On Tuesday, February 24, Mark Pincus (W’88), founder of Superlabs and Zynga held a Leadership Lecture co-sponsored with the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative (WCAI) in Philadelphia with over 200 students in attendance.

Mark began by polling students on their interest in the entrepreneurial, start-up, or “other” track at Wharton versus finance and consulting. He was visibly pleased that well over half the attendees fell in the former camp. “When I graduated, entrepreneurial wasn’t even on the fringe—I had no idea the level of interest you had here in entrepreneurship, digital business, and customer analytics.”

Product Management: Experiment, Refine, Repeat

Pincus kicked off with a lengthy discussion on how customer analytics informs better product development. For Mark, driving a successful start-up is more about “separating your winning instincts from your bad ideas [on execution].” And the best way to refine your ideas and better execute against your instincts is to run experiments: Can you release a new product or feature to only 10% of your users? Can you maintain a control group? And are you ready to keep testing your ideas to rule out everything else and zero-in on the new feature or revenue model you’re putting forward?

It’s no surprise that someone who loves games of all kinds also loves experiments. To run them at scale, Mark had an early vision of “the world’s biggest laboratory” with over 30 million people. Mark was so captivated by the vast experiment pool technology enabled that he considered acquiring CNET years ago to reach those millions, but he soon realized that APIs for popular social platforms like Facebook could provide the same or even greater test bed. This focus on customer behavior and incremental experiments ultimately drove the product development behind Farmville and other blockbusters. He noted that although things move faster in tech, it’s still a game of increments.

Students followed-up with questions on investment and valuation metrics, his professional trajectory, and even personal advice. A former financial analyst himself, Mark noted that traveling the entrepreneurial route comes with risk—you have to know you want this career track and “avoid death by a thousand compromises, or you will have built a house you don’t want to live in anymore.” For those students interested in start-ups and large corporations, but still looking to hedge their bets, Mark noted that product management at a Google, Facebook, or tech firm with a culture of experimentation was a great route for feeling things out and still acquiring key skills.

When asked about his early work in social gaming, Mark again returned to customer analytics. Before Farmville and other social games, Zynga had poker. They were a small but powerful player in the space and soon expanded to one of the largest in the early market –“We grew through engagement and retention; we grew because we kept people longer than anybody else.” Focusing on customer behavior and analytics, Mark again underscored the value of leveraging a truly “customer centric” approach to build products, loyalty, and momentum.

The talk was followed by an informal cocktail reception where students continued to speak with Mark and network with peers of all majors.

Customer Analytics: From Quant Room to C-Suite

While Mark was pleasantly surprised at the excitement around start-ups and analytics since his days on campus 20 years ago, from WCAI’s perspective, the change ran even deeper. This was not a talk about ad exposures, conversions or traditional marketing analytics—from the gate, it was about product development and how analytics stretches deep into the business. While this is not revolutionary, we remember when speakers used to open their presentations by reviewing customer analytics first in a media context and then transitioning to broader business applications. Mark’s immediate jump to product development, and the student Q&A that followed, showed how far the field has come with questions and applications well beyond marketing and even the technology sector.

About Mark Pincus:

Mark Pincus is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, innovator and angel investor. He recently founded Superlabs, a San Francisco-based product lab focused on developing products that connect and empower people. Mark is also the founder and chairman of Zynga, which pioneered the social gaming industry and brought gaming to the mainstream. Additionally, he founded Zynga.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using social games for social good. Since 2009, Zynga.org has raised more than $18 million by connecting millions of players with more than 50 nonprofit organizations around the world. Mark has pursued his passion for creating Internet products since 1995, when he founded FreeLoader, the first web-based push company. Later, he founded Support.com, a pioneer in automating tech support and took it public. In 2003, Mark launched Tribe.net, one of the first social networks. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.