Online game tycoon offers advice to aspiring entrepreneurs

Joseph Diebold

Internet billionaire Mark Pincus told about 125 people at Harris Hall on Wednesday they must be “ninja product makers” to succeed as entrepreneurs.

Pincus is the CEO of Zynga, a company that develops social games for Web platforms. Zynga’s most popular products include Farmville, Words with Friends and Mafia Wars. He came to Northwestern as part of the USA Today CEO Forum, an initiative that brings corporate CEOs to college campuses alongside USA Today reporters. Pincus was accompanied by technology reporter Jon Swartz, who moderated the conversation, asking questions himself and soliciting others from audience members.

Pincus emphasized the importance of being able to predict market trends. He told students interested in entrepreneurship they must be able to develop devices that consumers will want and avoid gambling on guesses about consumer behavior.

“If you’re a good product ninja, your instincts are probably always right,” he said. “By the time you launch your product, you should be counting winnings and not making bets.”

Pincus also stressed building a comfortable work environment. After Zynga purchased its office building, Pincus said, he sent an email to his employees asking them to bring their dogs to work.

“We should all make sure we’re building a house we want to live in,” he said.

Weinberg freshman Tom Cui came away impressed with Pincus’ talk.

“I always thought Zynga was not really a company known for quality, but I was surprised that he knew that and was really trying to make this better and that he does believe this is kind of a chance to change the world,” he said.

Medill Prof. Rich Gordon introduced the event. He credited Zynga with understanding what he called the “three fundamental truths of the Internet,” particularly capitalizing on people’s desire to interact with one another and the exponential value provided by group-forming networks.

Associated Student Government President Austin Young also spoke briefly, issuing similar praises about the way Zynga facilitates user interactions.

“Mark Pincus is catapulting nostalgic memories like spelling bees onto the global scale,” the Weinberg senior said. “Zynga creates experiences that are conduits for social interaction. He clearly picked a winning formula.”

Pincus spoke candidly, warning students to make sure they have experience before launching entrepreneurial products.

“If you’re Mark Zuckerberg and you’ve just come up with an idea that’s taken off virally and it’s going to go take over the world, then go do that,” he said. “All I did in my career before Zynga was great, but it wasn’t anywhere near the level of success I wanted to have, and I didn’t start at Zynga until I was 41.”

The event also served as a homecoming for Pincus, who grew up in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Several members of his family attended, including his mother Donna and wife Ali. After the talk, Patricia Telles-Irvin, NU’s vice president for student affairs, presented both Pincus and Swartz with books about NU’s history signed by University President Morton Schapiro and attendees were invited to a reception with the two in nearby Scott Hall.

Telles-Irvin, who provided closing remarks, praised Pincus for advising students to wait to determine their passions.

“Not only follow your passion, but first of all find it, find out why you’re doing what you’re doing and then make good of it,” Telles-Irvin said. “That is one of the best messages that we can send to everyone here in this room.”

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