How to Win: 4 Lessons From FarmVille’s CEO

In a year full of wild market-swings and high-flying tech IPOs, the highly anticipated Zynga IPO will likely stand out.

Zynga, of course, is the game-maker that created such wildly popular Facebook games as FarmVille and CityVille, as well as Zynga Poker and Words With Friends. It’s the brainchild of Mark Pincus, who founded the company after starting his career in finance and attending Harvard Business School. He named it after his late beloved bulldog, Zinga.

Observers estimate that Zynga might be worth as much as $15 billion, more than three times as much as LinkedIn. That might seem odd, until you consider Zynga’s incredibly successful business model. The company reported revenues of $850 million for 2010 from a combination of sources that includes sponsorships and the selling of game credits either by credit card within the game or prepaid cards at stores nationwide. With more than 230 million active users, and Facebook’s 700 million members as a built-in customer base, it’s no wonder the markets think Zynga’s future is rosy.

This phenomenal success is not (or not only) a matter of luck, but of carefully applied principles that Pincus likely learned at Harvard and in his business jobs. There are lessons here for any startup or small company in Zynga’s success:

1. Listen to your customers. Then listen some more.
“Zynga’s chief creative officer spoke at a conference I attended, and he told a story about a banner that they wanted people to click,” recalls Vikas Gupta, CEO of TransGaming, a multiplatform gaming company. “There was some discussion about making it green, since green is considered soothing. Others thought people wouldn’t click on green, so finally they decided to do some A-B testing (in which two different versions of a website are offered and users’ responses to each are compared). To everyone’s surprise, the color that got clicked the most was magenta. And so they started using magenta for the banner and for other things as well.”

This kind of detailed research into customer preferences is very powerful, says Gupta. “Zynga is a very data-centric company. They collect data on everything, and they have some very sophisticated analytics capability. We live in an era when if you’re not collecting data, you can’t know what’s going on, and you can’t react to consumer behavior.”

2. Use the cloud.
“Zynga’s approach is that games are a service, not a product,” says Bret Terrill, a Focus.com expert on social and mobile games and a social gaming consultant and blogger. Like software-as-a-service that hosts applications in the cloud, allowing developers to tweak them at will without waiting for users to download an update, gaming-as-a-service can be continually improved. “They are much more focused on user metrics and can alter their games accordingly,” says Terrill.

3. Work in “Zynga Time.”
In other words: really, really fast. “They get a game out there as fast as humanly possible,” says Gupta. “They work their people really hard and go through the fastest iteration of a game, and adapt quickly, responding to consumer behavior.” This is why, he says, every time Zynga introduces a new game, it quickly reaches many millions of users.

Zynga’s partnership with Facebook helps the company roll out its products rapidly, he adds. “There’s been a lot of hoopla about the fact that they have an exclusive deal with Facebook, but it’s a very advantageous deal. When they build games, they use Facebook’s social tools to get them out there immediately. They’re not dependent on anyone else to activate or distribute their product.”

4. Turn your customers into salespeople.
Every company wants to do this, of course, but none does it as effectively as Zynga. Anyone who uses Facebook has received a barrage of invitations to help a neighbor or received gifts from Zynga games, often from their dearest family and friends. Of course, Zynga provides incentives, in the form of game credits, to those who issue invitations, but that doesn’t explain why so many people take them up on it.

“Zynga creates games that people enjoy playing,” says Terrill. “Because of that, they can use in-game incentives to motivate players to invite their friends. But keep in mind, in-game incentives only work if players are strongly engaged. The game has to be great.”

Like this article? Connect with us @ITInsiderOnline 

Steve Jobs: 5 Secrets of Success

Steve Jobs is unique for many reasons. One, as Malcolm Gladwell notes in Outliers: The Story of Success, is that Jobs has the fortune of being born in 1955 -- the same year as Bill Gates -- so he was in his early 20s when the PC revolution hit.

