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A few weeks ago a sharp comment by me on Twitter about Zynga’s copy-cat games ended up in a meeting with Zynga founder and chief executive officer Mark Pincus. Of course, we chose to disagree on those issues. Regardless, it has taken nearly two weeks for me to get to actually writing about the conversation.
I have known Mark for a long time. The first time we met, he and Sunil Paul were busy running Freeloader. Later, when I relocated to San Francisco, we ran into each other often, for the post-bust Silicon Valley was a very small (and quite bleak) place.
Like many of my age, he has seen the tech economy behave like a yo-yo, where he has oscillated between success and failure. Freeloader was successful, but Tribe never realized its true potential even though it came much earlier than Facebook. He also started Support.com. But it wasn’t up until Facebook opened its platform in 2007 that Zynga actually started on a path to big time.
Our conversation, held against the backdrop of a very noisy Zynga cafeteria (with a sound system blasting Pumped up Kicks), followed two threads. One was about Zynga and the future of social gaming; the other was about how the past decade of success, failure and now mega success with Zynga has changed him as a person.
OM: Mark, so you have seen the ebb-and-flow that is startup life. How have you changed over past decade?
Mark Pincus: I had to go through a lot of change to be successful. For a while I thought it was about control and VC and things like that but I don’t think that the story served me at all. I needed to grow up. I needed to be a CEO and not an entrepreneur and a leader to be followed. My approach involved having to grow up and evolve.
MP: I have had to learn. In fact, I have to be constantly learning. If you don’t learn something new every week, you lose your edge and in the end you lose. You need to be aware of that in order to adapt as a CEO.
With Tribe, I didn’t do that — and I never changed Tribe and that we were an open social network like MySpace, when Facebook was clearly having success with its private, trust-based model. I was not changing. I was just trying harder.
OM: What is the biggest lesson learned of this past decade?
MP: I think the biggest lesson I have learned from the last decade is that to be a good leader, you don’t need to be liked or loved by everyone. I wanted to be liked by everyone. I think if you know what is the right course, you got to go full in, but also be willing to listen to the right input and most importantly listen to your customers.
OM: So what does success look like, say, on the consumer Internet?
MP: The other thing is being in the right place at the right time with the right currency. That gets you a lot of leverage in the equation. I think when you know what success on the consumer internet) looks like – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo – you know that is real success. I think you need to have instincts to be right but you also
show should be able to use data to prove those instincts.
I think the biggest single change is that I grew up and I want to build a family and career, in that order. (My wife Alison and) I have worked our ass off for last five years and are staying with it, every day. There are so many staging points for the entrepreneurs — highs and lows. You have to stay with it.
OM: Does the current startup environment worry you? I mean we have seen this over-funding environment before and that didn’t end well.
MP: The more things change, the more things remain the same. It looks familiar but in reality things are different. The market opportunity is very different that it was 12 years ago. Today reminds me of the Renaissance. It feels substantial and feels more than just a company. It is happening all around the world. It is awesome.
PART TWO: Future of social games and importance of mobile for Zynga
OM: So what is the biggest challenge for you right now?
MP: My biggest challenge is to deliver on the promise of social gaming. We haven’t yet convinced you (as in me) to play just yet. Social gaming has to get to a level where Facebook has gotten to — you just cannot avoid it. It is a social norm for connections and we want to get there with games. That is what we are doing (with) Word for Friends, so we can get to bigger, broader market and get to more people.
OM: My belief is that Zynga is in competition with not other games but more in competition with Hollywood as both businesses are based on capitalizing on our attention.
MP: [It is] just as television competed with radio! It didn’t replace radio, it just made the radio move over.
Our research shows that Research is that nearly 70 percent of people who are playing social games are also watching television. Our games are played inside a tab and that is a [brand] new behavior. I think we are part of a new category of gaming that is about stealing back lost time like when you are waiting in cabs or in the airport. We are playing these games when we are, say on a boring conference call.
Agreed, that the new business model is less about clicks and more towards engagement and entertainment. I think we have the benefit of being part of the newer trends like mobile. I think the real competition is between mobile and the television. If the smartphone replaces the television, then games are the entertainment. (Related: Zynga and the perils of becoming a platform.)
OM: Tell me more about your mobile plans?
MP: What I want us to do next is be a “poke with a purpose.” You are essentially SMS-ing people and that is carrying a more snack-y game experience. Even more casual games and an even more engaged experience. [Think of an even more atomized version of Words with Friends.] This is more of a different experience that we have now and an experience that is more vertical and more engaged and served up in a tiny container. I think that is the big story here.
OM: From my understanding, you guys are slow to mobile?
MP: One of the lessons we learned from the FarmVille for iPhone was that web and iOS are entirely different and have different mechanics. That is why we did FarmVille Express. The difference is that on mobile it is a 2-minute session versus a 45-minute session on the computer.
Words for Friends doesn’t do as well on Facebook as it does on the iPhone, because they are a mobile first experience. Our poker game does well on the mobile as well. Even Facebook is trying to figure it (mobile) out, we are all trying to figure it out. Instagram and Path are mobile first experiences and are different. I am liking the new Twitter application as well.
OM: From the way I see it, all web services (and not just games) should basically be instant start from the cloud but adapt to the screen they are being accessed. That has to be table stakes. Are you guys thinking along those lines?
MP: Right now we are building back-end technology, so that your game state can be saved and served up in difference screens/devices. The interaction cues will take from the different devices. In other words, you can play a game on a computer and call it up on XBox and you resume from the point you left off, except the game play will now be customized for the Xbox controller.
OM: Thanks, Mark.