The Quest for Digital Skyscrapers: Can Silicon Valley Create the Next 100-Year Brands?

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 22, 2012

From The News Desk

About 53 minutes into my interview with Mark Pincus last Thursday, I realized how different PandoMonthly has become from what I set out for it to be.

I thought we were just doing a regular networking event once a month. Instead, it struck me that we're recording a very important moment in history. As important as the physical gathering aspect is, it may be these two-hour candid videos that are the real, enduring asset of these events.

What spurred this thought was Pincus describing how, as an industry, we have a 20-year or so window to build "digital skyscrapers." By digital skyscrapers, he means the lasting media and technology companies of not only the next investing wave, not only the next generation, but of the next century. In his words:

"We are living in this short period of time -- like twenty years, not two -- where the greatest thing that possibly any of us who are focused on the consumer Internet could do create one of those forever brands that people can't imagine life without and can't remember life before."
Here's the four-minute clip. It's worth watching again even if you were there, because it says something you don't hear often in the Valley. That now is the time to create 100-year-enduring brands that will rival the ones created at the last turn of the century.

We've been in such a hyper-growth and hyper-destruction era of company building for most of the Web's existence, that this sounds almost quaint or naive. We've become almost numb to it, expecting companies to squeeze a normal life cycle into a decade or so and then just fade away. Companies like AOL and Yahoo amassed huge market caps quickly, and then have just slowly declined. Turning them around seems all but impossible.

And those are the most successful ones. Think of a company like Digg whose mission to  utterly change how news is consumed by prioritizing what your friends think is cool has rocked the publishing global world. But Digg wasn't the one to benefit from that transition -- Twitter was. And how long will Twitter be on top? Already there have been over-reaching reports that celebrities are moving on and handwringing for what that could mean for the company.

And at least Digg tried to go for it. In terms of innovation, the acquisition of a company like Sparrow is depressing. No sooner had something potentially solved part of the issues with email, and was starting to tip beyond the early adopters when, BAM! Google flashes a checkbook, the founders get new jobs, and users get an email saying they won't be innovating anymore.

Most people have taken it for granted: Those huge dominant companies that seem to stay on top for many generations like GE, Viacom, News Corp., or even Intel, IBM, and HP simply won't be created anymore. In exchange for longevity, we've gotten break-neck speed. Companies being formed today may well wind up being worth the same as an industry titan who has been around for generations, but they'll do it quickly and the impact won't last.

Phil Libin of Evernote resolutely refuses to believe companies being built today have to be measured in some Internet version of dog years. He has said repeatedly that he is building Evernote to last 100 years. People have mocked this, but Libin doesn't care. His goal is for you to use Evernote as your outsourced memory. To entrust your grandmother's recipes, your tax information, or your old love letters into a system, you have to know that company will be around longer than you. This has changed everything about the way he's built this company -- always prioritizing the long term over the near term.

Since talking with Libin about this a few years ago, I've looked long and hard for another entrepreneur of a leading tech company to make that kind of bold claim. I've asked about it at many PandoMonthly events. When I asked Peter Thiel, even he had a hard time believing companies he's funding today would last that long, saying "100 years is a long time..."

But Mark Pincus is cut from the same cloth as Phil Libin. Which is a surprising thing for me to write, because I once described Evernote -- and its goal of taking moments out of your day to make you smarter -- as the anti-Zynga. But both are men who started these companies after moderate successes and failures; both men who started their companies in their 40s; both are men who had success before in business software and wanted to do something big and lasting in the consumer Internet world.

From the earliest days, Pincus told every investor he wasn't selling his company. That sounds ballsy enough now, but back before anyone was sure games on Facebook could be anything other than a lifestyle business, this was an almost delusional claim. Pincus was so convinced, he bought Zynga's first building -- personally -- before he even started the company.

As he described last Thursday, he spent $3 million on it and outfitted it with kitchens and other rock star amenities. He knew he was starting something that he intended to run for the rest of his life, and he wanted his team to "live better than VCs." Pincus is one of those rare entrepreneurs who doesn't wear the serial entrepreneur badge with pride, he sees it as more of a scarlet letter. It means he's ultimately failed in the past, no matter how big his bank account has grown.

