Facebook’s Paul Buchheit talks about Facebook, Google and his new gig


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Earlier today we reported that Paul Buchheit, who created Gmail and founded FriendFeed,was leaving Facebook to join Y Combinator. We caught up with Buchheit on his last day at Facebook.

Q: What was it like working for Facebook?

A: Very interesting. It’s a really remarkable company. For me, it was especially interesting. I spent quite a bit of time at Google. There’s a big risk when you are at some place as successful as Google, you start to think you do everything right. It was very interesting being able to see a company like Facebook that is also tremendously successful but very different in a lot of ways, especially as a person who is interested in start-ups and helping start-ups grow hopefully to be successful.


Q: How was Facebook different from Google?

A: A lot of the differences are subtle. On the surface, they seem similar. They have the same people in many cases. They have a nice cafe and those things. But really the way things are run is quite a bit different. Mark is very involved in really all of the key product decisions at a very detailed level. It’s a much more focused product in terms of it’s just Facebook and there’s a strong desire to keep it that way. Google has a much more diverse approach and the founders operate at a level more like a venture capitalist. They have a number of different products they are interested in: autonomous cars, Street View, search. All these different things from the outside look like they are unrelated. But of course the connection is that those are the interests of the founders. It ends up creating a very different culture. Also, the history of the two companies is very different. Google came out of a Stanford research project so it always had a very academic flavor to it. They were PhD students who hired other PhD students from the start. Facebook had more of a dorm room hacker origin. Mark and his friends put together the site very fast and had a much less academic view on things. They have more of a move fast and break stuff mentality which is one of the slogans there.

Q: Facebook is getting ready to launch an e-mail product. Did you work on a ‘Gmail killer’ while you were at Facebook?

A: No, I did not. One of the downsides of having worked on something like that that was notable is that everyone keeps expecting that you are going to work on that again. I have very little desire to work on e-mail again in the future. To me, there’s a lot more interesting stuff out there.

Q: What did you work on at Facebook?

A: Miscellaneous different things. My most recent project was the beta downloader that we shipped a month ago in which you get your profile in a zip file. It’s fun to be able to get all of your history, all of your photos, all of your blog posts, all of your messages going back years in one file. I think it would be really nice if that kind of thing became a standard: to get all of the data out of Gmail in a zip file, for example. It would be a very convenient thing to have. Of course, there are APIs you can use for a lot of services like Gmail to do that. But who does that? Those are a lot of work to set up versus just going to the site and clicking on a link and getting a giant zip file.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about the contacts sharing spatbetween Google and Facebook?

A: It’s entertaining.

Q: How did the offer from Y Combinator come about?

A: Paul Graham had mentioned it several years back but I was looking to start FriendFeed at the time. It’s hard to do anything else when you are trying to start a start-up. He mentioned it again this summer and it got me thinking again. I talked about it with my wife and considered the idea for a while and I realized that it fit much better what I would like to do with my time. My experiences in running start-ups is that it really takes over your life. Right now at least, I don’t want anything to take over my life to that same extent. Y Combinator is a great way to be involved in really important new technology companies without necessarily waking up at 6 am to fix the server or something like that.


Q: So this was not a question of you being unhappy at Facebook?

A: It’s really a case that my interests are much more in the world of start-ups. Although I have worked for quite a few larger companies, it’s never as exciting to me as those early stages where it’s just a few people hacking things together really quickly and getting them out to the world. To me, that’s where you have the uncertainty, the unpredictability and the most excitement. As the business matures, you have to worry a lot more about other issues that are obviously very important but maybe not as exciting to me personally.

Q: You are an active investor in Silicon Valley. How many Y Combinator start-ups have you invested in?

A: Probably on the order of 40. I have probably invested in as many as anyone except Y Combinator. The dream is to find the next Facebook or Google and help them out.


Gmail creator Paul Buchheit leaves Facebook for Y Combinator

Facebook to Google: We’ve got a ‘Gmail killer’

-- Jessica Guynn