Can Anyone Save Zynga?


Most of the time, turnaround talk shows up after a company has languished for years without direction or one that's spectacularly failed to adapt with the times and its financial results have suffered for it.

Think of 73-year-old (55 of those years public) Hewlett-Packard. Its turnaround is expected to take years under new CEO Meg Whitman, who hopes to somehow tap into mobile growth after her predecessor's failures.

Or 147-year-old (97 years public) Nokia, which failed to respond to the intense mobile competition from Apple and Google and is now scrambling to catch up. The same can also be said about 28-year-old (14 years public) Research In Motion, whose turnaround officially begins early next year with BlackBerry 10.

How about a company that was founded just five years ago and went public less than one year ago?

Let the turnaround begin
In Zynga's brief history, the company has already soared and crashed. Social media was all the rage circa 2011, and Zynga's prominence in social gaming earned it a $10 IPO price, valuing the young company at a whopping $9 billion.

At its peak near $16 per share, Zynga's valuation climbed up to an incredible $10.7 billion. Today? Shares have tanked to around $2 and the company is valued at under $2 billion. It's only been 11 months.

Campbell to the rescue
The Wall Street Journalhas profiled the inner workings of the turnaround efforts at Zynga, primarily as it relates to the company's embattled CEO Mark Pincus. At the urging of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture-capital firm that has a sizable stake in Zynga, Pincus agreed to meet with Bill Campbell.

That name may sound familiar to Apple followers, since Campbell sits on the Mac maker's board and was an early mentor to Steve Jobs. According to Campbell, Zynga's precipitous rise and fall has weighed heavily on Pincus, despite the fact that he's does his best to save face publicly amid media scrutiny. Campbell is but one of several advisors trying to help Pincus pull off a turnaround.

What's to blame?
There are numerous contributing factors to Zynga's crash, the first of which is certainly the astronomical valuation it fetched when it went public. Zynga's initial rise to popularity came mostly on the heels of Facebook's platform, where it is the largest single contributor to the social network's payments platform. The company's casual games for Facebook's desktop platform launched it to the forefront of the media spotlight.

That made it tough when it became obvious that users were quickly migrating to mobile platforms, a trend that Facebook itself has also acknowledged and is acting on. Zynga's now acting on that transition, too, as it focuses development and acquisition on mobile titles -- except those acquisitions don't always pan out.

Newtoy was a great purchase, bringing with it the With Friends franchise, but OMGPOP was the exact opposite. Its single popular title, Draw Something, promptly faded in popularity. Unfortunately, Zynga spent over three times as much on OMGPOP than it did for Newtoy.

Casual gaming tends to attract low-engagement players, which is why Zynga is trying to move to the mid-core market. Mobile is also immensely price competitive, with consumers balking at anything that costs more than the expected $0.99.

Bad timing
Over the summer, Pincus implemented an internal restructuring and shook up Zynga's management team. That has sparked a four-month-long executive exodus that has claimed its COO, CTO, and CFO, among many others. Included among the departed are two out of three executives Zynga had poached from Electronic Arts.

Many executives were lured to the company with generous equity-based compensation packages, and Zynga's cratering share price also crushed employee retention as the value of those packages similarly tanked. For example, Jeff Karp (one of the former EA execs) saw 250,000 restricted stock units vest exactly one dayafter Zynga tanked 40% on an earnings release before he sold them.

So you're telling me there's a chance
Zynga's definitely down right now, but it's not out. The company sits on $1.6 billion in cash, representing the majority of its $1.8 billion valuation. I've always been bearish on Zynga's prospects, but it still has a shot at a turnaround if the company can execute on its transition to mid-core mobile titles and not botch any more acquisitions.

Zynga's post-IPO performance has been dreadful, and investors are beginning to wonder if it's "game over" for this newly public company. Being so closely related to the world's largest social network can be a blessing and a curse. You can learn everything you need to know about Zynga and whether it's a buy or a sell in our new premium research report. Don't even think about picking up shares before you read what our top analysts have to say about Zynga. Click here to access your copy.

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Fool contributor Evan Niu, CFA, owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Facebook, and Google and has the following options: long JAN 2014 $20.00 calls on Facebook. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Apple, Electronic Arts, Facebook, and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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