Facebook: Opening Sam Teller's Harvard Crimson Time Capsule
Facebook may have gotten more media coverage today than in its first eight years combined.
One of the earliest to cover the company, while writing for the Harvard Crimson, was Sam Teller (class of ‘08). Amid all the high fives, I told you so’s, and second-by-second trading-price watching, I caught up with Sam on this historic day for Facebook and opened the time capsule on some of his early coverage.
Sam has had a nonlinear career arch as an entrepreneur, taking on roles with Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign, Tumblr as a political consultant, and now with LaunchPad LA, an incubator Forbes recently ranked as the World’s 5th-best, where he's a Managing Director.
Teller's time with the Crimson is not something he talks about much. Looking back, he tells me that the most memorable moment in this entire period was the day that Zuckerberg came back to Harvard to officially withdraw from school. He remembers following him around like some combination of a paparazzi and a groupie, as Zuckerberg gave speeches at various locations on campus.
Teller had front row seats on the Facebook phenomenon in those early days. Here are some highlights of his coverage as it unfolded.
>> Facebook.com Gets Facelift, New Features (9/16/05) Teller’s first coverage was in the fall of his sophmore year when “Facebook.com” had 4,000,000 users at 1,500 colleges. It all seems quaint in retrospect.
Just three weeks earlier, “The definite article was dropped (from the name)—turning thefacebook.com into facebook.com,” as Teller wrote. Also, just two weeks earlier, the company had “unveiled a high-school version of the site, hs.facebook.com.”
He reported that, “Facebookers across the country (and world) will soon be able to upload dozens of photos to their personal pages.” Company spokesman Chris Hughes promised “more photos than any other comparable site” and said the site was “playing around with an alternative to blogging.”
Seemingly going against type, Teller reveals that the now famous “hacker-chic” company had code-named the recent redesign Operation Quail, based on the a quail hunting scene in the recent movie “Wedding Crashers.”
“Our whole culture is about being funny and creative,” Hughes said.
>> Report: Facebook Looks for a $2 Billion Bidder (3/30/06) A year after MySpace had sold to NewsCorp for $580 million, Facebook, still only the second largest social network in the US, rejected a $750 million acquisition offer from Yahoo. MySpace was the fifth-most visited website according to Alexa rankings, while Facebook was 29th.
How many sleepless nights have since been caused at Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, or any other company that would have had the firepower to make an offer two, three, or five times the one they turned down?
>> Investors Add $25M to Facebook’s Coffers (4/25/06) One month after rejecting Yahoo’s takeover bid, and a year removed from raising $13 million from Accel Partners, Facebook raised $25 million from Greylock Partners, Meritech Capital Partners, and investor Peter Thiel.
At the time, Meritech was most excited about Facebook’s “potential for further expansion in the coveted college-age market.” Had it stopped at that, today’s IPO may have been valued at a healthy $5 billion.
Two weeks prior to the investment, the social network had “gone mobile” with some cutting edge features. What were they? SMS-based distribution of contact information. Teller wrote, “Two weeks ago, Facebook also added a mobile feature, which allows users to get profile information, such as cell phone numbers and dorm room addresses, sent to their cell phones using SMS technology.”
By this time, Facebook had risen to the seventh-most visited website according to the Alexa rankings and had grown to 7 million registered users. Only 993 million to go, because you know what’s cool right?
>> Facebook Open to Cubicle Crowd (5/4/06) “Eight months after opening its digital doors to high school students, Facebook.com is now allowing users in newly-created 'work networks' to register on the site... [having] certified over 1,000 'supported' professional networks, from Abercrombie and Fitch to Zions Bancorporation,” Teller wrote.
At the time, Facebook tiptoed toward integrating them into the at large user-community by “limiting (corporate) users to viewing profiles of their friends or members of their networks.”
A class of ‘09 undergrad named Manuel Rincon-Cruz said, “I think [work networks] are a bad idea. Facebook was meant to be a social network for college students. This will make us more self-conscious online.”
Paul R. Sullivan, class of ’08, had a much more prescient perspective: “I feel like it’s a good way for them to expand,” he said. “I wonder if it will ruin productivity in the workplace.”
Echoing the thoughts of much of America regarding MySpace, which had not yet become the wasteland it is today, Chris Hughes said to Teller:
>> Facebook.com News Feeds Cause Dissent (9/11/06) As Teller tells it:
“We really think about the two sites differently. MySpace seems to be a place where you go to build a profile with colors and music, and connect with people you might not know in real life. Facebook is a place where you go to share information, all of which is based on reality.”
“In the wee hours of Tuesday morning last week, someone pressed a button in the Palo Alto offices of Facebook.com, and inadvertently started a not-so-small revolt...Facebook unveiled a polarizing ‘News Feed’ feature that allows users to track their friends’ actions online....Almost immediately after the changes went live, dozens of groups formed to protest them. The medium of choice to fight Facebook? Facebook.”At the time of his article, Teller pointed out that the “lead anti-feed (protest) group” on Facebook had over 744,000 members, while the largest group of any kind on the network had 857,000. Today, there is a dog named Boo with 4,373,644 fans of its page. Incidentally, the creator of the protest-group was a junior at Northwestern University named Benjamin Parr, who went on to become the editor-at-large of Mashable and a social media maven (h/t Ben).
The reaction of Harvard undergrads at the time was highly entertaining:
“It’s so stupid,” said Matthew P. Bresnahan ’09. “The reason people liked Facebook in the first place was that it was simple. Now you have to navigate through all this crap just to check your wall.”As has happened many times throughout Facebook’s tumultuous but skyward journey, Zuckerberg publicly apologized for his offense and offered users a few more granular privacy controls.
“It’s in the way of what I want to see—people’s actual profiles,” said Rachel C. Porter ’07.
“The whole point of Facebook is to stalk people, and this is interfering with that,” said Gabriella M.L. Gage ’07.
After wrapping up his time writing for the Crimson, Teller eventually joined the Harvard Lampoon. From there, he actually left Harvard temporarily to join the Obama ‘08 campaign to head up online advertising for its new media team out of Chicago and eventually blog the inauguration. He subsequently returned to Harvard to graduate.
Teller continued his entrepreneurial and media-focused path and launched a multi-faceted venture called Charlie in Los Angeles, which was one part interactive agency, one part media company, and one part investment fund making five seed-stage investments per year.
It was this last venture that led Teller to partner with two-time-founder turned VC-blogger Mark Suster in launching the LA incubator LaunchPad LA. Teller runs day-to-day operations and is intimately involved with recruiting and mentoring its portfolio companies.
He may not have been a Facebook co-founder, but Teller’s early exposure to the magic of startups and the reach of consumer internet has dramatically shaped the course of his career. At the ripe old age of 26, he is now in a position to begin sharing his knowledge and experience with the next wave of entrepreneurs.