Zynga CEO Mark Pincus shares path from failure to success
BY JON SWARTZ April 24, 2012 1:32PM
“My friends and family joked that I wasted my youth playing videogames,” Mark Pincus said. “Who knew it would end up being a career?” | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times
Updated: April 24, 2012 1:56PM
While some billionaire tech CEOs may take victory laps or calculate their megariches, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus has become reflective.
The self-effacing Pincus, a Chicago native whose social-gaming company helped redefine an industry and went public last year in the Internet’s biggest IPO since Google in 2004, spoke last week of failure and hard lessons learned during a CEO Forum sponsored by USA Today with Northwestern University and the Associated Student Government.
Pincus, 46, calls Zynga, with a market valuation of $1.1 billion, his crowning achievement after a series of startups that were not “sustainable.” With a string of hit titles such as FarmVille, CityVille and Draw Something, and its innovative use of data analytics to tweak games, Zynga appears to be a tech fixture for years to come. Last year, Zynga racked up $1.1 billion in revenue.
Pincus took a circuitous path through investment banking on Wall Street, because he “was very focused on financial independence,” to a stint at onetime cable giant TCI, where he got to view “every cool interactive opportunity in the world” to his “passion” at Zynga. The following are excerpts from the conversation Pincus had with a reporter and students at the conference.
Q: What did you learn from the first couple of companies that you were involved with? What mistakes or successes made you decide to start something like Zynga, which redefined a pretty well established market?
A: First, it’s important to know what your goal is, because if you don’t know what your goal is, you will definitely never achieve it. If you don’t have a clear goal, you will probably make so many compromises in your career or whatever it is you’re doing that you will wake up one day and forget why you chose to do what you are doing.
That was true with me. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I knew I wanted to create these break-through products. But I made so many compromises along the way, like with my company Support.com that went public. It became a company that I couldn’t be at anymore, and that was very strange. One of the things I say at Zynga is that we should all make sure we are building a house we want to live in.
Q: By the time you reached the stage of Zynga, were you thinking, I’m going to go with my vision, I’m not going to try to make everybody happy?
A: It’s a lot like dating. It took me a long time to learn that it is about reducing bad leads. By being really upfront about who you are and what you want and where you are going, you stop wasting time.
Q: What’s your goal for Zynga?
A: I want the dog, our dog icon, which was originally my dog Zynga, I want that icon, that brand, to be what I call a dial tone for play. I want it to be more recognizable than a Nike swoosh and mean something to you. If you see that on a game, it means it’s social, it means that it’s going to give you back more than what you put into it.
I’m very focused on delivering a positive return on investment for the user. If you play our games, if you give us 15 minutes a day, I’m hoping that we don’t just give you entertainment but we actually enhance the relationships in your life. I challenge our product teams that our games should let you meet one new person a day.
We are getting there. People are getting married through it. It’s a whole new way to date. What I hope is that we create one of these forever brands and experiences like Google, that people, you know, look for in their lives.
Q: What role does supporting charitable causes play in your goals?
A: We have programs to let our employees donate time and money to community efforts. But we invented this idea of social virtual goods. When the earthquake hit Haiti and the tsunami hit Japan, we were proud that we were the first money doled out in both. Our teams started taking the virtual goods, creating specialized goods in the game that you could buy where all of the money went to these causes, and they let our players show off that they were doing something about it.
And it’s still a work in progress. We are still inventing Zynga.org.
Q: You seem to be a serial entrepreneur. Were it not for Zynga, what would you be building right now?
A: I am only a serial entrepreneur because I failed to create something sustainable like Zynga. I never wanted a career in being a serial entrepreneur. I wanted to create something that I could work on for the rest of my career.
Q: What kind of a mistakes did you make in the early days of Zynga?
A: Attracting a team. That’s where you can make a lot of mistakes. It’s really hard to take things back from people. It’s really hard to change their status with you — especially when you are creating a company. For instance, I called everyone who joined the company in 2007 the “founding team.” And in the short term, it was great, because it really motivated a lot of people. But longer term, it creates some weird egos and things where people feel like they’re co-founders. I had like 30 or 40 people who felt like co-founders. At the outset, be really explicit about what you’re agreeing to and what you’re not. I see lots of, you know, entrepreneurs and founding teams make assumptions about the relationship before they’ve all agreed on it.