But it’s not just luck that helped Jobs reach the top. Aside from his abundant gifts (an eye for design, an intelligence that can’t be discounted), he followed five secrets of success at every step of his career. Here’s what they are:

1. Embrace failure.

Getting fired is bad enough, but imagine getting fired from the company you created. That’s what happened to Steve Jobs in 1985. Yet leaving Apple then turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him. “He had no management skills before he left,” says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, who has been tracking Jobs’ career since 1977. “He had a very abrupt style. It was his company, and he sought perfection.”

His 11 years of running NeXT Computer and Pixar after leaving Apple gave him a crash course in running a company. And consumers’ tepid response to NeXT gave him a better sense of where the real market opportunities were. So when he returned to Apple in 1996, at 30 years old, Jobs was standing on the threshold of success.

2. Be focused.

We all set goals, but we also often let ourselves off the hook when we get distracted or our goal becomes too difficult. Not Steve Jobs. “He knows what he wants to do, and he sets up everything in life to achieve those goals,” says Bajarin.

For instance, Apple has a relatively small product line for such a large company. “Certainly the great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products,” Jobs said in a 2008 interview with Fortune magazine. “We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas. You have to pick carefully.”

3. Pursue your passions, even if they seem impractical.

In his commencement speech to Stanford University in 2005, Jobs discussed how he dropped out as an undergrad but stayed at Reed College to check out classes he was interested in. One interest was calligraphy. Even though it had no seeming practical application, Jobs learned the art anyway. It wasn’t until 10 years later that he applied those skills to the first Mac, which sported beautiful typefaces.

4. Be insistent.

If you believe in what you’re doing, don’t give up. Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, disputes the commonly held notion that Jobs is two or three steps ahead of the market. “He drives the market to where he’s thinking,” says Enderle. “If you can drive the market to a future you would like, you can be incredibly accurate in your predictions.”

5. Don’t be afraid of confrontation.

Jobs’ anger is the stuff of legend. A recent anecdote, relayed in a Fortune article, illustrates the convergence of his aforementioned traits: After the failure of MobileMe in the summer of 2008, Jobs gathered the MobileMe team and asked, “Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” When no one responded, he continued, “So why the f--- doesn’t it do that?” Then, he berated them further: “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” Jobs capped off the meeting by naming a new executive to run the group.

No doubt, many of those types of ugly scenes played out in Cupertino over the years to produce some of Apple’s seamless products. Enderle says that Jobs’s cruelty in those situations was driven by a deep insecurity. But you also could argue that without that seeming insecurity, Jobs would never have made Apple into the company it became.

The real challenge is this: When you’re the boss, you always have to calculate whether to be a nice guy or a strong leader, and often we try to do both. But if you really want to be like Steve Jobs -- and leave behind the legend that he did -- you might ultimately have to decide that being a nice guy is overrated.

Like this article? Connect with us @ITInsiderOnline


Photo Credit: Getty Images

5 Reasons the Cloud Won’t Kill Your Career

If you’re an IT professional in a small company, the prospect of cloud adoption may seem like a death knell for your career. After all, the more data and function your company puts in the cloud, the less it will need an IT team to maintain and upgrade internal IT systems, right?

Well, it’s not a groundless fear. Companies adopt cloud computing in part to reduce costs, because it allows for fewer servers and fewer IT people to watch over them. “If what everyone thinks will happen does happen with cloud adoption, it will affect IT jobs across the board,” predicts Patricia Sigmon, president and founder of LPS Consulting, which helps small companies maximize their technology investments, sometimes with cloud-based solutions.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean cloud adoption is bad for your career. In fact, it might be a good thing if you run an efficient IT operation and make sure to keep learning the skills that will make you more valuable in a cloud-dominated IT landscape.

Here are five reasons cloud adoption may benefit your career:

1. Your department is already too busy.
“We are inundated with requests and projects, and I’m continually asking for more staff, not less,” says David Shapiro, director of Information Technology Services at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Penn. The college, he says, is seriously investigating a cloud solution for some of its functions. “Less work would give us time to do more things that could truly help our students and staff.”

2. Your company needs vendor management.
The most foolish way to do a cloud deployment is to select a vendor, obtain a service level agreement (SLA) and then sit back and assume that everything will go according to plan, because it won’t. IT experts and even cloud vendors themselves recommend that an individual or team at the customer company take responsibility for overseeing the relationship with the cloud vendor. “You have to get on the bandwagon and position yourself to be in the middle,” says Sigmon.

