3 Things I learned about startups from my Time at Meta

I didn’t expect the acquisition of Meta by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (the $45B philanthropy started by Pricilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg) to make headlines but it sure did.

The news hit tech and business publications around the world including Bloomberg, Fortune, Betakit, and of course TechCrunch.

Get Rekt ResearchGate.

I worked at Meta for almost 3 years between 2012–2015 back when we used to call ourselves Sciencescape (a landscape for science!). It was my first job, and I learned a lot while I was there. I remember the early days when ‘the office’ was a delapidated research lab in the Banting and Best building at University ave and College st. The possibilities of what Meta could be seemed endless, and despite the early stage of the company, we were high on optimism.

Ye old Sciencescape office at the Banting and Best Building @ U of T

The reality of any startup ends up being quite different from what’s ‘possible’ at the beginning. As difficult choices and trade offs have to be made you realize that not all opportunities can be seized and not every path can be traveled. Every startup faces significant ups and downs and Meta was no different.

Despite the challenges that were faced (both external and of our own creation) something special has been created there, special enough for Mark Zuckerberg to take notice. I believe that’s something for everyone involved to be proud of.

Its a simple fact that most startups fail, but Meta succeeded. Looking back, I think these are the 3 reasons Meta was able to make it.

1. They had a Clear & Compelling Vision

The first time I heard about Meta was back in 2012, when there was no product and no team. There were just two founders working on this crazy idea.

Meta’s main competitor — Pubmed. This interface was cutting edge in the 1980s

The first time I heard the idea I knew it had to exist. Not that it had already been created, but that given enough time the creation of a platform that connects scientists to the right research was innevitable. I wanted to be a part of that.

That clear, compelling mission attracted amazing team members who also wanted to be a part of Meta. The drive to help researchers do better work and being surrounded by talented colleauges inspired us to work long hours and put in our best efforts.

2. They Ignored ‘Cool’ Tech Trends

Uber for 😺 delivery.

Over the past few years ‘Uber for everything’ was a key theme in tech: Uber for dog walking, Uber for pizza, Uber for weed, Uber for movers (see the full list here). Today AI is hot.

But AI wasn’t cool in 2013, and AI is exactly what Meta was building . Meta was focused on the mission, and if natural language process algorithms + machine learning would help them connect researchers with the best papers, then that’s what they were going to build. And they did. Meta and its tech wasn’t the coolest back in 2013, but its pretty damn cool now.

3. Their Determination not to Die

I remember a conversation with Meta’s CEO a few years ago when he said to me:

At some level, startups die because founders give up.

I didn’t fully understand this until I started my own startup journey with Steadfast. When you filter out the bad startup ideas — ideas that don’t create any value/solve a problem — startups do die because in the end the founders chose to stop working on them.

What I never understood as an early employee at a startup is the magnitude of work, effort, sweat, and tears go into a startup. That it requires an unwavering determination to succeed to get anywhere in startupland.

When you’ve been working 80 hours a week, haven’t seen friends in a while, and are not making progress as fast as you’d like, its tempting to take your foot off the gas pedal. It gets more tempting once you’ve made a name for yourself and start getting job offers from great companies. You then have to choose — should I continue grinding at my startup, or move on to something that gives me a solid income, leisure time, life balance, etc?

Years ago Sam told me that the answer to that question is the difference between success and failure. I didn’t believe him then, but I sure do now.

Major 🔑.

This new stage in Meta’s journey is a win for Sam and Amy, the Meta team, for the Canadian ecosystem. It was a privilege to work with Meta and I’m excited to see what they accomplish as part of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Huge congrats to them, and if you want to build a great company:

  • Build a clear, compelling vision
  • Focus on solving real problems and ignore hot tech trends
  • Don’t give up :)

For more info on our vision for Steadfast check out our first post here.

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