The billion dollar question

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of FacebookIn 2006, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg was just 23, Yahoo offered a billion dollars to buy Facebook. After some consideration, Mark turned them down.

Having made that decision, as Mark explained in a BBC documentary shown at the weekend, it was then easier to reject an offer the following year from Microsoft to buy the company for $15 billion (nearly a quarter of which would have gone to Mark himself).

Think about that for a moment: turning down $3.6 billion. Was he not tempted to take the money? Wouldn’t you be?

Mark may have believed the company would later be worth more (and indeed it is) but that wasn’t the primary reason he refused to sell. His reason was that, as he explained, “The thing I really care about is the mission, making the world open.”

He’s one of the youngest billionaires in the world but he is obviously not in it for the money. He wears the same clothes, drives not a ferrari but an executive’s car, and sits in an open plan office with the rest of his employees.

Mark works long hours at Facebook. And when he gets home he continues talking to his employees within the Facebook site. And yet he loves it. When he has freely chosen this path, he loves what he does, and he’s not doing it for the money, is it work or play?

Stories like Mark’s raise a question for the rest of us:

What, if anything, would you be willing to work (or play) hard enough on to make a billion dollars?

But it also raises a far more interesting question to consider and it’s this:

What do you care enough about to turn down a billion dollars so you can keep doing it?

I suspect that the people who can answer this question are the ones most likely to make that billion.

What could it be for you?

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  • I think that opportunities to ‘sell for a $billion’ are once in a generation offers – as well as the once-in-a-generation people that run these businesses. I have the Facebook program to watch (not seen it yet), but back in the real world there is little to do than work hard, hope, pray and just convince yourself that your business might just work.

    The billion dollar question is not one I expect to hear anytime soon, not while we have the current batch of incompetents in Government and Opposition. There is too much focus on young people, and not enough on older people who are either unemployed or wanting to make the leap into business ownership.

  • GasPunk

    I’m still nursing my wounds from turning down a £4.3 million offer for my share of a company I co-founded back in 2000. We turned down the offer because we all knew guys that had hung in for another year and made £50 million. IIt’s hard to believe now, but in the skewed context of the time ( boom) it seemed to make perfect sense.

    When the bubble finally burst, we managed to salvage about £40k each.It’s said that you can’t miss what you never had but you can sure as hell regret not taking what you were offered!

  • Helen Eccles

    To me this isn’t about the money. It’s about the passion to do what you love doing because from your core you believe in it. People with that belief are unstoppable & no matter what life throws at them they hold on to that passion whether it’s good stuff or tough stuff. It’s their passion that counts & the holding on to it and doing what you love doing each day because it’s the best way to serve others and take care of yourself at the same time. 

  • Reminds me of the programme “deal or no deal”. wisdom there is that if you need the cash you should do the deal rather than hold for more. 

    Hindsight now perhaps, in business, have to ask is it really worth it? Is the value of the company really worth that? 

    I do think a lot of overvaluations are the reason we are having a dip now globally (but not all industries). If some people such as bankers, investors etc. get far more than they deserved, the rest of us end up owing them money and goods from then on. Chris Evens is another example, he worked for a radio station for a short while, often late for work, not turning up, and ended up with many 10’s of millions for it! Crazy! Would like to take money back off people that did not deserve it. True he entertained many in the morning, he did contribute, but not that much!

  • Zaydakebede

    Agree with Helen absolutely. I love practising  homoeopathy, and no amount of money would I accept to stop doing that. Except – think of all the good you could do with £billions. . . . housing for the homeless, after school clubs for the kids, food co-ops for the poor, finance legal aid, pay lobbyists to badger the government for fairness . . . . .now I begin to see how I could be tempted ! sorry, am I digressing ?

  • So true, I’ve been reading the book “reality check”, it’s a great book of what business is really about. I tend to adopt the “work hard while have to” approach. While I get the business going for example, it needs hard work, no escaping it. Later I will hire people to do anything I find mundane. Can enjoy working hard, as if you know you need to, there is some satisfaction and feeling of self control from it. I just make sure take enough breaks. And what I am working on does excite me, so all is fine. 

  • Love this post.

  • Hmmmm – does that question lead along the lines of “find your true passion”? It’s the one I struggle with because I love doing too many different things…Looking forward to Scanner’s Night in this context!

  • Sandra Staley

    John, thank you so much for a fantastic post – really thought-provoking.  I asked myself the last question – tough one to answer right away (that’s a lot of dosh!) but one that I’m gonna work very hard to answer honestly :-). Thanks again, Sandra x

  • Dunno, Richard Branson certainly does a lot of things…

  • Ouch!

  • Chris Evans also had a hit TV show and his own TV production company.I don’t begrudge anyone their wealth unless they were corrupt.

  • Yes it’s one to chew over – I don’t have a glib answer for it myself.

  • Thanks Lucy!

  • Ahzzul

    I don’t know. I can’t really answer the question because I don’t have any interests or passions. Good discussion point, though.

