Audience members browsed Facebook on their phones while waiting for one of the social media site’s creators to speak in the Robertson Auditorium Monday evening.
Allison Davis-Blake, dean of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, moderated the event. She asked Chris Hughes about a number of topics, including his journey as one of five people co-founding Facebook, his work for the Obama campaign in 2008 and the advice he had for young entrepreneurs. Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCullum and Hughes. The social media site now has more than 1 billion users in 19 countries.
Hughes began the discussion with a disclaimer: the Facebook story was different from that portrayed in the popular 2010 film “The Social Network.” Rather, he said, a few undergraduate students at Harvard University had the idea for a social media site and with the right spark and motivation, Facebook was able to become the massive network it is today.
He told attendees that a small idea can have a significant impact on making a huge difference in the world: Facebook, he said, began with the simple idea to connect friends and family and 12 years later, the site has evolved into an avenue for sharing photos, messaging and advertising.
“It is possible to come from the most simple means and have an enormous impact on the world,” he said.
However, Hughes also said for a company to succeed, it’s not just about generating ideas — entrepreneurs also have to think about making those ideas into successful companies. He stressed that Facebook’s success was not a stroke of luck, but an immensely difficult fight to get the company to where it is today, which he said was a key message for entrepreneurs.
“It is a reminder that if you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to feel like you have to build the company,” Hughes said. “It is the difference between having that idea, and being so obsessed by that idea that you can’t let it go.”
When asked what aspect of the social media site he was most proud of, Hughes said Facebook was the first network that enabled people to be truly authentic.
“When I think of what I am most proud of, it is really creating an environment where people can be authentic, where people use their real names, where people talked about what they actually cared about, and connected to their friends, family, and eventually colleagues and co-workers,” he said.
The conversation then shifted to Hughes’ impact on President Barack Obama’s campaign as its online organizer in 2008. He used the Internet to foster a community of supporters and grassroots supporters, allowing the campaign to represent something larger than Obama himself, Hughes said.
Davis-Blake asked if Hughes’ efforts had a lasting impact on political campaigning. Hughes noted current presidential candidates’ understanding of the power of social media, and pointed to Donald Trump’s “masterful” use of Twitter to convey messages in particular. Beyond politics, he also brought up the success of technology to spread awareness of ALS through the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014.
“It’s not just about politics,” Hughes said. “It’s about activism and social change in general. If you can come up with a concept that resonates with people, for a cause that matters, and you use the network effects well, it can explode.”
Similarly, he said, the drive behind Facebook wasn’t to make money; it was to bring value to the world and make an impact.
“We never started Facebook to make money,” he said. “Mark Zuckerberg cares more about the impact of the world than money.”
Hughes also stressed the importance of having the right team when creating a startup, saying that not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur — one must have the focus and commitment to see it through, and the ability to deal with challenges.
Ann Arbor resident Ann Clinger, president of the Michigan-based small business Dazzle Pet, said she attended the discussion to gain insight from someone who was once in a position like her own.
“I wanted to get some inspiration from someone who has walked in those shoes and seen incredible success, and I think the ideas he can share with people right on the cusp of their own careers is invaluable,” Clinger said.
University of Michigan alum Nathan Pilcowitz, who works at the safety startup Companion, said his interest in entrepreneurship inspired him to come to the event. Pilcowitz thinks Ann Arbor is ripe for business opportunities.
“Right now, more than ever, there is a spirit of people wanting to make something huge, and actually make a difference in the world. So definitely coming here and seeing a person our generation looks up to is really important,” Pilcowitz said. “He is someone we can relate to.”