Mark Zuckerberg: A billionaire's life

Arabian Business takes a closer look at the growth of a New Media icon
By Elizabeth Broomhall
Sat 11 Feb 2012 08:57 PM

In January 2011, rumors emerged that Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s youngest billionaire, was planning to close his masterpiece, Facebook. Thought to be “sick” of the site that had “ruined his life”, the 26 year-old was said to be shutting down the profiles of half a billion people the world over on March 15, sparking uproar among users whose lives had been transformed by the ability to connect with their friends like never before.

Of course, the site never did close, and Zuckerberg, true to form, has continued to grow the site and eye new ideas for its development since its very conception in his Harvard dormitory almost eight years ago. The college drop-out, whose personal wealth is estimated to be around $17.5bn on the back of his entrepreneurial break-through, has also voiced his desire to keep the company within the facebook family.

“It’s not because of the amount of money,” he told students at his former prep school, Philips Exeter Academy, recently, talking about why he turned down offers from major companies to buy out the social networking site. “For me and my colleagues, the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people. Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me.” And, even as Facebook now prepares to go public, Zuckerberg is set to retain a majority share, not to mention 50 percent of the voting rights.

Looking back at his life, in many ways, one might say Zuckerberg was a very ordinary child. Born in Dobbs Ferry, New York, on May 14 1984, he was brought up by his father Edward, a dentist who ran a practice next to their home, and his mother, Karen, a psychologist before she had children.

There were of course many other attributes, which proved the Facebook co-founder to be a little different, most notably his obsession and proficiency with computers. At the age of just 12, he invented a messaging programme named ‘Zuchnet’ for use in his father’s dentist surgery, and throughout his early years, he was a hit among his friends for constructing video games based on their artistic drawings. To help him achieve his goals, Mark’s parents hired private computer tutor David Newman to come and work with Mark at home. According to Newman, Zuckerberg’s computer competency certainly made it tough to keep up with him.

By the time Zuckerberg went to high school, he had built a music player called the Synapse Media Player under the company name Intelligent Media Group, which relied on artificial intelligence to learn the user's listening habits. According to reports, IT giants Microsoft and AOL tried to buy Synapse and recruit Zuckerberg at this stage, but he instead chose to enrol at Harvard University. Throughout school, Zuckerberg was good at many things, including literature, maths and fencing, where he was captain of the team, but in the end, it was computers and programming that sparked his interest most.

It wasn’t until Zuckerberg left home and went to college, however, that he stumbled across the idea for Facebook. Despite the controversy surrounding whose idea it actually was, (friends the Winklevoss twins accusing him of stealing their idea) there was never any doubt that it was Zuckerberg himself who created the site.

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When he joined Harvard, Zuckerberg quickly became known for being “a programming prodigy,” and in his sophomore year wrote a program named CourseMatch to let users make class selection decisions and help them build study groups. He later gained notice for the launch of Facemash in 2003, a site which allowed students to rate people based on their looks by viewing their photos online. According to reports, visitors would choose who was “hotter” and individuals would be ranked in line with the number of votes they received.

Facemash, dubbed the predecessor to Facebook, was important in proving just how good a programmer Zuckerberg was, at least to himself. Not only was the site a success, but it became so popular it actually caused Harvard’s internet server to crash and stop students going online. Following the crash, Zuckerberg nearly got thrown out of the college, especially when some students complained that their photos had been used without their permission.

By February 2004, Facemash was old news, with everyone talking about Thefacebook.com. How the site evolved is still unclear, with a mixture of takes on what really happened. Some say the idea came about following student calls for the university to developer an internal website which could allow the sharing of photos and contact details, whilst some say Zuckerberg got his inspiration from his prep-school student directory known as ‘The Photo Address Book’ or ‘The Facebook’.

Others say that based on the hype surrounding Zuckerberg’s previous projects, he hooked up with three friends Divya Narendra, and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss to work on an idea for a similar social networking site called Harvard Connection, but soon dropped out to develop a site of his own with friends Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Eduardo Saverin. The reality is probably a combination of all three, but certainly Zuckerberg has continued to deny intellectual property theft which he was accused of by the Winklevoss twins.

Until June 2004, the Facebook founders ran the site out of a dorm room at Harvard. After his sophomore year, Zuckerberg dropped out of college so he could work on what became just ‘Facebook’ full time, and moved the company to Palo Alto. By the close of 2004, Facebook had 1m users, and it was only a matter of time before the website attracted the attention of the industry’s biggest players.

Looking back over the Facebook years, the last 24 months have been Zuckerberg’s most successful. Following a series trials and tribulations, which included facebook’s closure in China and the ongoing court battle with the Winklevoss twins, (which ultimately resulted in Facebook paying a settlement of $65m), the site has finally reached business maturity, with experts estimating it is now valued anywhere between $75bn and $100bn, with more than half a billion users logging on to the site every day.

Zuckerberg himself has risen with the site, and in 2010, was named Time magazine’s person of the year. In 2011, his achievements were mirrored by the success of Hollywood movie ‘The Social Network’, (based on his Harvard life and Facebook’s early days). Going forward, the IPO is only expected to further boost Zuckerberg’s wealth and fame, as the website draws closer to its target of 1 billion users in the future.

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