TechCrunch Disrupt Turns Into Group Therapy For Facebook

TechCrunch Disrupt is underway at the San Francisco Design Center, which has once again been transformed into a kind of cathedral for startups. The young and hip and partially-funded have gathered to worship at the feet of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and catch pearls of wisdom dispensed by the parade of Geek celebrities who grace the stage.

As Day 2 unfolds, there are two themes I’m sensing. The second I’ll write about in another post. But the first revolves around Facebook.

That’s not a surprise for two reasons. First, the Facebook IPO and its fall out still looms large over Silicon Valley in general, but particularly the folks who gather at this conference. TechCrunch, as chief chronicler of the Web 2.0 era, and Facebook, founded in 2004, seem joined together in a cultural sense, even if both have grown up and moved in different directions.

But the other reason is that Mark Zuckerberg has scheduled his first in-person appearance since the IPO, aside from the earnings call this summer, at Disrupt this afternoon. In the startup scene, it’s a hotly anticipated moment. Will Zuckerberg appear beaten down by all the negative vibes surrounding the company? Will he offer any self-critiques? Will he strike a defiant pose? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, however, it’s been hard for a guest on stage to avoid being asked about Facebook. What wrong with the IPO? What does it mean for the future of Facebook?

That theme kicked off early Monday, when Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn co-founder and early Facebook investor, took the stage and was asked about it by Michael Arrington. Hoffman said as an investor, he was waiting to see how the stock reacts over the next six months as employee lock-ups end. But overall, he remains very optimistic:

“I’m a big believer in Facebook’s long-term position. The real question is how it plays out over the next year or two. I suspect that if it continues at this price, it will be a good buy either at now or some point,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman also said the angst around mobile’s impact on Facebook is misplaced:

“The issue with monetizing mobile is a hand-wringing problem that’s not hard to solve,” he said. “The executive team there is very strong. They have 1 billion users. Given all of that, I’m very bullish on their future prospects. Whether I would give investing advice depends on the timing.”

 Venture Capitalist Ben Horowitz commiserated with Facebook, recalling his own travails when his previous company, LoudCloud, tanked after going public before he managed to turn it around, and eventually, sell to Hewlett-Packard for a nice chunk of change:

“We had kind of a similarity with Facebook in the sense that it wasn’t the most opportune time in the development of the company to take it public,” Horowitz explained.

He added that an IPO adds a lot of pressure that lands mainly on the employees as they go home to family and friends who are reading about the company in the media.

“It changes the nature of the company,” he said, fixating on the importance of company cohesion as the scrutiny around the company rises.

Matt Cohler, a former Facebook exec and now venture partner at Benchmark Capital, hit the jackpot this year thanks to the investment he led in Instagram, which was bought by his former company for a $1 billion (though worth less thanks to Facebook’s stock price dip). Investors have been freaking out that Facebook’s big growth is in mobile where it doesn’t make much money. Cohler said he thinks advertising on mobile devices will actually be better than it was on the Web:

“It’s a lot more like a TV than a web browser ever was,” he says in an interview with Michael Arrington today at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. “[With the web] you’d get 12 different things going on at the same time. It’s not that immersive. The smartphone is one screen for the user to focus on, in a device they have a deep emotional connection to.”

Late Tuesday morning, Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff, agreed with previous speakers that the future for Facebook should be bright:

 “They have a great CEO, they have a great user base,” he said. But Michael Arrington tried to get him to say what Facebook could have done better. According to Marc Benioff, Facebook should have done its IPO two years ago.

But he believes that the company is still on the right track to become ubiquitous. He told the audience that only a few companies have had the potential to become as big as Google over the past few years. “Facebook has the opportunity to be the next Google,” Benioff said.

When it comes to giving a piece of advice to Facebook for the future, he stated that the company “needs to double down on their revenue growth.”