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All that glisters is not gold. Zynga's "Internet Treasure" departs as share price nosedives


via Flickr © See-ming Lee 李思明 SML (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mark Pincus, the founder of the online games company Zynga, employed Don Mattrick as CEO of the troubled enterprise less than two years ago. At that time (July 1, 2013) he rather peculiarly described Mr. Mattrick as "an Internet treasure". However, twenty one months later the gilt has well and truly been rubbed off the gingerbread with a somewhat less blindingly fulgent Don Mattrick leaving the company to return to his native Canada while Mr. Pincus returns as chief executive.

Zynga was on the slide before Don Mattrick was appointed. Analysts and investors were worried that the Zynga business model would be unsustainable in the medium-to-long-term and Don Mattrick's job was to quickly turn the company around.

He failed. Two years later the plan seems to be moribund, Zynga's shares have tanked and Mark Pincus, who has had almost nothing to do with Zynga over the last year and more, has removed Don Mattrick and taken up the reins of the company once again.

In a company statement Zynga says the changes are "effective immediately" while Don Mattrick, having consulted that mighty tome "Platitudes 101" wrote, “I believe the timing is now right for me to leave as CEO and let Mark lead the company into its next chapter, given his passion for the founding vision and his ability to couple our mobile progress with Zynga’s unique strengths."

For, perish the thought, this is not a sacking. Far from it. There is a reason and it involves contracts and money, as you will discover if you read on. Mark Pincus said, "Zynga  did not fire Mr. Mattrick, the two [of us] agreed it was time for me to return as chief executive. It was a mutual decision." He added that he will "continue to receive guidance from Mr. Mattrick" Whatever that might be, from wherever it may emanate, for whatever reason.

San Franciso-headquartered Zynga, founded in 2007, is a developer and provider of online social game services that can be played on stand-alone computers via the Internet, or on on mobile platforms such as Apple iOS, Android and Windows as well as social networking websites. As such it was a pioneer in providing free-to-play games to a mass audience and is best known for early Facebook games such FarmVille and Zynga Poker

Mark Pincus may have taken a back seat over the last year and more but he was always a powerful eminence grise behind the scenes, having control of 63 per cent of Zynga's capital shares.

He watched from the sidelines as Zynga's financial problems ballooned under Don Mattrick with revenues falling and net losses rising. In February the company posted a US$226 million loss in what Mr. Mattrick called "a year of progress."

Staff turnover is massive. At the turn of the year less than 42 per cent of employees had been with the company for more than 12 months, and 55 per cent for under two years. Such a rate of attrition has a marked effect as a company statement admits: “We have experienced significant turnover in our head count over the last year, which has placed and will continue to place significant demands on our management and our operational, financial and technological infrastructure.” said a filing.

Meanwhile, angry investors have have all but given hope on Zynga whale analysts have commented that the sudden departure of Don Mattrick is a move driven more by panic than strategy.

Don Mattrick, prior to being appointed as Zynga's CEO, was head honcho of Microsoft's Xbox business. When he joined Zynga he got a $5 million signing-up bonus, an annual salary of $1 million and $40 million in share options, the majority of which have yet to vest. However Mr. Mattrick's contract contains a clause stating that in the event of a "constructive termination of employment" he would get $25 million of the $40 million share options plus as "two years' salary and bonuses."Don't you just love the "bonuses" part of that?

Industry analysts reacted phlegmatically to the news of Mattrick's departure. David Cole of DFC Intelligence commented, "It it wasn't a big surprise. Zynga was a turn-around project when he joined and it's not turning around."

Zynga's share price rose slightly at the news that Mark Pincus is back in charge but then dropped back than 10 per cent to $2.60, considerably lower than when Don Mattrick was CEO.

But all will be well and all will be well - apparently. For, as Mr. Pincus says, “We need to get back to being the leader in mobile data and analytics, which leads to the best product management in our games." Can't argue with that. He told the Wall Street Journal, "I can bring a deeper DNA strand and intensity of focus.”

Yup, he's even got different DNA to the rest of us mere mortals - but how much time will the markets allow him to turn around something that should have been facing the other way two years ago? The clock is ticking and the DNA could end up in even more of a twist than it is now. Twang?

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