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Facebook’s reputation as a good place for founders is suddenly under attack

Facebook’s David Marcus will have none of it.

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook / Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook’s reputation as a great place for founders to sell their startups has been under serious attack this week.

First, Instagram’s co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who sold their company to Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, left abruptly amid frustrations that Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg were taking too much control over their app and business. They left to “explore our curiosity and creativity again,” a not-so-subtle shot at Facebook’s bosses.

Second, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, who sold his startup to Facebook for $19 billion (!) back in 2014 and famously tweeted that users should #DeleteFacebook back in March after he’d already the company, finally gave an interview. In a story in Forbes, Acton expressed regret for selling to Zuckerberg, who pushed WhatsApp into the world of advertising, a business model Acton never wanted for his app.

“I sold my users’ privacy to a larger benefit,” he told the magazine. “I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day.”

The underlying implication from these two stories isn’t hard to spot: Facebook, one of the most successful tech companies around, isn’t a good place to sell your startup.

It’s easy to see how that — valid or not — is not the narrative Facebook wants ricocheting around Silicon Valley. It also goes against the consensus view: Facebook’s reputation as an acquirer has been generally great, especially if you’re important enough — as the WhatsApp and Instagram founders were — to command some autonomy.

But it’s also hard to ignore. No one expects founders to stay at their new parent companies forever, and the Instagram and WhatsApp guys stayed longer than most. But it’s also notable that all of them — and the founder of Oculus, the other of Facebook’s big three acquisitions from the past six years — ended up leaving amid some drama.

Enter David Marcus, the former head honcho at Facebook Messenger — and a former founder who sold his most recent startup to PayPal — who’s currently running the Facebook’s new blockchain division. Marcus posted a reply to Acton and his Forbes interview on Facebook today, challenging Acton’s characterization of what it’s like to work with Zuckerberg.

“Today Forbes published an interview of Brian Acton that contained statements, and recollection of events that differ greatly from the reality I witnessed first-hand,” Marcus wrote. He says Zuckerberg actually “shields founders” from problems and gives them a lot of autonomy compared to other big tech companies. He gave examples of Zuckerberg defending WhatsApp’s efforts around encryption and criticized Acton for being “passive-aggressive.” (Marcus, meanwhile, was simply aggressive-aggressive in his response.)

“I find attacking the people and company that made you a billionaire, and went to an unprecedented extent to shield and accommodate you for years, low-class,” he added. “It’s actually a whole new standard of low-class.”


It’s rare for entrepreneurs to call out other entrepreneurs in public. It’s unheard of when one of those entrepreneurs is still an employee at Facebook.

But it’s also easy to understand why Marcus, who claims “no one at Facebook asked me to post this,” would write such a response. Clearly he has a strong loyalty to Facebook and Zuckerberg, but his response also pushes back hard against the narrative that Facebook is a bad acquirer.

Given Marcus’s role running the new blockchain team, he — probably more than some other leaders at Facebook — is likely in the market to attract entrepreneurs in a nascent, budding industry, and possibly buy some startups to join his fledgling effort as well. The idea that “Facebook will ruin your startup” doesn’t just hurt his employer, it hurts him, too.

Of course, Facebook hasn’t ruined Instagram or WhatsApp. At least not yet. The apps have more than a billion users each, the kind of worldwide adoption and attention that is hard to imagine they ever would have gotten on their own. The founders of both companies are mega-millionaires, or in Acton’s case, a billionaire.

“Connecting people [the way Facebook does] is a noble mission,” Marcus finished. “And the bad is far outweighed by the good.”

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