Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is famous for not thinking about what he wears—he would rather think about work. That’s why he has so many plain gray t-shirts. Just grab one and go, no decision-making required, fashion police be damned.
But there was a time in Facebook history when Zuckerberg dressed far less casually.
In 2009, he wore a tie to work every day, a challenge he took on much like the personal goals he has publicly set for himself every year since, like learning Mandarin (2010), reading a new book every two weeks (2015), and meeting people in the 30 US states he had not yet visited (2017).
Choosing to put on a tie every day is arguably no more calculated a decision than choosing to put on a t-shirt. But Zuckerberg had a specific reason for growing partial to neckwear in 2009. On Facebook, where Zuckerberg lists “Wore a Tie for a Whole Year” among the “life events” on his profile, Zuckerberg explains:
After the start of the recession in 2008, I wanted to signal to everyone at Facebook that this was a serious year for us. Great companies thrive by investing more heavily while everyone else is cutting back during a recession. But great companies also make sure they’re financially strong and sustainable. My tie was the symbol of how serious and important a year this was, and I wore it every day to show this.
Makes sense. When investors are nervous, CEOs feel all the more pressured to project gravitas. And in 2009, when the casually attired CEO was a far rarer sight than it is now, investors in a fragile market were far more likely to be nervous about companies run by people dressed like teenagers.
Zuckerberg wasn’t just posturing for people outside the company, though. The tie was an important symbol inside the company, too. In an uncut recording of LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast from May, Zuckerberg can be heard explaining:
We had just gone through this big financial crisis, or were in the middle of it—it had just hit. Facebook’s business wasn’t crushing it yet, we weren’t cash-flow positive yet. And there was a lot of fear inside the company and outside about, what are we doing, and can we build a business, should we pivot a lot of energy to just focus on the business?
If you look back at history, I think good companies hire and build through recessions, because that’s actually an opportunity to get a lot of the best people. So I came out in front of the company and said, “We’re going to continue hiring and focusing on growing”, because getting to—I think it was 100 or 200 million people at the time—was a really key thing for the network. And the biggest feature of being on Facebook is that all the people that you care about are there, so we needed to keep on building that out.
But at the same time, I said, “We’re going to get to cash-flow positive this year.” So this is a very serious year. And for the symbolism of it being a serious year, I was like, “I’m going to wear a tie every day this year, so that when you see me, you know it’s a serious year.” And I just thought it was an interesting thing to do for a year, and it really did change a bunch of dynamics around stuff.
Facebook indeed turned cash-flow positive that year. In autopsying the results, the business and tech media did their best to piece together the not-yet-public company’s revenue sources and cost controls. The ties got no credit.
They did, however, inspire Zuckerberg to set a yearly challenge for himself—albeit one he could achieve in the comfort of jeans and a t-shirt. He tells Hoffman:
And so then after that, I was like, “OK, well, it might be interesting to do something like this each year that’s”—I don’t want to wear a tie permanently, but we can try different things for different periods of time, so it’s not a not a permanent commitment.
The full audio from the Masters of Scale interview can be found here: