Is Zynga The Most Profitable Company Ever?

Chickens playing FarmVilleChickens playing FarmVille.

Photo: Eric Rice

Zynga’s made a $400 million profit on $850 million revenues in 2010, reports the WSJ.If that’s true, that’s an astounding 47% profit margin.


By way of comparison, Google‘s profit margin is is 29% and Apple‘s is 28%, and both of those are considered fantastically profitable. Facebook had a profit margin close to 30% as well in 2010. Salesforce and Amazon by contrast, also very respected companies, have profit margins closer to 5%.

In fact, tech companies might not be the best comparison. Hermès, the world’s most lauded luxury brand — a company whose business is selling $20,000 handbags — has a profit margin around 30%. When one of your writers was in business school, a professor with extensive experience in the luxury industry told us that Chanel, a private company which doesn’t report financials, was rumoured to be the most profitable company in Europe with profit margins of 45%.

Again – 47%!

And this after Zynga pays Facebook taxes in the form of advertising to acquire users and 30% of virtual goods sales.

Zynga is either the most profitable company ever – or it’s very close to it.

The main reason this kind of profitability is possible is that Zynga sells “virtual goods.” They don’t cost much of anything to make, don’t need to be shipped to shelves, and don’t need any kind of sales force to be sold.

So the real question is: How does Zynga’s virtual goods business work?

The easiest way to understand it is to remember the the video game arcades of the 1980s.

Back then, arcade games made money by addicting people to simple games (like Pacman), introducing “friction” into these games (by making them harder after each level), and then charging small amounts of money to ease that friction (by allowing gamers to buy “lives.”)

That’s what Zynga’s social games do – charge people small amounts of money to reduce friction in games they are addicted to. Only, instead of paying another quarter for another life, social gamers buy sub-machine guns in “Mafia Wars,” and new farmland in “FarmVille.”

Another big similarity: Arcade games were usually played in a social environment. Zynga games are played on Facebook, a virtual social environment.

If this answer leaves you cold it’s probably because you’ve never actually seen a Facebook game. Or maybe you have looked at Zynga game – say, FishVille – and said to yourself: Really?

We felt much the same way until we decided to suck it up and get addicted to one.

We picked FishVille,  an early hit from Zynga. It came out in November 2009 and its simple mechanics best demonstrate how Zynga works.

The object of FishVille is to build a magnificent virtual aquarium, full of spectacular fish and designer decorations. The way you do it is spending fake money to buy small fish for one price, and then, after tending to them for a few hours or days, selling them for more fake money then you paid. Then you use that money to buy more fish. If you want to speed your progress, you buy fake money with real money.

We’d explain more, but it’s really just easier to show you how it works.

I get to customise my tank! I'll take a purple background and sand, please.

I get fish by buying them with gold. I get gold by selling fish. Click to sell!

Time to buy some fish. Each fish will sell for more than I pay for it. But fish with really good ROI take a while to grow.

I'm just getting started, so I bought some Mini Dart Gobys which will be ready to sell in five minutes.

After buying a fish, I have to feed them or they will die. Feed your fish or it will die!

Now I have to wait till my fish grow up to be big enough to sell

Basically, FishVille rewards me for inviting Facebook friends to play FishVille with coins I can use to buy more fish. Clever!

I decided to help out OMGPop founder Charles Forman by cleaning his tank. I earned some coins doing this.

FishVille wants to know if I want to spam Charles to let him know I cleaned his tank. I say yes!

FishVille tells me I'll get coins for inviting friends to play. Think Henry Blodget is interested?

Back in my tank, I find out one of my fish is big enough to sell. Yay!

FishVille wants me to tell all my friends about it. OK!

Bloop! I just sold another fish. Gimme some money!

I think I should spend some money on a longer-term fish with better ROI. How about this fella?

But oh no! I'm out of coins. I don't want to wait till my new fish grow old enough to sell, so what do I do?

Look, I can get 7,500 coins for $5. I'll be rich!

Look at all those coins! I'm going to go on a spending spree…

Some more fish? Yes, please.

BOOM! Level 3, suckers! Look at all the new stuff I can buy, and all it took was $5.

Do I want to let my friends know I reached level three in FishVille? Duh!

Wow my tank is looking really pretty.

Before I go, let me add some faster growing fish and feed them too.

Now I will take a 45 minute break and get back to work…

I must feed my surviving fish!

…hours of feeding later, some fish I bought are finally ready to be sold!

I love this fish, but there's no time for sentimentality when there's gold to be had. Click to sell!

…hours later, my tank needs cleaning. Guess I better scrub it.

But after buy just ONE THING, I'm suddenly down to only 8 coins. Guess I'll have to put some more money in…

…and that's how you get addicted to a stupid Facebook game!

But don't worry, you're not the only one!

Don't miss: How iPhone Apps Are Raking In Cash From Virtual Goods

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