By Doug Gross
(CNN) — If reports Wednesday are to be believed, one of the tech industry’s biggest deals in recent history was hammered out almost exclusively by two 20-somethings over the course of what amounts to a long weekend.
On April 8, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg let the company’s board of directors know he was about to spend $1 billion on hot photo start-up Instagram — just hours before the deal was done, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The deal was nailed down, unnamed sources told the Journal, in only three days. Meetings between Zuckerberg, 27, and Instagram head Kevin Systrom, 28, that took place at Zuckerberg’s multi-million-dollar Palo Alto, California, home.
It’s a move that shows Zuckerberg displaying the hacker spirit that helped him launch a social-media juggernaut in his college dorm room. And that’s a spirit that doesn’t always jibe with the image of CEO of a corporation expected to be valued at up to $100 billion when it makes its first public stock offering in the next few weeks.
“On balance, I’m not sure it’s the best way to do business,” said Ali Velshi, CNN’s chief business correspondent. “But Mark Zuckerberg has defied all rules.”
The moxie suggested in the report comes at an interesting time for Facebook and Zuckerberg, who also reportedly whittled down Systrom’s initial asking price of $2 billion.
On the brink of offering up Facebook, with its hundreds of millions of users, to stockholders, even Zuckerberg’s controlling interest in the company (a 57% share of voting rights, according to reports) could soon need to be checked by the types of lawyers, bean-counters and other business types whose jobs involve looking out for a company’s bottom line.
“This paints a complex picture of its CEO as at once confident and bold, and also nervous and panicky — details that will be scrutinized come Facebook’s imminent IPO,” Kit Eaton wrote on Fast Company’s website.
Velshi, who over the course of his career covered the “tech bubble” of the late 1990s, said the whirlwind purchase may, in fact, be a last hurrah of sorts for Zuckerberg.
“It actually happens more than we think. And it’s not a bad thing, particularly in non-public companies, Velshi said. “But, in public companies, boards are important — they are supposed to protect shareholder interests, and they are supposed to bring perspective and experience that a kid CEO may not have.”
The Facebook board did vote to approve the deal, according to the Journal. But at that point, it was largely an endorsement more than a decision. The board, one source said, “was told, not consulted.”
In the fast-moving world of Web tech, being nimble is almost a prerequisite for survival. Fail to adapt and someone else will pass you by.
Instagram, a mobile app which lets users enhance their photos with a raft of pre-created filters, was reportedly on the verge of nailing down a new round of private investments worth $50 million. Could that have made Zuckerberg overpay for a company with 13 employees and no revenue to date?
Maybe, says Velshi.
“Creativity, innovation and deal-making are different strengths; rarely does one person possess all of them,” he said. “That Zuckerberg felt strongly that he wanted Instragram may not have made him the best person to do the deal — that’s why we have real estate agents, or talent agents.”
For what it’s worth, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg was aware of the negotiations all along, although she didn’t personally take part. And, for Facebook, making a profit directly from Instagram may have been less important than locking up its user data and taking a rapidly growing competitor, now with more than 40 million users, off of the playing field.
Regardless of where the future takes Facebook — whether life as a publicly traded commodity is more about stuffy board meetings than spur-of-the moment handshake deals — Wednesday’s report provided at least one more glimpse at the hoodie-wearing, authority-flouting CEO whose origin story has literally become the stuff of Hollywood storytelling.
“What’s cooler than a billion dollars?” Matthew Braga of Ars Technica wrote, invoking the oft-paraphrased line from Facebook biopic “The Social Network.”
“A billion dollars without board approval.”