There were 119 articles and news items targeting Zynga (ZNGA) in various online publications such as Market Watch, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha in the last week alone. Most of these tended toward the negative while some were outright assaults on everything from the founder's character to the company's culture. Despite the pounding in the press, Zynga stock has risen about 10% over the same period of time.
I've been watching the Zynga story unfold now for about a month. I missed the IPO. What I haven't missed though is the fall from grace which seems to have all the elements of a Greek tragedy, especially that most difficult to reconcile aspect of betrayal. Stock holders feel betrayed because Mr. Pincus allegedly cashed in a mega portion of his holdings to the tune of 120 million dollars which appears to be bad form. It's easy to see why this would be the case. Investor shares would likely be negatively impacted as a result of so many of his positions going to market so soon.
It's further alleged that Mr. Pincus and his pod of top executives stacked their chips on the shiny pink hood of a vehicle known as the secondary offering - a secret secondary offering at that, conducted by Goldman Sachs no less. He supposedly did this to mask his greedy intentions and to keep Zynga stock value from plummeting. No one gives him credit though for protecting investor value believing instead that it was just another shady and possibly illegal act of a wanton and now desperate man.
The point is: the people who write these articles probably don't know Mark Pincus. I don't know Mark Pincus. I know very little about Zynga and their culture or their products. What differentiates me perhaps from other writers is that I didn't own Zynga stock at 9, 10 or even 15 dollars a share and haven't suffered the disappointment that attends to that awful experience of loss. Having read these articles dispassionately, I now believe the old adage regarding the fury of a woman scorned is trumped by the jaded resentment of a compromised investor. And though I don't think that every writer has an ax to grind I do believe that most writers now see Zynga and Mark Pincus in a particularly unflattering way.
When we blame someone for a perceived wrong that they have committed, it colors our judgment and our ability to perceive things rightly. The EA lawsuit for instance is seen as a foreboding omen to Zynga's fall. Nothing could be further from the truth. The EA lawsuit is very much like the Apple lawsuit against Microsoft in the 80s. Yes, Bill Gates stole the design of Apple's operating system by changing the names and looks of items - the "trash can" became the "recycle bin" and so on. But that was the point! The judge found the overall changes to be enough to rule against Apple. Even if the EA lawsuit is a winner it will be hard to monetize into damages given Zynga's business model. But if you hate Zynga then you see things differently.
Another example occurred just Saturday for instance, when there appeared an article on The Motley Fool written by Morgan Housel entitled, The Pain of Zynga's Brain Drain in which he posits the idea that corporate executives compensated through stock options are leaving not because their positions are plunging inexorably downward but because they are "losing faith in the company." He bolsters this position with two examples of companies whose stock had plunged but whose executives remained - Google and Microsoft. The problem is that Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG) were and are huge mega cap firms that form the seas of digital, employment and financial landscapes. Zynga is but a small fish in a Facebook (FB) tributary. Further, we're no longer in the kind of catastrophic economic downturn that defined those stock devaluations. The dot-com burst and financial crisis were ill advised times for corporate executives, or anyone for that matter, to be pulling up stakes and seeking greener pastures. Today, corporations are flush with cash and with so many startup firms writing applications for mobile devices these kinds of creative execs can catch on easily elsewhere.
Whether it's questionable stock sales, executive mutiny or another favorite of the critics - the broken business model - I see Zynga's fall from grace differently I guess, tied to unrealistic investor expectations and to a fissure in its once solid foundation of Facebook. Indeed the fortunes of these companies seem to be inexorably banded together. It is no small irony that their founders share the same first name and their IPOs occurred within months of each other and not years. Both of them have experienced a dramatic fall in the value of their stock and their reputations. And I believe that both Facebook and Zynga will share one other thing in common - both companies will bounce back with a vengeance.
Facebook will rebound because whole generations of young people are connected together because of it. At 55 years old, I don't maintain a day-to-day presence on Facebook but I have the application on both my workstation and on my smart phone. And once a week, I log on to see if there are any surprise invitations awaiting me. My kids on the other hand have hundreds of friends and share their lives through it together.
Zynga will be reborn because it's Zynga damn-it! The name is ubiquitous in our culture now. I know of only a few other web game developers because either my kids have played their games - think EA and Blizzard, or because I have sought them out as potential investments - Gluu Mobile (GLUU) for instance. Zynga is a one word phenomenon, a rock star - the Elvis of online game making and a developing myth of epic proportions.
Mark Pincus may indeed be the villain he is portrayed to be by so many - greedy, controlling and out of touch - but I doubt it! Few of us are just that. Most of us are sometimes that. And fewer of us still will ever experience the kind of personal, career and financial success that Mr. Pincus has at the young age of 46.
In addition to holding an MBA from the prestigious Harvard Business School, Mark Pincus has started and nurtured three other successful corporate enterprises into life. His greatest endeavor to date, the company so beguiled by innuendo and turmoil, was christened as tribute to his dog and life friend who passed away. These are not the attributes of a terrible man but rather the laudable traits of a bright, creative and driven man who will no doubt after a respite from the glaring spotlight retake the wheel of his ship's destiny and guide it to a safe and profitable harbor.
In the meantime, it would behoove all of us to act like Americans and presume his innocence, give him credit for his sizable accomplishments and refrain from making assumptions that lead to erroneous conclusions. Bad publicity for most business firms can be a death knell or at least a mortal wound, but for an icon of the entertainment world that brand of scurrilous journalism might prove profitable instead.
I have to go now, my 13 year old daughter wants me to see something she put together on Draw Something - whatever that is!
I should disclose that I purchased a small $500 position in Zynga stock at about its current price of $3.18 a share and plan to buy more when I am able to.
Disclosure: I am long ZNGA.