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CEO Interview: Zynga's Mark Pincus, unleashed

Tuesday - 6/26/2012, 5:53pm  ET

By BARBARA ORTUTAY
AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Mark Pincus _ the other Mark of Silicon Valley _ helped usher in the Facebook era with catchy games that got people clicking on virtual cows and building virtual cities while staying on Facebook for hours on end.

Named after Pincus's late American Bulldog, Zynga, the company that gave us "FarmVille," "CityVille" and "Bubble Safari" is now stretching the limits of its Facebook leash by steering players to its own digital gaming hub.

Tuesday marked the second Zynga Unleashed event at the company's sprawling San Francisco headquarters. Last year, it used the occasion to launch what was then known as "Project Z," a place for people to play Zynga games on the company's own platform, rather than on a social network such as Facebook. This year brought more games and new social-networking features centered on gaming.

"Project Z" is now Zynga.com. It's a place separate from Facebook, sure, but much as a clever canine that knows not to steer too far from its human companion, Zynga isn't leaving Facebook behind. People who want to play games on Zynga.com still use their Facebook identities to log in. Once there, though, it's a place free of status updates, news links and baby photos that clutter Facebook. Instead, it's all about games.

Zynga wasn't Pincus's first project, but it's by far the biggest. The Chicago-born Harvard Business School graduate founded an early social network, Tribe.net, in 2003. Tribe was created to let people form online communities around shared interests, but it never gained the kind of following that Friendster and MySpace would just a couple years later. He also founded FreeLoader Inc., an Internet technology startup he sold for $38 million.

Pincus recognized the promise of social networks early on. He was one of Facebook Inc.'s earliest investors. And in 2003, he and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, bought a "broad and sweeping" patent covering social networking, wrote David Kirkpatrick in "The Facebook Effect." Hoffman told Kirkpatrick that the purchase was a defensive move, "to make sure no one would kill the nascent industry" by using such a patent to block emerging networks.

Pincus says he was a "serial entrepreneur" before Zynga because he "failed to create a long-term, sustainable company." Now 46, Pincus spoke with The Associated Press recently by telephone from Zynga's headquarters in San Francisco. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity and style:

Question: There is a lot of money in Silicon Valley right now. How does it compare with what was happening in the `90s?

Answer: There are so many ways I think this is different. The most fundamental difference is that we are seeing consumer Internet services delivering a lot more of the promise that everyone saw 12 years ago. It's happening faster. And the size of the audience that successful applications are reaching seems to be getting bigger and bigger.

The second difference is I think that there is a much more sustainable, scalable, profitable business model behind successful products and services that can sustain these companies. And the third difference that goes along with the first two is that Silicon Valley, the culture and the entrepreneurs have grown up. Even the younger ones show so much more maturity than 12 years ago. You see the companies that are growing up today want to build long-term, sustainable consumer brands and franchises.

Q: How is it different for you, with Zynga?

A: The way I describe my career is that I've been a serial entrepreneur before Zynga because I failed to create a long-term, sustainable company. Not by choice. So what's different for me is that we've gotten someplace where we can invest in a single company and brand and product on the long run. It's much more fulfilling. I've never had this kind of opportunity before in my career. I've never been able to bring products to market that could be quickly seen and loved by millions of people.

Q: And that was because of Facebook?

A: Facebook has been a key catalyst and enabler. These open platforms that are enabling new products to get to broad audiences much quicker. Facebook, iPhone, Android, Google opening up. This whole environment of open platform makes it possible for great products to get to the mass market.

Q: Where would you like to see social games go from here?

A: The promise of games for everyday people is still so much greater than the experience that everyone has today. The overall tectonic shifts that are going on in games and more broadly in media are that everything is moving to becoming free, social and accessible. But we're just at the beginning of that. We can get to a day where short-session play can enhance, if not replace text messaging as a way to stay in touch with people.

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