Yesterday, Facebook stunned the world by acquiring virtual reality headset maker Oculus for $2 billion in cash and stock.
Now, that comparison is often made, but it often focuses on the superficial: the über-nerd coder Harvard dropout with world-devouring ambition and painful social skills.
But what brought this home for me was the report by TechCrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler that the Facebook-Oculus acquisition was negotiated over just five days. This brought to mind the Instagram acquisition: Instagram wasn’t looking for an acquisition (they’d recently raised a very large round) and, while Google was interested in Instagram and could have outbid Facebook at the time, Zuckerberg simply moved faster. While Google CEO Larry Page delegated the deal to his underlings, Zuckerberg personally sought out Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom and invited him over to his house and hammered the deal out personally over the weekend.
For someone whose public persona is defined by his social awkwardness (something he’s clearly put past him, if you’ve watched any recent interviews), Zuckerberg sure is the consummate and aggressive dealmaker. We also saw this with the WhatsApp acquisition.
Here’s the point: what made Bill Gates the man who dominated the technology industry for twenty years wasn’t his product sensibility, like Steve Jobs, or his long-term focus or consumer obsession like Jeff Bezos, or being a technology visionary like (increasingly) Larry Page. It wasn’t even his technical chops per se, though those were necessary. It was his strategic genius. Bill Gates was first and foremost the consummate strategist CEO, and it was by out-strategizing (and out-executing) his rivals that he came to dominate the technology industry.
Zuckerberg is exactly like that. There is a core strategic dimension to every deal he does. You can just imagine him moving the pieces on the chessboard. His big acquisitions are technology or business acquisitions so much as they’re strategic acquisitions. He has a trusted lieutenant to oversee the business side (Sheryl Sandberg for Zuck, Steve Ballmer for Gates), but he is deeply, personally involved in everything regarding the company’s strategy, including dealmaking. (The fact that Microsoft, with Xbox, clearly should have been the acquirer of Oculus, adds a painful dimension to this parallel.)
Turning a company making a BASIC interpreter into a generation-defining software juggernaut wasn’t easy, and took a lot of strategizing. So will turning a social network into the dominant media platform of the 21st century.