  • Kim Leggatt

    i’m passionate about writing and the thought of taking the money and never writing another word … i don’t think so … 

  • Kim Leggatt

    setting aside what you learnt about taking the money when you were offered it, what else did you learn from the experience?  just curious …?

  • Really good question Kim. The whole experience has changed the way I’ve conducted my business career ever since. For a while, all I wanted to do was get back into a nice, safe senior role in a tech company (which I did). After a few years, I realised how much I missed life in a startup, took one of the ideas that had been brewing in my head and started again. This time I did things differently, sticking to some rules that I drew up based on previous experience:

    1. Take no seed funding from angel investors or loans from banks. Start smaller and grow slower, self fund the entire thing and sell your granny before you take 1p of someone else’s money or give 1% of the business away. 

    2. Hire people only when you can no longer function as business without them. Proudly stating that you have x number of people working for you is a public sector/civil service aspiration – startups should take pride in being as lean as possible. Elance, 99Designs and Student Gems are your friends.

    3. Don’t confuse emotional attachment for passion. You need passion to start a business and stick it out through the tough times but emotional attachment will stop you from making difficult decisions, rectifying planning mistakes, recognising errors of judgement and ultimately knowing when to take the money and run!

    4. Pick your co-founders very, very carefully. Ideally: have none.

    5. (and this one was a long time coming) Don’t let previous bad experiences hold you hostage. Learn your lessons and use what you’ve learned to your advantage. Take the scientists’ approach to mistakes: every error or unexpected result is one off the list and one closer to success. Forget school, where they taught you that mistakes are bad and having the correct answer for everything makes you smarter than everyone else. It’s really easy to make sure you never make a mistake: never do anything. I’m not that guy and I now wear my mistakes like a badge of honour!

    6. When faced with a decision, whatever you do: do something. You can’t steer a ship in the right direction unless its moving. (Thanks to my Grandad for that one!)

    Bet you’re glad you asked now! 


  • Anonymous

    What do I care enough? To challenge myself and keep learning through life-experience such as

  • Fascinating insights Tim! I guess you took a million dollar workshop (and learned well from it). I love your granddad’s quote too. 
    And good question Kim.

  • Dave Brown

    For me it’s troubleshooting I.T. Projects involving changing business processes. To many it probably sounds dull, it certainly can be stressfully at times but I love it. I get to travel the world (just started a new gig in Sydney), I work with lots of people from lots of different cultures in lots of industries. I make good money doing this but I don’t ever plan to retire I enjoy it too much.

  • We can not
    use Mark Z as an example to the rest of us, as he is wired differently to most.
    His single mindedness would put most people of.

    Don’t get
    me wrong it is fantastic what he has done, he can truly say he has changed the

    But he has
    changed the world it would be better for him to of taken the money and moved on
    to something new. Think of the people he could of help with that amount of

    But as he
    has stayed where he is he is only making himself happy now, because Facebook would
    still be Facebook now weather it was owned by Google or MS.


  • Thanks John – maybe I should write a book! 😉

  • Anonymous

    Not a bad idea – or at least a guest blog post for someone.

  • Oooh! I love this. I had a long think about it and I know I’m supposed to say I wouldn’t sell something I love for $3.6 billion, but yes, I would. Of course I would (provided the person I sold to was going to take care of it, not tear it down!).

    That’s because I’m not in this to be an entrepreneur, I’m in this to be a free range human (there is a big difference). Read Steve Jobs’ biography and pick the part where he has an actual life, where he breathes for just one moment, where he makes meaningful connections with other humans (hint: you will be hard pressed to find it once he reaches his mid twenties).

    You are completely right – this singlemindedness is indeed what it takes to be a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg, and probably what it takes to ‘leave a major legacy’ to the world.

    But personally, I think focussing singlemindedly on a legacy by itself is a way of avoiding your own life. I don’t want to sacrifice my life or my family for a shiny website or shiny products, and you DON’T have to do that to create a fabulous, free, and fulfilling life.

    So my answer to the question “what would you turn down a billion dollars for” is quite simply, my life and my freedom and the ability to share these with people. That’s what matters to me – and that is, precisely the reason I WOULD take $3.6 billion to sell a business no matter how much I loved it.

    Thanks for this article, it got me thinking deeply about a really powerful question. x

  • Jshill21

    Mark didn’t sell for the simple reason at 23 an enormous corporation approaches him and offers riches beyond his wildest dreams. He guessed right that if they thought he had a good thing going then it could be worth even more. Fast forward to Microsofts offer. He could see the value of his vision and with youth on his side is doing it his way. Perhaps if this happened at 46 and not 23 he might have been tempted by an early retirement. What would I do, I’d do a Mark for as long as it was fun and I had the energy to keep going.

  • Kuno

    Fantastic post. Thanks John.
    It forces me (probably all of us) into some healthy thinking. As others I will consider my answer carefully. And definately search on for whatever is going to make me, a happy player.