Kara Swisher

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Facebook CFO Gideon Yu Out; Fast-Growing Social Network Says It's Doing Fine Financially

Facebook CFO Gideon Yu (pictured here) is leaving Facebook, as the company announced internally today that it was replacing him and searching for a new CFO on the path to an eventual IPO.

The Wall Street Journal also reported the news, noting that the huge social-networking start-up was looking for a CFO with “public company experience.”

But several sources within the company said the departure was more due to an increasingly strained relationship between Yu and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg over strategic disagreements about a wide range of issues, from increasing advertising revenue to fund-raising discussions with investors.

“At Facebook, you’re either with Mark or you’re not,” said one source at the 800-person company, located in Palo Alto, Calif., and founded five years ago. “And, if you’re not, you leave.”

As a sign of that, Yu was out of the company HQ immediately today after a meeting, said several sources.

Facebook confirmed the move in a statement, focusing instead on its hope for an IPO sometime in the future:

“Facebook confirms that CFO Gideon Yu will be leaving the company. Gideon has played an important role in helping us achieve our financial success, building a strong finance team and establishing the core financial operations of our company. We are grateful to Gideon for his contributions to Facebook and what we are trying to accomplish. Despite the poor economic climate, we are pleased that our financial performance is strong and we are well positioned for the next stage of our growth. We have retained Spencer Stuart to lead our search for a new CFO and will be looking for someone with public company experience.”

In addition, trying to stanch the rumors of its financial weakness and need to raise more funds, Facebook said in its internal memo to staff that it was on the path toward a public offering soon, with revenue growth up 70 percent in 2009 and EBITDA profitability this year, and that it would be cash-flow positive in 2010.

The memo also painted Yu’s departure as another step toward its much anticipated IPO, although it is clearly an ouster of much more complex internal reasons about how Facebook is run.

Facebook has had a lot of those in its short history.

From come-and-then-gone Google tech exec Ben Ling to former COO Owen Van Natta to the pair who started Facebook with Zuckerberg, the fast-growing start-up has seen more executive turnover and turmoil than most big companies.

In fact, Yu–who was an exec at both Yahoo (YHOO) and YouTube and integral to its sale to Google–replaced former CFO Mike Sheridan in 2007, in another case of a key exec being replaced.

Some inside and outside the company were quick to blame COO Sheryl Sandberg for Yu’s departure–probably due to the fact that the pair’s relationship was initially tense when the well-known Google exec arrived a year ago. That has been much less so of late, sources said.

And while Facebook can be a highly political place, with an unusual level of passive-aggressive infighting among execs, it is also a place where Zuckerberg and his wishes firmly hold sway.

And those wishes included the fact that Zuckerberg has long and publicly maintained that Facebook’s growth was paramount over a focus on monetization of the service.

Yu is known internally to be more conservative fiscally, pushing on Zuckerberg to ramp ad revenue more quickly and to consider a range of options outside of IPO, including selling the company.

Many current and former execs had hoped the company would IPO, a process that has been dragged out due to the weaker economy. But–barring that–many had also hoped it would sell to a larger company like Google (GOOG) or Microsoft (MSFT).

In fact, Microsoft has expressed interest in buying Facebook many times, and it was Yu and Van Natta who were key to getting the software giant to outbid Google to invest in the company at an astounding $15 billion valuation.

After raising more than $500 million previously, Yu has more recently been busy working with top execs on the best way to raise more funds for Facebook, in order to allow it grow faster and give it a deeper financial cushion.

High user growth has blown past Facebook’s internal projections, which is both an audience blessing and a cost curse.

But that fund raising has been at a much lower valuation and in a very weak economic climate, adding to stress internally at Facebook, many said.

Yu has held a number of meetings with investors, many of whom have told me they have asked him consistently about the monetization issues at Facebook and exactly when Zuckerberg would turn on the ad spigot at the service.

Yu has also has been involved in some recent debt financing of equipment, which is not as unusual for a fast-growing company as some recent reports have portrayed it, although that might also have been a source of tensions.

How to answer prospective new investors has probably been at the heart of his problems with Zuckerberg, who has been known to run hot and cold on top managers, especially with those who disagree with him too much.

That was clearly the case with Yu.

But, said many execs at the company, Zuckerberg’s conviction that growth is key over all other concerns–about which the company today is taking the edge off by noting sunnier financial results in the internal document–has been the correct one.

Currently, Facebook is veering in on 200 million users, which represents an astounding accomplishment.

But how it is going to take those numbers and make Facebook into a revenue-rich company on par with its increasing power on the Web is the question it will face until, of course, it does.

Besides the current drama over Yu today, Facebook has also recently been embroiled in unhappiness about its recent redesign and separately, about onerous changes to its Terms of Service.

Facebook has since backtracked on both issues, likely adding to the level of pressure on Zuckerberg and top execs.

And that is not even mentioning the curse of the Winklevii–it seems the fun never stops at Facebook HQ!

On an actually more amusing note, I once nicknamed Yu “Death Cat.”

As I wrote in mid-2007:

“Like that cat named Oscar who can detect death, Yu seems to have an amazing ability to get a sweet job at the hot Web company of the moment at just the right time. Case in point: He left Yahoo as its treasurer and went to YouTube as its CFO just a month before it sold to Google for $1.6 billion, a deal in which Yu apparently played a key role. Then, on his way to a spot as a junior partner at also-hot VC firm Sequoia Capital, he grabbed the Facebook CFO job in July. I say we watch where Yu goes and follow stealthily behind so as not to be detected.”

It’s more than likely Yu will pop up again soon in Silicon Valley in another prominent CFO job or as a venture investor. Although, after today’s events, this digital cat has definitely lost one life.

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo