Last month I had the opportunity to sit down with Bing Gordon, founding team member of Electronic Arts, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), and a board member at Zynga and Amazon. Sitting down with Bing was a complete guilty pleasure for me as an ex-EA underling and personal admirer of his distinguished career. The community didn’t disappoint as about 300 people showed up to listen to him talk and kick off our 2013 global community event. Full transcript and video below.
[00:00:00] DEREK: Welcome to StartUp Grind! I think you went shopping before…
[00:00:06] BING: I schwagged up.
[00:00:09] DEREK: Well, welcome.
[00:00:10] BING: Thanks. Nice to see you again.
[00:00:11] DEREK: Yeah, it’s good to see you.
[00:00:13] BING: I was kind of curious whether you’d be sprouting a toupee since the last time I saw you. You know, some people, when they go into Startup Land, they trade in everything they believe in and most people start doing everything they believe in.
[00:00:26] DEREK: I had one for a while. It just wasn’t a good look for me. So…
[00:00:30] BING: I did hear somebody from Saturday Night Live say that they saw Mick Jagger’s wig fall off. Who would have thought Mick Jagger has a wig? It hasn’t been in People magazine or Us Weekly yet so it might not be true.
[00:00:43] DEREK: Well I think you just gotta own it. If you’re going for it, you just gotta own it, so…I’m not blessed with beautiful hair like you…
[00:00:50] BING: This is a wig.
[00:00:51] DEREK: It’s a wig! I didn’t want to say it, but…Well, Bing, we like to start these out by just getting to know you a little bit. Tell us about where you grew up, tell us about your family a little bit, and take us back.
[00:01:07] BING: Okay, so first having lectured a lot also in school, my rule is when you’re going to lecture, you need to take away one and a half ideas. So I hope all of you will be active – and my sense is that very few humans can take away more than one and a half ideas in a single session unless they take notes. So everybody – my job is to keep you awake, and your job is to take away one and a half ideas. So I grew up in a suburb of Detroit. My dad was a first generation Scotsman and his dad was a janitor. And he was somebody that believed the grass was always greener and didn’t have, kind of, context or resources. Thanks, Dad! We were the first to move in to a subdivision built out of farmlands surrounding Detroit, so I grew up kind of in the creek. Playing sports with my brother who remembers growing up in the house of Pain. So I had a good Midwestern upbringing. I didn’t work in an office before going to Stanford business school, but I did think I was a pretty damn good teenage caddy.
[00:02:30] DEREK: Yeah. Were you? A good golfer or just a caddy?
[00:02:33] BING: No, I am not a good golfer. I got to be a pretty good video game golfer which I think is far superior to real golf. What all of us know in the Digital Age is you want to control time. The first thing you have to put in any video game – you want more sound back there? More loudness? I can do one thing unless the engineer does something and that’s put this in my throat. It’s right up here in tracheotomy land…How’s that? Who liked that commercial in the Superbowl in the library? As usual, you know, I did wonder, wouldn’t it be great if you had TiVos where you could push a button and only see the commercials? No, I was a…oh, time management. Being able to manage your own click pressure – for any of you who are designing, I assert that humans have their own click pressure, and if you want to see what their sought-after metabolism is and how fast they move through stuff, give them a remote control clicker. It’s the third thing you want in a compatible couple. The first is sex, the second is either smell or combined interest, and the third is click speed on the remote control. If you don’t have the same click speed, you’re in trouble.
[00:04:24] DEREK: Where did this interview go right now?
[00:04:29] BING: Oh, time management! Video game golf!
[00:04:30] DEREK: I love it. You didn’t play golf, but you did play sports, right? You played hockey?
[00:04:37] BING: Yeah, I played hockey and lacrosse at the university level and played both, kind of, for most of my adult life. My self-image coming out of Michigan was a jock and…I went to Yale and I realized – I hated it – but I realized 20 years later that going to a place with a diversity of achieving people is kind of a gift.
