sister and assumed I was there only because of nepotism. One colleague even referred to me as “Zuck’s sis” for almost a year. I acquired a lot of new best friends as soon as they were hired and lost them as soon as they realized I didn’t have Mark’s ear on anything product related.

And I didn’t have it any easier from Mark, either. The first meeting I attended with him, one week into my job, he tore up a piece of paper that I presented to him, in front of everyone. I remember him walking past my desk in the open-plan office a few weeks later, saying hi to everyone except me. When I asked him about it later, he had this response: “You know, I never really thought about it. But I guess I sort of feel like I have to go out of my way to not be friendly with you, to show people you’re not getting special treatment.”

Thanks, bro.

One of my colleagues, a few years later, summed it up well. “You know, Randi,” she said. “I’m sure being Mark’s sister opens a lot of doors for you, but I don’t envy your situation. Women in technology already have to be twice as good as their male colleagues to get to the same place. But you have to be three times as good. And even then, people are still going to question your success.”

The benefits of my last name far outweigh the negatives, and it’s definitely opened lots of doors for me. But open doors alone don’t get you anywhere unless you do something once you walk through them.

From the moment I joined Facebook I knew I had a long road ahead of me and was existing beneath a very big shadow. There was a chance that no matter what I did I would never be more than someone’s sister.

I was twenty-three years old when I joined Facebook. As a Harvard grad living in New York, I felt like I knew it all. But I was still a baby, and there was clearly a lot I didn’t know about navigating the politics of a new workplace.

I got my first taste of the limelight when a well-known tech blogger, Robert Scoble, wrote an article about me called “The First Sister of Facebook.” I had reveled in the spotlight my whole childhood, doing theater, music, and singing a cappella, and I found this attention addictive. I celebrated my newfound status in the Valley, created parody music videos and posted them on YouTube, and developed an exaggerated reputation for enjoying a cocktail (or three) and grabbing the microphone to sing at pretty much any event that would allow it.

My go-to song at Facebook company parties was “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence, in which I would duet with my close friend Chris Kelly. One of my finest contributions to Facebook company culture was when our employee cover band, Evanescence Essence, for which I was the lead singer, won the first ever in-office version of American Idol, “Facebook Idol.” Our motto was “Evanescence has two hit songs, and we do both of them.”

Because I was young and new to Silicon Valley, and I had never experienced this type of company culture before—where your coworkers are your friends, family, and community—I made the mistake of treating my colleagues more like college dorm mates. It was an easy mistake considering how many waking hours we spent together and how close we felt, but I started to believe that I could just let my hair down and be my true outside-of-work self way too early on. In reality, though, I was still making my first professional impression on everyone and should have held my cards a bit closer to my chest.

Maybe you can get away with being a fun-loving person as well as a respected professional if you’re a guy, but I’m not sure that’s true for a young woman. One of my most respected mentors took me aside and said, “You know what, Randi. Because you’re a woman, they’re only going to talk about you in one light in the press. Do you want to be the brains behind Facebook’s marketing strategy? Or do you want to be Mark Zuckerberg’s ridiculous sister who sings?” The honest answer is that I wanted to be both. I wanted to live in a world where you could be a successful executive and have hobbies and interests that made you more than a two-dimensional person.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d have kept my head down and focused on work those first few years and let people get to know the work I was capable of before they got to know my “creative side.” Knowing what I know now, I basically did everything that I would advise a young woman going into the workforce not to do.

In spite of my flamboyant behavior, I had some loyal champions inside the company. Thanks to them, I eventually found myself in a series of roles that played to my interests, my passions, and my creativity, plus enabled me to leverage my outside-the-box thinking and my love of the limelight to best benefit Facebook.

At first, Mike Murphy, the affable head of the sales team, took me under his wing and made it his mission to give me projects that I could own and shine with and use to shift perceptions of myself within the company. One of my favorite early memories at Facebook was planning the back-to-school campaign with Mike on the back of a napkin. (Students could assign fun superlatives, such as “most likely to succeed” or “most likely to live in Kansas,” to their Facebook friends, while also viewing great deals from some of our very first advertisers.)

At start-ups, a lot of work gets accomplished on napkins.

Then, in mid-2006 Facebook brought in a head of business development, Dan Rose. One of the first major deals Dan signed was a multimillion-dollar media partnership with Comcast, Facebook’s largest to date.

One day not long after he had arrived, Dan came to my desk. “I hear you’re pretty creative and like to work with the media,” he said. “Want to come work with me?”

Soon after, I joined the business development team to help negotiate and manage the Comcast deal. I worked with Dan for about two years, leading deals with media partners from Comcast to ABC News to CNN.

Over those two years, while the rest of the business development team was doing mergers and acquisition deals, striking partnerships and negotiating an investment from Microsoft, I specialized in developing partnerships for Facebook with mainstream media and television outlets. And when in late 2008 it was finally time for Facebook to have an official marketing team, I joined forces with two amazing women, Raquel DiSabatino and Meenal Balar, to create a brand-new group called consumer marketing, which is where I remained until I left Facebook.

Being asked to help create a marketing team from scratch at the current hottest tech company in the world was an incredible and humbling moment. Three years earlier I had been restless and frustrated in New York, dreaming of a day when I would get to really test myself and show what I could do. I imagined a time when I would get to lead my own team and develop my own plans—and then drive the change that I wanted to see.

In the summer of 2005, I had walked into a room of half a dozen engineers hunched over their computers. The empire that was Facebook in those days extended from the kitchen to the sofas in a single suburban house. But in the years since, those few guys had become several hundred employees, drawn from the best and brightest talent across the industry.

Pundits, the media, academics, celebrities, and the entire World Wide Web were constantly debating, criticizing, and pondering the future of the company and our impact on the world. In 2010, journalist and author David Kirkpatrick coined the phrase “the Facebook effect” to describe the unique role Facebook played in igniting global attention and support for causes and content. It was a concept that captured the zeitgeist perfectly. We were the future of friendships, dating, business, marketing, entrepreneurship, activism, philanthropy, and revolution.