Around this week last year, more than a half-dozen clowns invaded Zynga headquarters in San Francisco, and began terrorizing some of its employees. This wasn't research for some carnival game the company was working on; no, a herd of clowns—in full makeup, red- and green-haired, the ones who haunt children's dreams—had swarmed the social-game developer's offices, and, by some accounts, made employee lives miserable, for days on end.
"They were making noises; they were getting into everyone's faces; they were disrupting meetings," recalls one former top manager at the company. "It really pissed everyone off."
The clowns came courtesy of Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga. He thought it would be a fun prank—the type that lightens the office atmosphere and possibly boosts morale. But the clowns did just the opposite.
Zynga has been struggling for some time. Since its share price hit a high of $15.91 last year, the company has seen its market cap plummet by roughly 75%, with its stock continually trading in the low single digits. As Zynga scrambled to cut costs, it shuttered satellite offices, laid off scores of employees, and suffered a slew of high-profile executive exits. In late March 2012, morale had begun to falter—sources I spoke with complained of long work hours and an increasing amount of red tape. Pincus turned to an unlikely source for help: clowns. Rarely do we get to see the chief executive of a public company so directly try to impact company culture. And in this instance, the clowns Pincus hired, in one way or another, were harbingers of a coming year of nightmares.
"One day, [Mark decided] there wasn't enough play[ful] spirit in the office, so he was going to get clowns to come in, to cheer everyone up," says the top manager, describing the now-infamous moment in Zynga's history. "He sent a company-wide email saying something like, 'People don't have the play spirit, so that's why we need clowns.' We quickly found out the clowns were extremely disruptive to our work. We all said, 'That's enough. We don't want the clowns.' But then Mark wouldn't relent. He was like, 'Oh, you guys are just scared of clowns.' And so these clowns came in for at least three days. Three days! Even with complaints."
More and more clowns filed into the company's corridors as the days dragged on, acting increasingly sillier and more ridiculous. "People were freaked out about that," recalls one former topflight director, with a laugh, who says it perfectly captures how Pincus often approaches internal problems. "He means well, but just doesn't realize the downstream effects of his decisions."
Another former developer lead agrees with the assessment. "It's almost a mechanistic thing like, 'Morale is low, so let's do something that makes people happy.' It was very typical of Zynga to address the symptoms rather than the root causes," the source says. "I was not there for the clown thing, but I was there for mariachis. It's the same thing: 'Let's have mariachis to make the company happier.' I don't know where they came from. They were incredibly disruptive. You have mariachis walking onto a developer floor, and the engineers are like, 'What the hell is this?' There were certain things about Zynga that were strangely dystopian and bizarre, and that definitely fits the model."
Of course, for outsiders not accustomed to the eccentricities of Silicon Valley and especially Mark Pincus, clowns and mariachi bands might sound like a welcome and fun change of pace. But to some, the clowns were a sign of larger issues at play. "The clown incident really made a lot of people lose faith in Mark. People were really upset about it. It's just not how the CEO of a public company should handle himself," says the former top manager. "At the end of that last week in March, people had had enough. So Mark tried to escape [criticism] by saying it was an April Fools' joke."
Still, not all employees had such a dramatic reaction to the presence of clowns. Apparently, shirts of the Zynga dog subtly tweaked to include a red clown nose continue to float around the office—an homage to the clown prank. One former C-level source, who worked closely with Pincus, offers a slightly different take than the manager's, but acknowledges the clowns were not received quite as planned. "That was an incredibly ill-thought-out April Fools' joke," the source says. "The genesis of that was Mark trying to do something clever and funny for April Fools. The year before, he sent out an email saying, 'Hey, guess what? The entire company—all locations—we're going vegan!' And there was this explosion of outrage. People were going to quit over it. And then he was like, 'April Fools! Actually, we didn't serve pork in the cafeterias before, but we are now!' So we had 'porkapalooza' on April 1, and everyone gorged on bacon and ribs. That was brilliant; everyone loved it."
"This time, it was going to be, 'Hey! We're going to fill the building with creepy clowns.' It was sort of a morale boost, and everyone was going to have an outrageous reaction, and then, 'Haha, April Fools!' But actually, it just didn't work, and fell flat," the source continues. "But the clown thing was never intended to be a serious idea [to boost] morale."
Such lighthearted pranks are not uncommon in the startup world, but also highlight the struggles companies must endure as they mature. With thousands of employees, perhaps Zynga has outgrown Pincus' tricks to keep the company's startup culture alive. To wit: Though Zynga is famous for its dog-friendly environment, as more employees joined the ranks, so too did their pets. "It's great if you have a company of 20 people, but when you get to 3,000? It's untenable," says the former lead developer. "People would talk about how the carpets at the old building had to be burned. It's nice to let people have dogs, and I guess it's innovative, but if you don't do anything to support the system then you have a disaster."
"The dogs in the office policy is a good example," says the C-level source, referring to how Pincus always meant well, but might not have anticipated the consequences of his decisions. "It's the result of good intentions. But there are people who just can't believe they can bring their dogs in, and there are others that feel put upon."
"When Zynga was small, Mark's way was very, very effective because it keeps a small group very focused," the lead developer says. "But his method doesn't scale."
Cue sad clown.
[Illustrations by Joel Arbaje]