Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman: How to Kill Your Bad Ideas with Marc Pincus, Founder of Zynga


Host: Reid Hoffman – founder of LinkedIn

Topic:    How to Kill Your Bad Ideas

GUEST:   Mark Pincus – founder of Zynga


  • “I believe you have to be relentless about pursuing a big opportunity when you see it. But you also have to be ruthless about killing your own bad ideas along the way.”
  • In 1890, Thomas Edison made the first talking doll
  • They were a flop and Edison pulled production after only 6 months
  • But he continued to believe that sound recording would be big
    • Pioneered phonograph – home entertainment
  • It’s an example of pursuing a big idea while being ruthless about killing a bad idea

MARK PINCUS – founder of social game company Zynga, best know for Farmville, Mafia Wars and Words with Friends

  • Mark succeeded because he tests ideas daily, kills ones that don’t work
  • 1996- Mark sold Freeloader the company he co-founded with Sunil Paul
    • Stood outside Tower Records doing market research for a new idea, an all-in-one device that would get people online with zero fuss: fast, frictionless internet access via a free computer
  • But no one wanted a free PC- why?
  • Discovered a basic issue: People had fear of moving software and games from their computer to a new one– Mark thought, “Solvable problem!”
  • Mark realized his original idea wasn’t working and killed it, but remained true to gut feeling – something here
    • He created software Move it, which helped people switch their stuff to a new PC, became basis for Support .com, which is still going strong
  • Tribe is the tough lesson that solidified Mark’s idea of ruthless idea cutting
    • Tribe social network– launched in 2003 to bring people together with similar interests
      • Embraced by certain sub-cultures
      • Focus group (his girlfriend) didn’t like the amount of unsolicited messages she got, but he didn’t change concept
      • He started a social network in prime era- MySpace, LinkedIn, HighFive, and Facebook- yet it failed
      • Lesson learned: “As entrepreneurs, part of the journey is learning how to separate winning instincts from our losing ideas.”

Matt Ruby– New York based comic (The Comedy Club)

  • Practices this idea every time he goes to work. The stakes are not money, but laughter
  • Vooza – his video comic strip that pokes fun of start-up world
    • Pitching is 10% success, 90% failure- and it’s ok to fail
    • What happens when you feel certain there is something to a joke idea but it’s not working?
      • “I think the audience is wrong but I’m also wrong because I haven’t delivered it a way that’s funny.”
      • That’s a challenge to get better.
    • Constantly try out new ideas; sometimes can feel a sense in the room, a barometer you’ve hit on something
      • “Oh, there’s something here.”
      • Take a different direction or metaphor
      • Might hit on something or have to move on

Back to Mark…

  • Idea – to pursue all ideas with one product: social networking, smaller sub-community forums and showcasing your professional talents
  • The idea of Tribe wasn’t right
    • Mass market people did not like extreme openness of Tribe
      • Enabled anyone to connect with anyone
      • Needed to kill extreme openness, but didn’t
      • Instead of failing fast, stuck to one idea the whole time, stubbornly
    • Lesson learned: “I’ll try anything, and I’ll kill anything and I’ll kill it quickly.”
    • Only way to stay open for a big opportunities
    • His next company stemmed from big opportunity Mark saw in social networks
      • Early instinct that people just wanted to hang out – like a bar or a club – and they wanted something to do there
    • “Games were kind of this lost love affair we had growing up.” Believed there was a latent demand in all of us to play games, but too much friction around them:
      • Needed to download
      • Needed graphic card
      • Needed more memory
      • Needed the right operating system
    • Is there a way to deliver games to people that is easy?
    • Right Idea, right time
    • Facebook had just started allowing third party game developers to build apps and games that people could run within their Facebook accounts
    • Zynga could use this ready-made delivery system to mainline games
      • People could play games with each other – untapped audience
    • Zynga left rest of commuter games industry scrabbling
      • Game companies would build entire games- take two years, not even sure if it would be popular, and spend millions of dollars
    • We could get it done in four weeks
    • Countless games didn’t make cut, despite success of FarmVille and Zynga Poker and Words with Friends
    • Another advantage they had: could improve games that players already released
      • Put out feelers, hundreds a day: Gorilla test
      • If half of audience clicked on it, idea made it through initial stage, those were the ones pursued
    • Bold Beats – something that got users really excited
      • Example:  an Engineer one day made a tiny change in Farmville – just hacked on animals and make a cow move, didn’t know if players would notice
        • Lit up blogosphere and Twitter
      • Animals that move – tiny idea, a few hours to code, but excitement of that cow led to a range of features including chickens hatching eggs
    • “We used to say, when delivering a bold beat or a great feature it was like Christmas day: metrics would light up.”
      • DAU – Daily Active Users would just jump
      • No standard way to track this data in different product teams as they guerilla tested
      • Had to make sure every team could access data and use it and interpret it: data standardization

Andrea Jones-Rooy– analyst with FiveThirtyEight

  • “If you don’t standardize data you don’t have data, you have a mess.”
  • Need to make units compatible and then make sure whoever reads it understands how you’re measuring it.

Back to Mark…

  • Dozens of product teams testing hundreds of ideas every day, avalanche of info
    • Hired data engineers and analysts – went to tracking every click
    • Got standardized, now able to see the same metrics, the same tests and share info faster: Huge cache of valuable insights down to last click
    • “Any entrepreneur is only right part of the time: the anecdote to thinking you’re right when you’re not is Data.”
  • How do you scale rapidly while maintaining vital ability to test, analyze and kill bad ideas?
  • “F- scale. Experience of customer is the most important thing.”
  • Micromanage the things that matter- the things that are going to excite people and make them love your product
  • Try ideas, and kill them
  • Killing bad ideas will clear path toward your next big opportunity