YouTube ads must be big in Japan

Owen Thomas · 11/12/08 06:40PM

YouTube has never been this exciting. And I don't mean the puppy videos. The video-sharing site is frenetically experimenting with every imaginable form of advertising, from prerolls to rollovers to overlays. There's even that staple of late-night television — headache pills! For this, we can thank Ben Ling, the product manager who recently returned to Google from Facebook to figure out how to make money on YouTube. But surely the most absurd ads we're seeing right now are the adaptations of Google's familiar text ads displayed on Web search results. A blog post featuring two cat-with-head-trapped-in-bag videos — a staple of YouTube users' contributions to the world of cinema — has ads "by Google" slapped on top of them. In Japanese.

Why Facebook is foundering

Owen Thomas · 10/07/08 02:00PM

The great hope of the Valley, the startup everyone thought was the next Google, the company whose IPO might restart the stock-market gold rush for everyone, is not well. Why? Look to its founder. Mark Zuckerberg is mismanaging his creation's transition to greatness. In Facebook's own parlance, the company's plight is "complicated." It will take in $300 million to $350 million in revenue this year, thanks in part to a lucrative ad deal with Microsoft. But its $15 billion valuation is premised on a far brighter future — a future that may never materialize. The biggest symptom of Facebook's ailment is the flight of technical talent. In the Valley, success attracts smart people, who attract other smart people. Yes, they're after money, too, but having brilliant coworkers counts for a lot. These great minds bond and form, yes, a sort of social network of their own. When they leave, the network frays, weakening the company's ability to attract new talent.That's why, for days before it was announced, top executives at Facebook desperately hid technical lead Dustin Moskovitz's plans to leave. They dithered as Mark Zuckerberg tried to persuade his cofounder and college roommate to stay, and others, led by COO Sheryl Sandberg, concocted a plan to spin his departure. That spin has now been dutifully printed in the pages of the Wall Street Journal: Facebook's changes are the "type of evolution you see among young growing companies and specifically young growing companies in Silicon Valley," company flack Larry Yu told the paper. Sandberg, who closely directs the company's PR, would have us think that the uproar that has taken place at the social network since her arrival is a healthy evolution. It is not. The internal politicking she has introduced to the company is destructive, and has sent many of the company's best and brightest fleeing. The list of the departed includes data guru Jeff Hammerbacher, product VP Matt Cohler, platform director Ben Ling, and most recently, Justin Rosenstein, a top engineer who's leaving with Moskovitz. Operations VP Jonathan Heiliger may be next. The defections all hurt. But most of the blame lies with Zuckerberg himself. Zuckerberg has always styled himself as the company's "founder," relegating the likes of Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, now Barack Obama's Web campaign director, to "cofounder" status. Never mind that this distinction doesn't exist in English; those who start a company are all equally founders. Zuckerberg clearly considers himself first among equals; he once referred to Moskovitz as "disposable" and a "soldier." The former Harvard roommates patched over those insults, and Zuckerberg said he will rely on Moskovitz's counsel even after his departure. If Moskovitz really thought he could guide Facebook's evolution, he would have stayed at the company, right? Zuckerberg has a history of churning through confidants. Napster cofounder Sean Parker helped establish Facebook in Silicon Valley as its president, only to be disappeared from the company. Former COO Owen Van Natta was in favor, then out. Sandberg had his ear for a while, but may be losing it. Lately, I hear he favors Christopher Cox, the twentysomething recent Stanford grad he recently tapped as the company's director of product. We'll see how long he stays by Zuckerberg's side. This fickleness may be predictable from a 24-year-old. But it's fundamentally bad for the company. Yahoo thrived, in its early days, on the partnership between CEO Tim Koogle and founders Jerry Yang and Dave Filo. Google's triumvirate of its cofounders and CEO Eric Schmidt improved on that management form; the troika lends the company some stability by making sure decisions at the top are never unilateral. Zuckerberg's insistence on the "founder" title suggests that he always planned to rule the company alone. It's a bad plan. His instincts on what kind of website will attract a 100 million users have been spot-on. But he has no business sense. At one point during the Facebook redesign process, he suggested getting rid of advertising altogether, having grown disillusioned with both old-style banner ads and the company's experiments with targeting ads to users' behavior. Will Zuck ever find an equal partner, a sounding board who can help him turn Facebook into the large, ongoing concern he envisions? Dustin Moskovitz may not have been the right person. Nor, it seems, is Sheryl Sandberg. Yet to staunch the bleeding of Facebook's technical talent, Zuckerberg will have to find someone to ground him — someone for whom he has enduring respect, who can moderate his worst impulses. Without it, there will be one word describing what's going to happen to Facebook: "founder."