[00:05:05] DEREK: Why did you hate it? You hated Yale? I mean, you’ve done a lot for Yale, so…
[00:05:10] BING: People were so unhappy at Yale in the ‘70s. You know, I wanted to be a Californian. Around here if you live in Palo Alto or even if you come in here, you make eye contact, you smile politely, even if you don’t like them that much. Not all the way to Hollywood smile, but you make eye contact and you’re open to people because it’s sunny and we’re all beautiful and we’re all smart and we all like each other and we’re in a win-win economy…in New England, people wear beards, they look at the ground, they define themselves on who their parents are, the weather sucks…but it’s a great place to play hockey. In Long Island sound, the only beautiful place in winter is in the hockey arena because the ice glistens and the boards are white.
But I see it now, people go to Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School…people make careers in New England of zero-sum games. You know, you see somebody and you’re always competing with them. Life is graded on a curve. And the nice thing about Moore’s Law is life is not graded on a curve. It might be winner-take-all, if you can get a network effect. The nice thing about this 10x effect every six years is you can succeed wildly without having to kill someone. It’s a good reason to live in Northern California if you’re a nice person. Now if you really like zero-sum games, you can live in New York or play Madden Football. It turns out we buy these games that – three times as many people will be motivated by cooperative game settings than competitive. So if you’re making products for people, and you want to attract people who aren’t 15-25 year old boys, or those who think like them, build in cooperation. Gifting trumps getting on the web.
[00:07:23] DEREK: When did you figure that out? At what point did cooperative gaming start to…
[00:07:26] BING: Electronic Arts did a game called Command and Conquer. We started going online and, as Chief Creative Officer I was trying to help invent new features, and I had this instinct. They didn’t believe me, because the video game industry was invented by 15-25 year old boys. So finally I shamed them into doing it, and it became…the co-op skirmish was most popular. I had a game called Lottso that I designed on Pogo. I put in the first co-op mode – it was team Card and team Lottso, and also cherry card – you get something, and something for you, and half the reward for whoever’s in last place. So the first co-op ever in the casual…
[00:08:14] DEREK: It’s one of middle aged women’s favorite games of all time, isn’t it?
[00:08:18] BING: I have great design sense for 42 year-old women.
[00:08:22] DEREK: You do! I’ve heard that a lot. A lot of people have told me about that.
[00:08:25] BING: Well, okay now, if you do the New York Times crossword puzzle and you play casual games, you know, you’ve got the soul of a 42 year-old woman. I don’t watch Home Makeover.
[00:08:36] DEREK: You don’t? But you watch Housewives.
[00:08:39] BING: No. I don’t. TV has only a single time control, and that bores me.
[00:08:45] DEREK: Tell me, what did you study at Yale? What were you planning to do? What was the path?
[00:08:50] BING: Well I went to Yale thinking I was going to be a math major and a writer, and I got there and Yale was lousy at math and it seemed socially irrelevant, so I kind of became an athlete-near-college-dropout. I realized I was flunking a third of my classes going into the final. And the video game business was invented by high-potential kids who were bored with lectures. All of you who are comfortable in this room, you would not be good video game designers. If you’d be out there with your hands figuring out – you know, fantasizing making us twitch up here, that’s a good instinct for a video game designer. My proud accomplishments in college other than sports achievements was, uh, I wrote poetry. Kind of light verse, in a coffee shop, and Peter Faulk when he was doing Columbo came, and liked it so much he took me out drinking that night. That was kind of fun. And my other one is I hitchhiked the 49 states in the U.S. while a college student. I wasn’t able to hitchhike to Hawaii. I didn’t have the chutzpah to hitchhike…
[00:10:09] DEREK: In the middle of school? Just did the online thing…?
[00:10:10] BING: Yeah. Well summer as well.
[00:10:16] DEREK: Coming out of college what was your first job? What did you do coming out of Yale?