3. Your company might build an in-house cloud.
At large companies, most of the cloud-based interest today centers around private and hybrid clouds -- those that reside partly or completely on your company’s own servers. If smaller companies follow suit, someone will have to create, maintain, and oversee those systems. By making sure you’re up on virtualization and other cloud-related skills, you can position yourself to effectively lead an in-house cloud deployment.

4. You might get snapped up by a vendor.
It’s no secret that technology companies are vying for IT talent these days, and the explosive growth of cloud computing means cloud vendors might be especially eager to hire. “The more people start to rely on cloud computing, the more jobs shift to the provider,” explains Ivanka Menken, co-founder and CEO of The Art of Service, which offers training and certification to IT professionals covering a range of topics, including cloud computing.

5. You’re good at adapting to new ways of doing IT.
If you’ve already made peace with the fact that widespread cloud adoption will change the way you do your job and have started acquiring the skills and expertise you need in that new environment, congratulations. You’re a step ahead of the game, because cloud computing has profoundly changed what business people expect from IT. Menken recently attended a meeting of an entrepreneurs’ group where a highly respected small-business owner was making a presentation. “He made the comment that, ‘IT should not be allowed to offer a solution,’” she says. “‘They should first and foremost look for a free app that does the job the business needs done, and secondly, look for a cloud-based application. If neither of those is available, they can potentially create a solution in-house, but not before that.”

Like this article? Connect with us @ITInsiderOnline

5 Business Lessons You Can Learn From Mark Zuckerberg

First in an occasional series looking at career lessons you can learn from tech icons.

He’s the world’s second youngest billionaire, turning 27 this past May. (The youngest -- by eight days -- is Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.) He was portrayed in The Social Network (unfairly, some argue) as being socially awkward to the point that he displayed signs of autism. And he’s been the subject of repeated lawsuits, most notably by a pair of twins who claim he stole their idea -- all the way up to the Supreme Court.

You might or might not “like” the man or even Facebook itself, with its ever-changing layout and questionable privacy practices. But it’s pretty hard to argue with a site that has nearly 700 million users worldwide and is still growing fast. Here, five business lessons every IT executive can learn from Mark Zuckerberg’s spectacular success:

Love What You Do
“I’d never met anyone who would walk away from a billion dollars,” said Terry Semel, who, as CEO of Yahoo!, offered Zuckerberg that sum for the company he’d built. Zuckerberg refused, explaining it wasn’t about the money.

Indeed not. Even today, “Zuck,” as his friends and colleagues call him, can often be found writing code on weekends and holidays. It takes grueling, hard work to be a success -- especially in the tech world, where long hours are the norm for pretty much everyone. If you don’t love the work, you’ll be torturing yourself to get there.

Stay Focused
Through multiple lawsuits, angry accusations that he disregards users’ privacy, even a hugely unflattering movie, Zuckerberg has remained relentlessly focused on managing and improving Facebook, as demonstrated by the company’s continuous and growing success. His perseverance shows how important it is to keep your head in the game.

Be Willing to Change
“Every time Zuck looks at a product, it’s as if he does so with fresh eyes. He isn't burdened by what other products are like or what the existing product is like,” wrote Facebook engineer Andrew Bosworth in a primer for new employees that Facebook later posted for the public at large. “He doesn’t care what he said yesterday, even if he was presented with the same product.” This willingness to be flexible has likely come into play when Facebook was forced to make changes after encountering controversy over its privacy policies.

Simpler Is Better
MySpace is facing its second round of dramatic layoffs in less than a year and will wind up reducing its staff by much more than half. So it seems like a good moment to consider what Facebook did right and MySpace did wrong.

“MySpace, as the No. 1 social network site, was not very easy to use,” notes Brandon Wade, founder of the websites SeekingArrangement.com and WhatsYourPrice.com. “Facebook is simpler, which makes it easier to use and faster to load. It has a simpler, better design.”