Commercials your new punishment for not clicking on ads

Jackson West · 10/02/08 03:00AM

YouTube will now run a post-roll commercial after you watch a clip if you don't click on the overlay advertisement that pops-up on partner videos. It's the kind of exciting, innovative thinking from re-hire Ben Ling, who was brought back into the Google mothership to figure out how to turn YouTube's revenue deficit frown upside down. It's also the kind of thinking that YouTube once attempted to scientifically prove users didn't like, but not the kind of thinking that Eric Schmidt has been telling anyone who will listen. The news also comes on the heels of YouTube's release of "hot spot" tracking — so you can better craft your narrative to make sure people stick around long enough for the commercial to play. (Image via NewTeeVee)

Leave Sheryl Sandberg alone!

Owen Thomas · 08/19/08 04:00PM

The best thing Valleywag ever did for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was to call her a liar. That's just not done in the genteel office parks of Silicon Valley. It garnered the embattled executive a much-needed wave of sympathy within her company, on which she's now planning to capitalize.Valleywag's coverage last week of Sandberg's spinning in response to the departure of a key employee was deemed, in some quarters, a "character attack." Yet Sandberg's character is the very issue here. Her response is very telling: First, she wrangled a long followup story from her frequent dinner guest Kara Swisher that called our story sexist, over-the-top — and factually correct. Swisher's report is damning for Sandberg. It acknowledges that Facebook executive Matt Cohler, who left to join Benchmark Capital, was unhappy with Sandberg's leadership. It reports that Jonathan Heiliger, the company's infrastructure chief, has also been unhappy with Sandberg — Swisher errs only in saying that the two have patched things up. Swisher's new report also means that the version of Ben Ling's departure fed to her by the company last week was false. Facebook executives have acknowledged all these facts. But characteristically, Sandberg has steered the discussion away from the real problem — the bad decisions she's made, the poor judgment she's demonstrated — and toward massaging reality. She is, even now, planning a new PR campaign to buff her image. Did it ever occur to Sandberg to figure out why she rubs so many of Facebook's technical leaders the wrong way? Could it have anything to do with her meddling in matters that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said aren't her job? Facebook has real problems in Sandberg's area of responsibility. Billing, customer service, and other mundane-but-critical aspects of the social network's advertising operations are chaotic, and require fixing. Sandberg's moves to shore up her image suggest the real reason for her unpopularity within Facebook: Her overwhelming concern for style over substance. How ironic that that pointing that out has sent Sandberg spinning.

Millions of reasons why Google's glad to have Ben Ling back

Owen Thomas · 08/18/08 03:20PM

Don't feel too sorry for Ben Ling, the star product marketer who leapt from Google to Facebook back to Google in less than a year. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — herself a Google alum — has threatened not to let Ling keep the shares he earned to date. It was a petty move that goes against Valley standards of on how to treat departing employees, not to mention Facebook's own practice in such matters. But it's not like the loss will sting Ling. Google SVP Jonathan Rosenberg, who's said to be a big fan of Ling and recruited him heavily to come back to the search engine, is taking care of Ling with a "multimillion-dollar signing bonus," according to one tipster.

A week we'd never lie about

Owen Thomas · 08/15/08 08:00PM

Sheryl, Sheryl, Sheryl. It's been quite a week, for us and for Facebook's COO. Sheryl Sandberg isn't the kind to yell, like the 10 tyrants we featured this week. She's much more subtle than that. Or at least we thought she was, until she botched product marketer Ben Ling's high-profile return from Facebook to Google. Sheryl, sounds like you need some advice on how to end a relationship. May we suggest talking to Pownce's Leah Culver? (Photo by tifotter)

