Katie Couric, Jerry Seinfeld and Sir Howard Stringer at the dais, a Pierre Hotel ballroom of eight-tops stuffed with media moguls and tech glitterati, yet Mark Zuckerberg was sitting to my left, at the table nearest the exit, furthest from the dais. Why? Me, part preference, part room-rank; Mark, because it was early -- November 9, 2006. A few big-time entrepreneurs in attendance understood Mark's vision but believed they could beat or buy him. The rest, mostly corporate ladder climbers, were cheerily myopic. Their loss was my gain, then and now.
What brought Mark and I together was Quadrangle's FourSquare Conference. A once famous, two-day event, held every fall in New York City. It was a magnet that pulled in a who's-who of the Internet, telecom, media, advertising and technology sectors. Name a relevant corporate or banking luminary and they were likely in attendance -- soaking in presentations, proposing deals and basking in their collective glow. A favorite part was no press allowed, save certain meals or as an anointed panel host.
I'd long left my position as President and Chief Operating Officer of Monster Worldwide but one of my gigs at the time was sitting on the board of a Quadrangle investment, Dice Holdings, as it readied for its 2007, $800 million, IPO. Thus the invitation that put me in the audience for Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook talk.
In the pre-lunch slot young Zuckerberg took to the ballroom stage -- all of 22, blue blazer, jeans and Adidas flip-flops, no socks. Appearing a tad nervous he walked us through his vision for Facebook -- still raising capital to grow its 12 million-user base -- and then took questions. I recall being astonished at how rude a few famous CEO's were, chitchatting during the talk and snickering at earnest answers to some rather dumb questions. Modesty should forbid but I got Mark's vision. I just wondered if the "deer in the headlights" had the mettle to see it through. Then, lunch...
As I prefer root canals to hobnobbing or small talk, running for a prime-dining seat was out. I made a phone call or two and then ambled to the lunchroom. Things were getting underway as I popped into one of two open seats at the table in the rear of the room. I recall a youthful Andrew Ross Sorkin seated directly across, but behind the centerpiece, from me, not much about the other five tablemates -- a mix of men and women. Right on my heels, one of the conference hosts guided Mark Zuckerberg to the only unoccupied seat in the room, the one to my left.
Introductions were made all around and the meal began, the panel to play during dessert. Almost immediately a few of the table dwellers glommed on to Mark with all sorts of unsolicited professional advice and business questions -- to Sorkin's credit he did not, very professional decorum. Anyway, I'm sitting there thinking; geez, give the kid some downtime... ah hell, let me save him... stealing the conversation...
"I think I read you grew up in Dobbs Ferry... really, did you know Frank Violante in high school, he was the athletic director there... no, oh you went to private school... so are you going up to see mom and dad for dinner tonight... yes, I bet that makes them happy... do you have siblings... wow, three sisters, I have two... one of yours works with you... older or younger... oh, older... do you have her on the payroll because you like her or you're getting even... oh, that's great, nice to be close... so, was Harvard fun..., etc." until the rest surrendered to the rubber chicken course.
Mark impressed me -- shy but personable, well mannered, family-oriented, tolerant but unmoved by the sycophants and patient with the wise-ass asking family questions. Yes, he had the mettle and now I was rooting for him. Thus having heard Yahoo! was trying to buy Facebook, and unaware that he had already told them no, I offered my own unsolicited advice:
Mark, I hear Yahoo! is offering $1 billion for Facebook. It's none of my business, so I'm not asking you anything. I'm just saying your slug of that would be life-altering -- do what you want, when you want money and I'm sure great popularity with the ladies (unknowingly putting a foot in my mouth as he had a pretty girlfriend, now his wife) -- BUT, having been on both sides of many acquisitions in my career, I guarantee you that once you sell you're not in charge anymore. Your title may still be Facebook CEO but direction will be the buyer's prerogative not yours. Just keep that in mind.
I felt good about imparting my experience (later learning that it was unnecessary) and hoped I hadn't been too annoying trying to shield him. That evening I sent him an email, "Enjoyed sitting with you at lunch today. I look forward to watching the continued development/mission of Facebook..." Four days later a reply in my inbox, "Hey, it was fun meeting you too. I'm sure we'll cross paths again at some point... Mark." As I said, he's well-mannered.
Our paths have not crossed again but I have enjoyed the watching. Here we are in 2014. Mark Zuckerberg, with a net worth in the area of $28 billion, will turn all of 30 in May. His society-changing company, Facebook, with a market capitalization of roughly $160 billion and 1.2 billion users, just turned 10 on February 4. The 22-year-old kid I met is now a front-of-the-room guy. No surprise.
"My gain -- then and now?" Then: A fun and unexpected experience that I'll probably recount far too often in old age. Now: A pile of January 2015 Facebook call options -- at strikes of 22, 25, 27 and 30 -- purchased when Facebook shares languished in the $20s. With the stock now in the $60s, I plan to ride them right into a long-term share position. I know Mark has the vision and the mettle. And at ages of just 30 and 10, my bet is the Zuckerberg/Facebook dominance era is just beginning!
Undoubtedly, on November 9, 2006, the prime-dining seat was in the back of the house.