Zynga suddenly is everywhere. What gives?

December 2, 2009, 11:00 AM UTC

The social gaming company behind FarmVille is seeking the spotlight. Some analysts sense an IPO.

Mark Pincus, founder and CEO of Zynga

If ever a company had a moment, this is Zynga’s.  The small, privately held company that makes games for Facebook and other social networks is getting publicity and attention companies many times its size would love to have.

The force behind the FarmVille sensation has appeared on the front page of the
New York Times
, and been featured in
, a BusinessWeek cover story, The Economist, and this website’s magazine. During a recent trip to New York, Zynga’s spunky CEO Mark Pincus was scheduling meetings with reporters until he reportedly lost his voice.

Then there are the billboards on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley. Both showcase animated characters from Zynga’s games and attempt to lure employees. Earlier versions showed a black silhouette of a bulldog against a red backdrop (Zynga is named after Pincus’s deceased American Bulldog, Zinga).

The promos – and the flood of (mostly) positive press – have gotten more than a few tongues wagging: Is Zynga priming the public for a stock offering?

One of Zynga's new billboards in the San Francisco Bay Area

“Zynga is on the forefront on the business, the clear number one leader,” says ThinkEquity LLC analyst Atul Bagga. “They’re a cash flow positive company, with potential for high leverage in the business model, and are generating revenue at a rate that would allow them to go public.”  Zynga, which declines to comment on such speculation, is on track to surpass $100 million in revenue this year, and the company is profitable.

Go public, sell out, or raise more capital

But Ben Bajarin, director of consumer technology at analysis and strategic planning firm Creative Strategies, thinks it’s too early for Zynga to take its business model to the public market. “There’s still a lot of economics to be worked out,” he says. “IPOs that have done well lately have been companies that have been in business for a while and have a proven revenue track record.”

Wags suggest Zynga’s charm offensive in the press might also be a way of reminding rivals of its prowess and potential.  The big game publishers haven’t kept pace with the industry shift to the so-called “social games” that Zynga and others develop. In early November, gaming giant Electronic Arts (ERTS) acquired Playfish, a major Zynga competitor, for as much as $400 million.

Or Zynga could be looking to add to its coffers. The company recently received a $15 million infusion from undisclosed investors, on top of an earlier $39 million. Another social gaming contender, Playdom, announced $43 million in venture funding in early November, valuing it at $260 million. Should the battle turn on which company can snatch the best games first, having cash in the coffers could be crucial. (Playdom acquired Green Patch and Trippert Labs after announcing its financing, while Zynga has snatched YoVille, MyMiniLife, and GoPets.)

At the very least, Zynga has a bit of defensive marketing to do. In early November, the startup was at the center of controversy when players discovered that in the process of attempting to earn in-game currency, they had signed up and were being billed for unwanted mobile services.

Scam offers embedded in games

Zynga has since discontinued the scammy offers in its games, allowing that it may reinstate some of the more qualified partners. Although it could be written off as a blunder typical of any young company, Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe recommends caution. “They need to clean up their act because a tarnished brand will hurt both of their exit strategies.”

Whatever path Zynga chooses, the clock is ticking. Today there may be 68 million would-be farmers tending their crops, but tomorrow, who knows?

“Five years from now, I can safely say a lot of us will still be using Facebook, but I can’t say that a lot of us will still be playing FarmVille,” says Gartner analyst Ray Valdes. “The longer term challenge is how they can create follow-on titles that are good replacements from a business perspective when the current novelty has worn off.”

Then there is the omnipresent specter of new platforms and technology like Twitter, which Valdes points out, the social gaming developers have yet to figure out.

Zynga, to be sure, is more than a one-trick pony: including FarmVille, it boasts four of the top 10 social games. But in this hits-driven business, it will have to keep churning them out. “These consumer attachments don’t go on forever,” says Yankee Group’s Howe. “You either capitalize on them or say, ‘We should have sold.’”