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Opinion: Is Zynga ready to throw in the towel on Wall St?

Opinion: Is Zynga ready to throw in the towel on Wall St? Exclusive

October 16, 2012 | By Chris Morris

Mark Pincus has never been someone who follows the same path as the rest of the video game industry, but his latest divergence is a particularly interesting one.

A little over a week ago, Zynga CEO Pincus retweeted an analysis piece suggesting the company should abandon its efforts as a publicly traded entity and consider going private. The suggestion comes less than a year after Zynga's highly publicized IPO.

While there's certainly nothing controversial about a retweet, it's a curious move from the high profile CEO of a company that is, to put it kindly, floundering – and it's one some observers and investors could read as a hint about future moves.

Could Zynga be mulling that option? It's impossible to say, but it certainly raises some interesting questions. Specifically, what benefits would such a move have – and what penalties?

Let's look at those in reverse order.

Certainly, reversing the decision to take Zynga public would be a public relations disaster. It would be tantamount to admitting that the company is unable to compete in the public space and could cause fundamental damage to the company's reputation (which could hurt its chances of luring corporate partners).

Of course, Zynga is the eye of the hurricane when it comes to PR disasters these days. Executives are jumping ship faster than people can keep track. Users are leaving at an even faster rate. And, because of that, its earnings continue to shrink.

Going private so quickly would also almost certainly open the floodgates for a series of lawsuits from investors, who would feel scammed.

Advantages? Those seem few and far between. The story Pincus pointed to notes that the opportunities available to Zynga are too risky for a public company, especially since the social and mobile spaces have so much unexplored territory. Perhaps, but investors realized they were, in some ways, investing in the Wild West when they signed on board (or, at least, they should have). It was never going to be a smooth ride to easy street.

Largely, it seems that the chief argument for a once-again-private Zynga would be that Pincus no longer has to deal with the angry mobs that have seen their investments all-but-disappear.

Pincus (and Zynga) have always seemed to have a limited amount of respect for investors in the publicly traded space. The IPO didn't give shareholders a majority vote in the company's operations (Pincus retained those). And Pincus has continued to run the company in much the same way as he did in its early days – with the power concentrated around him.

Zynga, frankly, is in something of a no-win situation right now and it's going to be hard to find a way out. Analysts note the company's games business is essentially without any value – with the stock trading below the per-share value of the company's cash, securities and real estate assets.

And, while he's certainly a competitive person, some recent actions have raised questions about Pincus' level of interest in saving the company.

Despite the troubles of the last few months, Zynga has not given any indication it plans to buy back a limited percentage of shares (a common move to signal to investors it thinks the company is undervalued). For that matter, Pincus himself hasn't shown an inclination to buy back any shares personally (maybe that recent purchase of a $16 million, 11,500 square foot home has his funds tied up).

Zynga also hasn't made an honest assessment of its own expenses and course-corrected internally (many observers have pointed out the company is staff-heavy, given its operations). At the same time, it needs to find a way to stop the bleed of key talent (like the loss of Words With Friends creators Paul and David Bettner).

Despite all the problems, Zynga does still have a significant cash warchest – enough that it could afford to repurchase all outstanding shares and, in fact, take the company private. But with revenues drying up and no turnaround on the immediate (or even mid-term) horizon, that would be an incredibly risky move, one that leaves the company vulnerable to a complete collapse.

And while Pincus would surely like to get the investor and analytical communities to quit second-guessing him and his company's every decision, it's not likely he's willing to make that sort of a gamble to achieve that goal.

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