Zynga’s Pincus: Why we went public

December 17, 2011, 1:51 AM UTC

No plans to leave Zynga. Ever.

Social gaming giant Zynga (ZNGA) went public earlier today, raising around $1 billion in its IPO. Company founder and CEO Mark Pincus rang Nasdaq’s opening bell from Zynga’s San Francisco headquarters earlier this morning, and this afternoon discussed the company and its listing with Fortune.

What follows is a lightly-edited transcript:

Fortune: Zynga seemed to be doing fine as a private company. Why go public?

Pincus: It’s been a reality for us that we were going to go public for a very long time now. We were able to prolong our period of being private by having restricted stock units, similar to Facebook, but you get to the point where you have big enough numbers of employee shareholders and outside shareholders that it starts to make more sense to be public.

We also wanted to go public at the right point in our evolution, which I think this is. We were expanding our own ability to bring new games to market, and though once we got past that investment and most of the way through a very large capital expenditure program on our data centers that we’d have two big building blocks in place for going public.

Do you think that investors understood your story?

We really liked the investors that we met, and were impressed by both their depth of understanding of the state of our company and the long-term way their questions were really around market potential and where we’ll be in the future. Our approach was that we think our investors and board really represent the DNA of the company, and we were excited to add some more likeminded investors.

Groupon (GRPN) went public five weeks before Zynga, and suffered through a bunch of negative press and SEC troubles. Did you learn anything from watching its process?

I can’t think of anything in particular. They did face some of the same things we did, but we were very conservative when thinking about the quiet period. I was supposed to speak at D and Web 2.0 and other conferences, but pulled out of all of them. And we didn’t talk to the press, because we really wanted to be careful.

Is your IPO Wall Street’s validation of Facebook as a platform?

It’s the first I’ve heard that argument, so I don’t think that’s the way we interpreted it. I think Facebook has been an amazing accelerator in social gaming, just like we’re beginning to see Apple and Android also being accelerators. In both cases, these platforms are reducing barriers to play, and company like ours are able to benefit from it.

Speaking of other non-Facebook platforms, can you say when Project Z will be available?

We haven’t made any public announcements about the timing, but I’d say that we continue to test various elements of it with our employees internally, just as we do when launching a game. We hope it will be out to our audience soon, but I wouldn’t say we’re driven by dates. It’s more about when we think we’ve achieved a compelling experience.

There has been widespread speculation that a large number of Zynga employees will leave the company once they are allowed to sell shares. Why?

I’m not sure why there’s been all that speculation other than that we’ve been in a quiet period. Our company has historically had very low attrition, much lower than other public or private companies in Silicon Valley. I know that hasn’t been reported on, but it’s true. We also continue to have an amazing inflow of resumes and talent.

When you think about what keeps talent at a company, it comes down to three points:

  1. 1. Do employees believe in the mission and direction of the company. I believe they do, because Zynga offers a unique opportunity to build games for the broadest audience ever seen in games.
  2. 2. Do employees feel they have great career mobility. And I’d point you to the fact that a culture of leveling up is one of our values. More than 60% have leveled up annually, which means they’ve taken on greater leadership roles and compensation each year. When we’re past the acquire period and you can talk to actual employees, I think they’ll tell you they have more opportunity for mobility here than if they worked at any other company.
  3. 3. Our teams manage themselves, which means they have a great amount of control over their work environments.

Beyond that, our culture runs deep. Our employees have a real love for Zynga and real pride. We’ve asked them not to go out and defend us in the press or blogs, so I don’t think that’s come through publicly yet.

You personally sold around $109 million shares back to the company in March, at a price of just under $14 per share. Can you contextualize that decision, given that your IPO priced today at $10 per share?

I’ve never been trying to time the market or be an expert on valuation of us or anybody else. My approach from the beginning, because I’ve wanted to stay at this company for the rest of my career, has been to take a different approach from other entrepreneurs who might look to sell their company as an exit.

Since early on, I’ve sold small pieces of my ownership along the way, so as not to feel any pressure to sell the company. I don’t think you can look at any single one of those transactions and use it to judge my beliefs at that time in the future prospects of the company or its value.

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