Facebook Co-Founder on Entrepreneurship: You Can’t Just Like Your Idea, You Have To Be Obsessed With It

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As a co-founder of Facebook, director of online organizing for the 2008 Obama campaign, and majority owner of The New Republic, Chris Hughes has been deeply involved in some of the most dramatic developments in business over the last 12 years.

So what’s been most surprising about his entrepreneurial journey? “Across the board, the surprise that never fails to return, again and again, is the scope of the challenge,” he told an audience at the Ross School of Business on Monday. “It’s always harder than you think.”

Hughes shared his thoughts on entrepreneurship and his experiences with a packed house in Robertson Auditorium as part of the Joseph Handleman Lecture Series. He answered questions from Dean Alison Davis-Blake in a fireside-chat-like format, and also took some questions from the audience.

One recurring theme: Successful entrepreneurship requires a number of factors, including, of course, the right product. But perhaps most important of all, he said, is unwavering dedication.

Hughes meeting with students after his talk and Q+A.

“Grit and determination,” he said when asked what’s needed. “You’ve got to be obsessed … You can’t just want to build the company. You have to feel that you have to build the company.”

He addressed the growing startup culture in Detroit, saying that on several visits to the area in the last few years, “I find it so energizing.” He noted that Detroit, like better-known entrepreneurial hot spots, boasts a strong core of talent and academia. “But what’s not in the other places … is the spirit of community and the sense of civic commitment,” he said. The idea that working in Detroit is helping to create a stronger city is an important differentiator, he said. However, the city does need more capital and more expertise: “All these things are happening, but it does still feel nascent.”

He concluded by encouraging the audience to think about entrepreneurial values more broadly than they may be used to, applying them to not just startup companies, but also to nonprofits and even government service agencies.

Some other thoughts from his experiences:

Facebook and Social Networks

“It’s not exactly what you saw in The Social Network,” Hughes said of the company’s startup days. He looks back at that time as simply a few undergrads who had a good idea that found the right spark and the proper cultivation.

The core concept of Facebook was fairly straightforward, he noted. “The real challenge was turning it into a successful company, which doesn’t happen on day one, or day two, but takes years.”

Asked about his most difficult decision at the time, he recalled the offer from Yahoo in 2006 to buy the company for $1 billion. Mark Zuckerberg ultimately made the call not to sell. “I was on the wrong side of history on that, and man, am I glad he was on the right side,” Hughes said.

The Obama Campaign and Online Activism

Hughes saw Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as “a moment in time that would not reoccur”-- an inspiring candidate with remarkable grassroots support, at a time when online networking was just beginning to show its power. “That was a very unique time in American politics.”

There were technological challenges, he said, but “the bigger challenge was making sure people heard the message … and then inspiring them to self-organize.”

Nowadays, that organizing is commonplace, on countless existing platforms and services. Today’s candidates fully understand that online networking is empowering and helps amplify their message. He said of Republican hopeful Donald Trump, “Whatever you think of him, he’s a masterful user of Twitter.”

He added that efforts like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge show the broader power of online networking: “It’s not just about politics; it’s about activism and social change in general.” When the right message meets the right platform, he said, “it can explode.”

The New Republic and Online Journalism

In 2012, Hughes undertook an effort to modernize and digitally expand the storied general-interest magazine The New Republic and became its majority owner. Most recently, he announced that he was putting the magazine up for sale.

“You could say I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said of his decision to enter the difficult world of 21st century journalism. “It’s hard. It’s a big, big challenge.”

He still sees signs of hope for the survival of traditional media, but he does expect more consolidation in the industry. With The New Republic, he feels that good progress has been made, but it became clear either a larger parent company or “a longer runway” would be required to bring about real change.

He noted that while today’s readers often scan headlines, they are always willing to delve deeply into the right story. Length aside, if it’s the right topic, treated properly, and written well, “it will get read.”

The Joseph Handleman Lecture Series was established at Ross in 2013 through the generosity of the Joseph and Sally Handleman Charitable Foundation. The series features some of the nation’s top executives as they discuss hot-button topics and how their personal and professional journeys have impacted their views on those topics.

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