By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why Facebook uses blue for nearly everything, the reason is that Zuckerberg has red-green color blindness, and blue is one of the colors he sees best.

Be Media-savvy

During the privacy controversies, Zuckerberg broke out in a bad case of “flop sweat” while being video-recorded at a technology conference, an embarrassing moment  that has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. He’s gotten much better in front of the cameras after that incident, notes Mark Scott, senior vice president of MSL Atlanta, a public relations and marketing agency.

“He likely brought some great communicators in to coach him on his messaging,” says Scott. “For such a high-profile company, a put-together, confident CEO who can get his messages across in the media, in board rooms, at investor conferences, etc., is crucial to success, and Zuckerberg obviously understood that and has made some terrific improvements.”

In fact, Zuckerberg has gotten so relaxed and image-aware that, far from suing or even protesting over his portrayal in The Social Network, he joined its star , Jesse Eisenberg, onstage at “Saturday Night Live.” Eisenberg asked Zuckerberg if he’d seen the film, and what he thought of it.

“It was … interesting,” Zuck responded.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

Does IT Need to Follow Company Policy?

At Thrillist.com, a website that offers under-the-radar shopping and dining tips, employees sit in an open-plan office where they can easily call back and forth to each other, but the technology staff often sits at their computers with headphones over their ears. And after finishing a huge project late last year, they got alternate Fridays off for a few months.

Although most of their non-IT colleagues understood, “there were a few complaints or comments about them taking time off,” says Mark O’Neill, Thrillist’s director of technology. As he sees it, he says, part of his job is to insulate tech employees from the rest of the company so they can do what they do: Create a great product.

“We’re geeks, and we require particular care and feeding,” he explains. “The others see the software that comes out of our team, and that earns respect.”

It’s a conundrum in many companies: Should technology staff be required to follow the same rules as the rest of the company when it comes to everything from dress codes to the use of technology resources? Force them to conform, and you may impede their efficiency. Let them do as they please, and you may inspire resentment in their non-geek colleagues. How do you find the right balance?

Know Which Rules to Break
“There are domains of rules within an organization, just as there are within society,” says Dan Gingras, partner at the executive search firm Tatum LLC, which provides CIOs and other tech executives. “In society, if there’s a speed limit of 45, you can’t go over it without some sort of consequences. But we allow certain classes of people, such as fire truck and ambulance drivers, to break that rule because they have a reasonable need to do so. But there are other rules they can’t break. For instance, the police can carry guns, but they are not allowed to shoot people arbitrarily.”

By the same token, in any workplace, there will be rules that can be broken for a reason, such as one that requires employees to be at work at 9 a.m. -- a rule that might not make sense for an engineer who has just worked all night completing an off-hours installation. And there are other rules you might never be allowed to break, such as a rule against flying first class on company business.

Give Clear Reasoning
“To the extent that you violate cultural norms, communicate the reasoning,” adds Gingras. “And you better have a good argument for doing it. You have to be aware that the more you and your team set yourselves apart from the rest of the business, the less value you’ll be perceived as having to the business.”

IT people are particularly reluctant to follow a rule if they don’t see a good reason for it -- and “It’s company policy” doesn’t count. “So if you’re going to institute a rule that’s counter-cultural for geeks, tie it to something real, just as you do for deadlines. You know that if you just make up a deadline, it won’t be as effective as if the technology staff knows that a client is waiting for a project because then there will be public shame and humiliation involved if the deadline is missed,” explains Paul Glen, CEO of the Leading Geeks Company, a consultancy, and author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology.

Looser Rules for Everyone?
The thing is, Glen observes, if not having to follow arbitrary rules makes geeks more efficient, maybe the same applies to other employees as well. So, for instance, instead of having a company-wide rule that all male employees must wear a tie and then relaxing it for programmers who sit at computers all day or network engineers who have to crawl into tight spaces, why not relax the rule for everyone -- and require ties only on days when clients are visiting?

“You should figure out which rules create the cultural glue that holds your company together,” advises Glen. “Everything else should be adjustable.”

Like this article? Connect with us @ITinsiderOnline

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/Stalman