Brian Acton does not sound like the happy, fulfilled guy the stereotype of billionairedom would have you believe. He sounds like someone racked with regret, guilt, and torment over his decision to sell the most promising rebel base to the empire and then realizing that the empire would do what the empire does.
It’s so easy to dismiss such anguish with gifs of a man crying himself to sleep on a bed of money. But that’s as shallow as it is glib. Yes, Zuckerberg made Acton unfathomably rich. He also made him unfathomably small and impotent.
They say becoming a billionaire isn’t about the money, it’s about the power. If so, clearly this was a deal gone wrong. Acton became a billionaire by giving up all his power and handing it to Zuckerberg.
Who wouldn’t regret that? And yet, who wouldn’t be tempted by Facebook’s billions? Temptation is natural, it’s human. And so too is the rationalization that it was “an offer too good to refuse”, which seeks to absolve the taker of all guilt (and agency). And so too is the depths of despair when you deep down know you made a mistake.
That’s probably what makes the Forbes interview so painful to read. Acton is trying to make sense of his regret. Facebook is clearly on a path to turn what may well have been his life’s work into everything he built it not to be. And yet he has to rationalize his decision with utterly inauthentic excuses like how they’re “just being good business people, not bad people”. It’s like watching an early session of therapy play out awkwardly on a lit theater stage in front of an audience. You can’t help but cringe.
And in that cringe lies the appeal of Acton’s story. The utterly human temptation towards unfathomable wealth with the equally human suspicion that purpose is so much more than 10-digit bank balance.
The bastion of hope that was WhatsApp is gone. The “no ads, no games, no gimmicks” ethos will complete its transition into “all ads, all deceit, all extraction” soon enough. There’s a twenty-billion dollar hole in Facebook’s balance sheet that needs filling (with interest).
But rather than mourn that loss, we’d do well to use it to energize a new generation of entrepreneurs to avoid the trap that Acton fell into. To power the formation of a thousand new WhatsApps, intent on avoiding the faith of the fallen one.
We need to rewrite the cultural incentives around selling out. Acton predicament as the prototypical tragedy rather than victory. Replace envy with pity. Inspiration with rejection.
Let’s make it cool to turn down twenty billion dollars.
Reprogramming the values and practices of business as usual is what our new book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work is all about. You might want to check it out. If you need further encouragement, checkout my former essays on the topic.