[00:10:20] BING: I was an actor in New York City. And at the same time I was a busboy at Max’s Kansas City, kind of the first glitter bar in New York where like, Iggy Pop played, and the New York Dolls…I did that for a year and I realized that professional theater kind of sucks because you don’t get to work when you want, and you make your name in bad plays. In amateur, you get to do all the classics – you get to reinvent some of the classics. In professional, you’re stuck. I got my Actor’s Equity card in a thing called the Siamese Connections by David Ray who had just gotten a Tony for his previous one, and this was a sequel. And we know in video games what “sequel-itis” is like, so you know, you have to make your career on a sequel.
[00:11:11] DEREK: So what brought you…
[00:11:14] BING: After that, so I…I kind of always wanted to be a writer. I still think that book-writing is kind of the most honorable avocation. I think it’s a pretty shitty business. And even though fewer people want to read all the time, I still think that is the product that carries the most honor, in my mind. So I started doing various odd jobs trying to make enough money that I could afford to write. After a couple years commercial fishing and tree planting, I got enough money, I had a ’56 pink Pontiac Chieftain and an electric typewriter, and I sat down to write and I realized, I hate writing. I only did it because teachers needed it for school. It’s better than doing other stuff in school. But any of you who are writers, it’s like ripping your heart out one word at a time. It’s nice to be in business as a writer because all managers want to read is the first line – you know, summarize, the elevator pitch. And by the way, Stanford Business School: That’s the grad school you go to if you got 100 points lower on your SATs than everyone else. They’re very anti-intellectual.
[00:12:41] DEREK: Wait. What? Stanford GSB is where you go if you get 100 points less than everyone else? Who are your friends?
[00:12:51] BING: Most of my friends didn’t go to Stanford Business School, but…no, you know, in business, you need charisma and animal energy. Way more important than intellectual savvy and great memory. You only see a few people – well, we’re blessed around here. The people in business here are rocket scientists. You know, I go to an Amazon board meeting and it’s the only retailer in the history of probably this Earth and others where there are rocket scientists actually making decisions.
[00:13:21] DEREK: What is animal energy? When you say that, what do you mean by that?
[00:13:36] BING: It’s usually the ability to – you know the David Geller guy who can bend a fork from a distance through psi-energy? Animal energy is the ability to bend the will of other people while standing up. I think Steve Balmer’s got it. A lot of leadership is kind of like a tuning fork – getting everybody on the same wavelength. And then the other thing is, after you’ve been doing business for 40, 50 years – I see some age-oriented peers – and the ability to take meetings at 10 at night or 6 in the morning…after you’re 35 years old, it’s useful. The ability, when you’re 35, and if you’ve got kids, to be able to put the kids to bed and then go out and do sports or get up at 5:30 in the morning and work out – it turns out to be a real advantage in business. It might not be as much of an advantage for a university professor. So having energy reserves is a great life…
[00:14:45] DEREK: Literally having physical energy reserves. That’s interesting.
[00:14:50] BING: It’s not just the psycho 20-somethings who have to go around the clock. Working smart only gets you so far. I have a friend who – I talk to people a lot starting their careers – I had a friend who talked about starting his career as a movie producer. And he said he only has one piece of advice, and that’s work as hard as you can, and then work harder. There’s just no substitute for the ability to work hard and be in a good mood. So when I see somebody in a workplace that can’t help but smile and compliment people, I just tell them, “Don’t ever lose that.” Startups and the creative process is so hard. You don’t want Nervous Nellies and Snarky Sams. Somebody who is uplifting – that’s worth 20 IQ points. And if you’ve got the 20 IQ points, you owe it to yourself to be really happy, because then you get 20 more.
[00:15:59] DEREK: It’s an interesting thought – as we were walking in, Jim Franklin, from, the CEO of (unintelligible), I’m going to call you out, Jim…He was telling me about…you know, Jim’s a marathon runner, he’s an Iron Man, he does.
[00:16:11] BING: He’s got energy but he sounds like an addict, too.
