As Facebook's stock price sinks and criticism mounts, an emerging parlor game in Silicon Valley is speculation on the job status of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Shares for the social-networking company dipped 4% Friday to $19, half the May 18 IPO value, before closing at $19.05.
So far, there are no signs of open revolt among major Facebook shareholders beyond a few class-action lawsuits over its botched initial public offering. But some openly wonder if it might be time for Zuckerberg to step aside as CEO.
"He is unquestionably a genius at starting a company, but that does not necessarily translate into running a public company," says securities attorney Andrew Stoltmann. If Facebook's problems persist, its board of directors may consider a change at the top, he says.
Facebook isn't the first company to struggle in the transition from start-up to public company. Others, such as Apple and Yahoo, eventually pushed aside founders in favor of adult supervision before bringing their founders back.
But for many, the notion of Zuckerberg being forced out is patently absurd. As Facebook's largest shareholder, with 20.7%, and its resident visionary, Zuckerberg has the loudest say in his future at the company.
"He is safe because Facebook would not be Facebook without him," says Duncan Davidson, managing director of Bullpen Capital.
Mistakes were made by "grown-ups," Davidson says, like the bankers for Facebook who should have known better when the underlying projections changed at the last minute, and Nasdaq, which should have held the deal a week when they encountered a catastrophic software error. "The core problem is that Facebook should have gone public in 2009 when the public investor would have caught the knee of the curve of value creation," he says.
Of course, history has shown that the entrepreneurial founders of companies, despite their flaws, are sometimes the best ones to guide it — even if they need an assist from more managerial types.
After Apple jettisoned Steve Jobs in 1985, it struggled in the 1990s with a succession of CEOs, culminating in the disastrous reign of Gil Amelio. Jobs reclaimed the company he co-founded in 1997.
Eric Schmidt did a sterling job as Google CEO before Larry Page was brought back in last year. Yahoo has had a procession of CEOs with two stints by co-founder Jerry Yang, who is now largely out of the picture. Ex-Googler Marissa Mayer is now in charge. "Grown-ups that come in and try to manage these companies never have the cojones to do great pivots nor the ability to rally the troops," Davidson says.
Choppy executive transitions invariably come for the founder-CEO of a tech start-up that goes public.
Peter Shankman, a small-business adviser in tech, saw it multiple times during the late '90s dotcom boom. "One of the best assets of a smart founder is knowing what they're good at," he says. "If I'm Zuckerberg, I'm not sure if I want to stick around. Maybe they bring in a pro with three-piece suit instead of a hoodie."
In Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and CFO David Ebersman, Facebook already has adult supervision, contends Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. "The only thing that Facebook has done that is wrong is they issued way too many shares and they unlocked way too many shares and flooded the market," Pachter says. "I think they're running the company fine," Pachter says, alluding to Facebook's estimated $4.9 billion in revenue this year, up 32% from 2011. "They just mismanaged the offering and they mismanaged the lockup."