Liar, liar

Owen Thomas · 08/15/08 09:00AM

It seemed like such a simple proposition. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wanted Ben Ling to lie for her, and get rich doing it. Ling is — was — the director of Facebook's applications platform, which had garnered the social network much of its buzz over the past year. But he'd been supplanted by Elliot Schrage, Sandberg's PR guy, as head of the platform, and had gotten a job offer to return to Google. For the search engine, Ling's return was an invaluable PR victory, after a string of defections — including Sandberg herself. It was likewise a blow to Facebook's image; the company has lost a string of technical leaders since Sandberg started her reign of terror.So Sandberg asked Ling to lie. The fib she demanded: That he was taking a two-month vacation, not returning to Google. In exchange, she'd let him vest his shares in Facebook — a small fortune for less than a year's work. Ling, it seems, declined. His integrity was worth more than whatever Sandberg had to offer. Technically, Facebook doesn't owe Ling anything. His shares wouldn't vest until he reached his one-year anniversary. But the reality is that Sandberg, by promoting Schrage above Ling, effectively squeezed him out. And Silicon Valley companies often let departing employees keep some of their shares, even if they've been at a company under one year, to keep good relations (and sometimes, buy silence). Facebook has routinely accelerated departing executives' vesting, a maneuver which lets them keep more shares than the calendar would say they've earned. Sandberg's high-pressure tactic was a foolish overreach. She was trying to manage perceptions, and combat the idea that her version of Facebook is an inhospitable place for brilliant technical talent like Ling. Instead, she's created an even worse perception — no, rather, a reality. Joining Facebook, always a chancy venture, is more dangerous than ever. Those who take a job there now bear the risk that the manipulations of a power-grasping executive will make all their work worthless. (Poor Mike Schroepfer, who just joined the company as VP of engineering; did he have any idea what he was getting himself into?) There's another perception that now exists, as a result of Sandberg's actions: That the COO herself is a glib liar, who expects those around her to glibly lie, too. Less than a month on the job, she had underlings fibbing to Fortune for a puff-piece profile. It seems obvious in retrospect that the paeans that executives like Matt Cohler and Adam D'Angelo offered on the way out must have been fictional, too, bought by Sandberg with Facebook shares. Sandberg's explanation, tossed off with Clintonian brio: "There is no specific underlying story behind the few execs leaving our company." The key word in that sentence is "underlying," minus the "under." Silicon Valley's corps of engineers have little tolerance for dishonesty. The implicit bargain they strike with the MBAs who turn their work into money: Keep the lies over on your side. Lie to investors, partners, reporters; just don't lie to us. There's no room for lies in the world of code; software works, or it doesn't. That may be a Pollyannaish belief, but it's a common one in the idealism-choked cubicle farms which sprawl along 101. Sandberg, with her clumsy cajoling, has broken the pact. She tried to turn one of the geeks into a smiling fake, just like her. He didn't bite. One would think that with Sandberg's political training, she'd at least bring the talents of a skilled prevaricator to the Valley. Instead, the Ling affair has revealed her as the worst of both worlds: a clumsy liar.

Ben Ling boomerangs from Facebook to Google

Owen Thomas · 08/14/08 12:00PM

Where's Ben Ling headed next? We hear he might be headed back to Google — not a startup. Ling, a talented product manager, is closely watched as a talent barometer. His defection from Google to Facebook last year kicked off a series of trend stories about people leaving Google. Less than a year on the job, he's leaving Facebook, which has kicked off another series of trend stories about people leaving Facebook. Ling was recently spotted having lunch in Mountain View. You know what this means: A series of trend stories about ex-Googlers returning to the Googleplex. Update: Kara Swisher confirms Ling is returning to Google, tasked with figuring out how to make money off YouTube.

Sheryl Sandberg's reign of terror

Owen Thomas · 08/13/08 08:00PM

Facebook's COO is tearing down the temple. That's the only conclusion I can reach after witnessing the Sheryl Sandberg's management of the Palo Alto-based social network. What I hear from inside Facebook: She demands total loyalty, and brooks no dissent — even the healthy, boisterous debate that's common to startups. You're either with Sheryl, or you're against Sheryl. And if you're against Sheryl, you're not long for Facebook. What's really frightening is how she effortlessly cajoles lies from her underlings. Note how Matt Cohler and Ben Ling exited the company singing her praises — despite what the talented executives were telling confidants in private about Sandberg. There's a simple explanation for that: She bought them off, with still-valuable Facebook stock.Do the math: Ling joined Facebook in October 2007. He's leaving Facebook in a few weeks, months before his one-year anniversary — and it normally takes one year of employment for stock options or restricted stock to vest. However miserable Ling was under Elliot Schrage — Sandberg's personal flack and de facto chief of staff, whom she put in charge of Facebook's development platform, to the utter shock of the entire Valley — can you imagine he walked away from that much money? Far more likely: Sandberg and Schrage asked him to resign in exchange for getting to keep his shares. Ling, who was well-regarded at both Google and Facebook, now gets to walk away from Sandberg's mess. Cohler, formerly Facebook's product chief, has also made nice noises about Sandberg — and he, too, needed the cash. He's now a general partner at Benchmark Capital, where Sandberg's husband, Dave Goldberg, is employed as an entrepreneur-in-residence. (None of this is coincidence.) General partners at VC firms normally buy into the funds they invest; Benchmark Capital's most recent fund, raised in February, is an eye-popping $500 million.The amount Cohler would have to invest personally comes to roughly $500,000, by my estimates. Selling his Facebook shares seems like the most likely way he'll come up with that money. Isn't it likely that in exchange for making nice noises about Sandberg on the way out, Cohler got an assurance that Facebook won't make trouble about his share sales? The fundamental problem with Sandberg's take-no-prisoners management style: It's exquisitely tuned for the zero-sum world of Washington, where you're either in power or out. She's treating her appointment as Facebook's COO like a new administration coming into the White House. Her years at Google, which was the only tech-startup game in town for the long years of the bust, reinforced the wrong lesson. Washington's bitter internal rivalries thrive on a scarcity of opportunity. Today's Valley has an abundance. Her employees have options, and not just the kind she can grant. Which leaves the question: Why is Sandberg so determined to drive talent out of Facebook? My working theory: She wants to remake the company in her image. Here comes the Sandberg Administration! But to do so, she'll need to find skilled accomplices, not servile yes-men like Schrage (who wouldn't know an API if it extended his subclasses). And she'll need to articulate what, exactly, her new vision is. For all of Mark Zuckerberg's flaws, he's created a website which will soon have 100 million users, and is worth billions of dollars according to a long line of Silicon Valley moneymen who are slavering to buy his employees' shares. What, exactly, has Sheryl Sandberg done, besides buy a lottery ticket by joining Google when it was still private? Sometimes you have to tear down before you build. But no one knows what, if anything, Sandberg is building — besides fear and doubt. That's hardly the mark of a Silicon Valley leader. It's a tactic that may have worked in Washington, D.C., where Sandberg worked for the viciously political Clinton administration. But she's killing the company's morale with her Beltway tactics. If she has a bright idea, she'd better start talking about it. It will take far more than three days to rebuild this temple — and it's not clear she has time to spare.

