69) Zynga – is its Facebook dependency good or bad?

危 wēi  danger

More and more often startups are built with a total dependency on a third party, for example on external platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Apps or iTunes.  The allure of access to a sales channel, rich data and potential customers is obvious but surely that dependency creates huge risk?  What if the external platform changes its approach or decides to develop its own version of the startup?  What if the platform decides that it will no longer support third-parts apps as Twitter did last week.   Zynga, the social gaming company, is an interesting example – it has been valued at over $10bn – surely this is crazy given its complete dependency on Facebook?

机 jī opportunity

I was inspired a few weeks by an article on Techcrunch.  The article categorizes dependencies as symbiotic or parasitic.  Parasitic dependencies are problematic, increasing the chance of the third party taking a hostile approach but symbiotic dependencies, in which both parties derive a benefit, pose less of a risk.

By this definition I think Zynga’s dependency on Facebook remains symbiotic.  Facebook has benefitted because games such as Farmville enrichen the Facebook’s user’s experience – currently over half of FB users play Zynga games, increasing their average time on site considerably.  In addition, Facebook Credits are integrated into all Zynga games (for which Facebook takes a cut of 30%) and the company is reportedly the largest advertiser on Facebook, spending millions a year to drive new installs.

In return, Zynga has benefitted by leveraging the rapidly growing FB community, successfully harnessing FB tools such as user news feeds to promote game updates.  It’s hard to imagine that Zynga would have grown its user base for CityVille within a week of launch to over 3 million at the end of last year without FB.  Given this symbiotic dependency, Facebook’s growth rate and estimates of it making $630m this year, Zynga’s valuation seems more reasonable.

It is also worth pointing out that none of this has stopped Zynga building a Plan-B, if only to improve its negotiating power with FB.  For example it began requiring email addresses from users (enabling it to contact them outside FB) and buying mobile application companies – including Newtoy (creator of Words With Friends and Chess With Friends) last year and New York developer Area/Code last month.

In the case of Twitter it seems ruthless for them to close down so many apps, after all those 3rd party clients helped create behaviors that now make Twitter so valuable: @ mentions, direct messages, re-Tweets and so on (none of which were Twitter’s idea originally).  But, those app’s were effectively in direct competition with Twitter, placing their own advertising and pulling users away from Twitters own platform – a parasitic dependency.  Twitter’s rationale as outlined in this developer forum explains this and the message is clear – if you’re going to develop apps make them symbiotic…

How About…

  • Considering who your business might be dependent upon?
  • If you do have dependencies can you make them symbiotic rather than parasitic?
  • And how can you plan for the worst?