Zuckerberg ought to pull 'an Andreessen,' not 'a Gates'

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper reflects on the early leadership of the once-thriving Netscape, which was entrusted to an experienced business executive.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

Kara Swisher has a deliciously speculative piece up Friday about who Mark Zuckerberg should appoint to replace Owen Van Natta as Facebook's No. 2.

Mark Zuckerberg: CEO for life? From Zuckerberg's Facebook page

Before weighing in, though, I must say that Zuckerberg just made his first business mistake--nothing that he won't recover from, but an error nonetheless. He should have pulled an Andreessen. Instead, he's trying to pull a Gates.

Marc Andreessen was the technological brains behind Netscape. His company thrived--until it was brought down by Microsoft's death ray--because the role of Netscape CEO was entrusted to an experienced business executive named Jim Barksdale.

You didn't find that same division of labor at Microsoft until years after it evolved into a multibillion-dollar monopolist. Gates was that rare bird who, like Steve Jobs at Apple, displayed acumen both in business and technology. But you'd be hard-pressed to point to many prodigies in the technology business endowed with similar skills.

That's why Zuckerberg's only fooling himself. When he takes a hard look in the mirror, is that really the second coming of Bill Gates staring back? I don't think so. He had a ready CEO candidate waiting in the wings in the person of Van Natta. Zuckerberg could have done a lot worse--for instance, by retaining the top spot for himself.

Full disclosure: I've known Van Natta since the 1990s, when he was a sales intern at Computer Shopper in New York, when I worked as an editor for that publication. After Computer Shopper, Van Natta's business career led to Elon Musk, then heading a start-up called Zip2. (Compaq later brought out Zip2 for $300 million.) After a couple of pit stops, he wound up doing business development for Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com. And when the entrepreneurial bug again bit, he landed at Facebook during the early days.

Van Natta, who was appointed chief operating officer, helped hammer out the Microsoft deal and oversaw Facebook's spectacular growth. Last year, his title got changed into something called chief revenue officer and vice president of operations, kindling speculation that it was only a matter of time before his next gig. Swisher, who has been doing the best reporting in the Valley on Facebook, broke the news about Van Natta's departure earlier this week.

Dan Rosensweig: Would he Facebook?

Now back to Kara's picks. I like one of her choices--but for the CEO job. Dan Rosensweig, who used to run ZDNet and was No. 2 here at CNET Networks before moving over to Yahoo to become chief operating officer, would be a master stroke. Rosensweig is supersmart and a charismatic sort of manager. He's connected both on Wall Street and Silicon Valley. (Another disclosure: I've known Rosensweig since 1989, so I'm already coming at this with an ingrained bias.) But right now, Rosensweig's enjoying "hanging with the family"--at least to play second fiddle. If Facebook really wants him, Zuckerberg would need to compromise.

Another possible candidate--again an old-school connection for me--is Shelby Bonnie. He's a CNET co-founder and was its CEO for much of its history. Here's another savvy tech executive with time on his hands these days. Like Rosensweig, Bonnie's one of the good guys. And during the dot-com bust, he steered the company away from its near-death experience when the stock traded under a buck. And if anyone has learned from mistakes how to scale an online-media company, Bonnie is as experienced as any candidate out there.

But all of this is moot speculation. At least for the time being, Zuckerberg believes that he's worth every bit the $15 billion Facebook is said to be valued. And unless there's a sudden change, there's no room in his future for someone else to play Numero Uno at his company.