Who's the next Facebooker to go?

Owen Thomas · 08/13/08 10:40AM

The departure of star Facebook director Ben Ling has been roiling Facebook since word first spread at the social network's Palo Alto headquarters yesterday. One inevitable question some Facebookers are asking: What does this mean for the price of our stock? If Facebook were publicly traded, it's unlikely one employee's exit would cause a blip. But private tech companies like Facebooks are the ultimate growth plays, and momentum matters. If Facebook becomes known as a place top talent flees instead of gathers, it could tank Facebook's perceived value. What will be telling: Who leaves next, and how fast. One likely candidate: Chamath Palihapitiya.Palihapitiya, like Ling, has not fared well under the reign of COO Sheryl Sandberg and her right-hand man, Elliot Schrage. Schrage, as a reward for the puff pieces Sandberg's continued to garner from a mostly pliant press corps, has gotten handed most of Facebook's marketing functions. Palihapitiya has been left with a vague "growth" portfolio. How frustrating this must be for Palihapitiya, who once complained on film about white-male privilege. His employer at the time, the Mayfield Fund, hastened to clarify that his comments were about the world at large, not meritocratic Silicon Valley. But Elliot Schrage, with his two Harvard degrees, is a creature of New York and Washington, D.C., not the Valley. And he has blocked Palihapitiya's rise at Facebook, despite the latter's vastly more impressive tech résumé. Will Palihapitya rest and vest his Facebook shares in silence? Or will he leave, like Ling?

Ben "Bling" Ling to leave Facebook

Paul Boutin · 08/12/08 06:20PM

Ben Ling, Facebook's high-profile director of platform product marketing, considered a star poach from Google, is now rumored to be moving on from Facebook. Kara Swisher has further details. We think we know the story: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in a widely derided move, put a nontechnical guy, her aide-de-camp and chief flack Elliot Schrage, in charge of Facebook's applications platform. Photo above: Ben shaking it at Club Asia in 2006, in a now-unpublished YouTube video.

Early to bed, early to rise makes Facebook hackathon lame in Zuckerberg's eyes

Nicholas Carlson · 07/21/08 04:00PM

COO Sheryl Sandberg and PR chief-turned-platform politician Eliot Schrage, Facebook's no-fun adults, are fully in charge of Facebook. The latest evidence? Facebook's second annual F8 developers' conference has another "hackathon." But unlike last year's all-night session, it hardly deserves the name. It starts at 3 p.m. and ends at 11 p.m., presumably so Schrage can go home and get a good night's sleep before calling reporters on the East Coast to tell them of Facebook's fabulous new platform achievements. Developers are still raging about the notion that Schrage, a PR guy, is in charge of Facebook's development platform. At a recent party in San Francisco, Ben Ling, the technical guy behind the platform, was spotted rolling his eyes when Schrage's name came up.

Why Google's drowning in talent

Owen Thomas · 05/08/08 07:00PM

Looking at the departure of top Google flack Elliot Schrage for Facebook and concluding that the search engine is suffering a "brain drain" is the laziest journalism on the subject I could imagine. The BBC's take on the subject is predictable, citing the same names — Ben Ling, Ethan Beard, even chef Josef Desimone — everyone else does. The most telling thing is actually a Google spokesbot's programmed response: "We have a deep management pool at Google." The problem at Google is not that its brains are going out the drain. It's that the drain is plugged up, and not nearly enough are leaving.

Facebook's Ben Ling shakes highly portable thing

Owen Thomas · 01/11/08 02:20PM

"Bling," as he's known, famously defected from Google to Facebook last year. More recently, he joined the Data Portability Workgroup. Was this video the kind of personal data he wants to make it easier to spread around?