The U.S. is where the action is for Vaughan Smith

19 Mar 2021

Figure out what you can be best at – ideally the best in the world, be bold and optimistic. That’s the advice of Old Boy Vaughan Smith, who was recently on a brief stopover in Christchurch where he talked to a group of current students.

Vaughan has lived in Silicon Valley, California since 2001 but has been back in New Zealand to escape Covid, enjoying summer and refurbishing his Waiheke Island home where he and his family plan to divide their time.

The former Vice President of Corporate Development at Facebook has always set his sights high.

Dux in 1984, Vaughan went on to study at the University of Canterbury, culminating in a PhD in Engineering. Deciding that he was ready to learn something new, he turned to investment banking, later joining telco Telecom as head of strategy and the youngest ever report to the CEO. After starting up Telecom’s ecommerce business, Vaughan and his wife, Bridget McIver, took a year off to travel overseas before settling in California so he could try being CEO of a Silicon Valley startup.

In 2000 Vaughan took a role as chief executive of now defunct tech company LiquidWit, however, the tech bubble burst and, unable to raise additional capital, he shut down LiquidWit a year later.

“I want people to be clear that I’ve made plenty of mistakes and been knocked down. But you always get up because you think you can be successful and that goes back to the mindset that was created at Christ’s College. I credit the school with doing a phenomenal job on that.

“Christ’s College gave me the expectation that I could be the best, an expectation that I could do anything I wanted to. “

After his failure at LiquidWit, a phone call to Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, led to Vaughan joining a small startup that later became a tech darling of Wall Street and his first Silicon Valley success.

“The future and how things are going to play out isn’t really known at the time you start something. My last 20 years in Silicon Valley have been spent working for high growth companies. When the media writes the story of a company’s journey from startup to success, the path is typically portrayed as obvious, but it feels anything but obvious when you’re on the journey.

“When I joined Facebook, it was an early-stage US-only company that wasn’t even the leading social network in the US. People didn’t believe social networking was a real business, that Facebook had a future and that you could make any money out of it. We were figuring all that stuff out.

“Life is like that. You don’t know what you’re really capable of and where the future is going to take you. But you need to give things a shot and it helps a lot to be optimistic that you can sort it out.

“As you’re figuring out what to try, I think too many people tell you to pursue your passion. I believe you’re better off pursuing what you’re good at. When you’re adding value and having impact, you typically enjoy yourself.”

Vaughan says his opinion of social media is the same as of technology – it’s neither a force for good nor bad.

“It’s a force for both and it’s more a function of how it’s used. One of the things I was working on in my final year at Facebook was helping the company be more responsible with the use of the power it now has. That was hard work. It’s interesting – when you are successful, some of the things that made you successful can become some of your biggest weaknesses.

“When you have billions of people using your product, there are always going to be people trying to use it for harmful purposes. I’m encouraged to see that Facebook has become a lot more responsible about reducing the problems caused by social media. Facebook is, at heart, a product company and they’re investing in the product and associated customer support to minimise harm to people. This means that as you’re doing product design, you need to pivot from 95% of thinking being about the good and 5% about the bad to a 50/50 split. That’s a shift the company is still making.”

Vaughan says he’s often asked why he left Facebook.

“I think life is short and I’m excited to continue to have lots of different experiences. There are so many transformative opportunities across fields as diverse as healthcare, transport, energy and finance. It’s a great time to be alive.”