Zynga's Winning Strategy: Don't Innovate. Copy, Execute and Scale

Last Updated Sep 14, 2010 2:54 PM EDT

For most technology startups, innovation is a core principle. The belief is that creating something new and exciting is the best way to build a business. Mark Pincus, CEO of the social gaming firm Zynga, hates innovation. His approach is to find what's successful, copy it, then execute and scale better than competition.

A scathing story in the alternative SF Weekly details how Zynga meticulously copied other developers games. Their popular title Mafia Wars, for example, came on the heels of Mob Wars, developed by the small independent firm Psycho Monkey.

Zynga's version borrowed everything, from the names of people and locations, right down to the dollar amounts that different crimes were worth. According to the article, the feeling inside Zynga was that the success of the game would outweigh any costs from legal troubles.

Psycho Monkey eventually settled for a amount in the high seven figures. That's an acceptable loss for Pincus, as Zynga is estimated to make $500 million in revenue this year. The company continues to be the target of numerous lawsuits, and in the past year has filed 22 of its own.

The truth is it's hard to single Zynga out as a villain. Playdom, the social gaming company recently acquired by Disney (DIS), has its own variant on the form, called Mobsters. All these games are fairly basic extensions of Drug Wars, which was first available to bored math students on their TI-82 calculators in 1984.

Clearly Zynga has image issues that its rival gaming companies do not. Pincus hasn't done much to dispel this. Speaking at Berkeley last year, he told an audience, "I knew that I wanted to control my destiny. So I funded the company myself, but I did every horrible thing in the book to just get revenues right away."

Pincus has been through the Silicon Valley spin cycle more than once. His social network, Tribe.com, could easily have been a success like Facebook, except it wasn't. That experience showed Pincus the importance of execution and scale. Is it a more cynical approach to business? Absolutely. But it's also formula for success in the tech industry. Just ask Microsoft (MSFT).

Image from Flickr user Alberto Veiga
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  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.