When I asked if Zynga could really be around 100 years he said this:

"That's what I hope for. It would be arrogant and presumptive to say anyone's brand can be around in 100 years, but I know that social gaming -- it may not be called social gaming -- but people playing games together will be around in 1,000 years. So I have high confidence that what we're doing is the precursor to what people will do in 100 years. I think it's up to us to innovate and earn it. To earn that lifelong relationship."
He went on to say he'd be surprised if Amazon wasn't around in 100 years, and that Facebook has the chance to be because "it's hard to believe anyone is going to connect the entire planet to one social graph again."

If this occurred that could, in retrospect, make the next few decades one of the most exciting periods in Valley history. And that's saying something.

Since Thursday, I've read on Twitter, in various blog posts, and talked to other entrepreneurs about what they took away from the talk. Perhaps more so than other PandoMonthly events, the takeaways seemed to be very personal. Maybe Elon Musk, while inspirational, is just too hard to relate to; maybe Ben Horowitz is too removed from the grit of his entrepreneurial journey. Horowitz, Peter Thiel, and our next two guests, Reid Hoffman and Tony Hsieh, have all sort of "made it."

But Pincus, with the constant, unfair stories going after him and Zynga's struggling stock price, is in the thick of it right now. You got the sense listening to him that he lives what entrepreneurs frequently say to reporters: That the IPO wasn't "an exit." And he was incredibly candid and honest about all of those challenges.

We got in a bit of a tussle on Twitter, because Pincus was upset about some of the headlines on our site -- even ones that were pretty much direct quotes. I felt this was unfair to the team. Live-blogging an event isn't easy, and we all felt he came off wonderfully. Certainly no one was out to get him. But while thin-skinned entrepreneurs can sometimes frustrate me, in this case I respected where he was coming from, even if I didn't totally agree.

You could see in everything he did that night -- the talk on stage, the fact that he stayed to talk to entrepreneurs even longer than my team did, and the raw emotion over how he felt we covered it -- that he cares about making Zynga a digital skyscraper with every ounce of his being. Whether you play his games or not, and no matter what you think of him personally, if you're in this business you just have to respect that.

Like a lot of entrepreneurs in the audience, Pincus's words resonated with me deeply, particularly his insistence from day one that they were never selling the company. That's something that I too have told every investor, employee, and reader since the beginning. And while I didn't follow that conviction up with anything outwardly tangible like spending $3 million on offices, it has informed everything I've done in creating this company -- from how I spend the bulk of my time, to compensation, to the amount of money we've raised, to the business model.

We may never become a $1 billion company. That'd be nice, and I think some new media company will one day. Someone will become the next News Corp., Time, or Advance of the digital world-- and it won't be those companies. But more important than that is creating something lasting that captures this unique time in global business history.

As Pincus was talking about this twenty year period that the playing field is wide open for creating new digital skyscrapers, I was grateful that we were capturing that very conversation, archiving it and live streaming it around the world -- and many others like it every month across three innovative cities. Too often, the Mark Pincuses of the world only talk about the latest incremental news on stage -- not the entirety of their journeys and what it represents in the world.

At the same time, I was pissed that no one had captured interviews like these on a broad scale before. I wish I could see a 22-year old Marc Andreessen in a candid several hour conversation like this. I wish I could see Jim Clark talking about his boat, not just read about it in "The New, New Thing." I wish I could see Robert Noyce talking about creating the Valley's first case of "defection capital" when the "traitorous eight" left Shockley Labs. I'm sure they occurred, but I wouldn't know where to find them if they were ever captured. That seems a huge loss.

For more than a decade, I've devoured books on these topics and talked to people who worked with those Valley forefathers, trying to get a sense of what they were like, what they thought of their time, what drove them. Watching a three-hour interview about all this would have been so much easier and told me even more than filtering their words through the words of third parties.

That moment gave me another less-selfish reason why we can't sell this company: To keep capturing the story of the these digital skyscrapers in as many forms of digital media as possible before this remarkable time in history is over.