Q: What are your thoughts about Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram?
A: This was something very strategic for Facebook. They said that. I think from their perspective, it made a lot of sense. I think that probably the founders of Instagram didn’t want to sell, and that’s how sometimes something could get to a price like that. If they did want to sell, I doubt (the price) would have gotten to that point.
Q: Could this be the beginning of another Internet bubble?
A: I think that we are in a different environment now. There are some things that will feel the same, and some will be different. One big difference now is there are companies that are profitable, building businesses.
You see companies generating future earnings streams that you can connect to. That’s important. That can keep you grounded. Any time that you see massive tectonic shifts, you’re going to see companies making bets to try to get ahead of it. Half the bets might look brilliant, and half might look stupid.
On becoming an entrepreneur:
I reached the point when I was 28 or 29 and I was in Washington, D.C., working for this VC firm, that I literally thought my career was washed up. I just thought I had made a series of wrong decisions, and I wasn’t on the blueprint I thought I was going to be on. A lot of times, I think, you become an entrepreneur when you feel like you have nothing else to lose. It started to crystallize for me that my passion was creating these break-through consumer services that would change people’s lives. It was later on that (venture capitalist) John Doerr and (former Electronic Arts executive) Bing Gordon, who have both been great inspirations to me, put a name on it. They called it an Internet treasure — products that people can’t remember life before, or they can’t imagine life without. That’s what the iPhone is. That’s the cellphone. That’s Google. I hope it’s Zynga.”
On being a ninja product maker:
“It’s good to make great products, at least financially. But be a ninja product maker. What that means is, develop this intuition about what people want and develop this skill set around -- empathizing, be a student of the people around you. That’s what I love about consumers.”
“A lot of public companies become ‘ghost ships.’ I mean a lot of companies get to a point where they no longer have a really interested party on the board, and when you have a board of directors that’s not made up of people who own a lot of stock or have a lot at stake. The problem is that they make decisions too slowly, and they aren’t able to make really, really hard decisions.”
“There is so much ambition and hard work in the world, but there is so little leadership. Not many people really want to be leaders, because it is scary, it’s risky. . . . It means getting outside your job, raising your hand and saying, ‘Hey, I think we are going in the wrong direction.’ I would say leadership starts with complaining and dissatisfaction . .. but that’s half of it. The other half of leadership is, complain and then make it better.
“A couple of months ago, a 21-year-old engineer was in my new-hire orientation and I am talking about all of this stuff. He was in the front row, edge of his seat, and he is interrupting me with questions, and he is challenging me. I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I started talking to him. And he is like, ‘Yeah, I have already written three games,’ and ‘I don’t get why Zynga does this,’ and ‘This seems stupid.’ I couldn’t believe he is talking to me this way. I made him my tech assistant. I was like, ‘You’re really good, and you’re smart, and you want to lead. I need you close to me.’”
On the next big thing:
“Every generation that’s graduating believes that they just missed the really good opportunity. But the good news is, you haven’t missed it, because the biggest opportunities are ahead of us. Don’t bet your career on the next job or the next startup you do. I always tell people, try to aim for a continent. Pick the continent you really believe in, and be right about the continent or the body of water. Don’t be right about the boat you’re picking.”
Instinct vs. the rest:
“I like to tell entrepreneurs: Learn how to separate your instincts from your observations and your conclusions. Because if you’re a good entrepreneur or product ninja, your instincts are probably always right, and they will get more and more always right. They might start out at 70 percent but go to 99 percent. Your observations, even when you are on the top of your game, might be, at best, 50 percent right. Your conclusions, at best, might be 25 percent right. But what too many of us do as entrepreneurs is, we conflate all of that. We’re either accepting a bad conclusion or rejecting a good instinct. This is a life-long thing I’m working on.”