[00:16:15] DEREK: He was telling me his schedule, he said, “Well, I’m flying to India next week,” and this and that, and I said, “How do you do it?” You know, he clearly has it. He has the animal energy. He’s in shape, he’s taking care of himself, and he’s up in the morning and done at night. Who do you see that has that? Who today – I mean, Balmer, but – who else do you see…
[00:16:30] BING: I work with John Doer, over at (unintelligible) Line who kind of runs up and down the Grand Canyon. Sounds kind of crazy. I work with Mark Pinkas who surfs every weekend. Most people that I work with around here who are leaders have extraordinary energy. You’re growing up – well, I grew up, my father was the only person in the neighborhood who didn’t work in the car business. The U.S. automobile business, I would not typify their executives as having this high-powered physical energy. It’s just valuable. If you have it, cherish it. One of the things I’ve discovered about people is as they get more experienced in life they’re unashamedly willing to talk about themselves as assets. If you’re a number-one draft choice or a thoroughbred, you’ve gotta have good oats and get run! You do yourself a disservice if you don’t treat yourself as an asset better than you treat your car.
[00:18:09] DEREK: Talk to me about how you got into EA. How’s you meet Trip Hawkins, how did you get involved with EA in 1992?
[00:18:20] BING: I’ve written the first page of my book. It starts like this: It’s called “Confessions of a Video Game Man,” an homage to David Ogelby the advertising dude, who’s my business hero. So I’m on a commercial fishing boat – this was the summer that we landed 250,000 pounds of miniature shrimp over the summer and paid for my Stanford Business School. And I and another guy whose name I no longer remember, we were blown in. We were deck hands on a 72-foot boat, the Pegasus. We were blown in on the west side of a harbor on Vancouver Island. With no roads coming to it and a salmon fishery only reached by seaplane. And our job was to stand out in the gale and in our foul weather gear and repair the net.
[00:19:17] DEREK: Can I ask: Is this your book? Or is this a real experience that you had?
[00:19:20] BING: Well, this is a real experience – this is the first page.
[00:19:26] DEREK: Oh, it’s the first page. It sounds like a fascinating book.
[00:19:29] BING: It’s an awesome first page! I wish I could figure out how to operationalize a book the way I operationalize game development. I could, I just don’t like it as much. But maybe I couldn’t. But anyway, we’re out there with the net, and now it’s like 5. The nights are long up there. We still have time though, we can get out of the rain. We go in and I pick out a book to read, and he picks out his Heathkit catalog. And on the cover of it was Heathkit’s first build your own computer. And he said, “I’m going to build one of those.” And I looked at him and thought, I bet with that, you could do that movie with Yul Brenner with the audio animatronics…the Westworld. I bet this would be a way to have the experience of being an actor without having to put up with those other assholes. You know, actors are kind of egomaniacal and extroverted and they really like being on stage. So I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
Then, I’m at Stanford Business School, and I went there because I was good with math, and otherwise I was going to be dead-ended. And Peter Keane, a decision science professor, asked, “Okay, you Stanford MBAs, let’s have a real decision: If money were no object, what would you do?” And I said, you know that movie Westworld? I would like to create, inside computers, an adult Disneyland where you play out real stories. And the room went silent, and the MBAs kinda were embarrassed. The prof comes up to me later and says, “There’s somebody with an answer that sounded like that in one of my other classes, and you should see him.” That was Trip Hawkins. I played on the university champion touch football team but I’d never talked with him because he placed out of all the classes I’m in. He was not the 100 SAT point-deficient MBA. So we went and talked at Stanford – we did a project together for Fairchild, who had the first…this is nobody, this is trivia…the first cartridge video game system was made by Fairchild, called the Fairchild Channel F. They brought in some people from Kodak to run it. Between the Atari and the Atari VCS and before the Magnavox Odyssey. It was Fairchild Semiconductor. They recruited consumer people from Kodak. What are the chances? The most political semiconductor company in the history of the world with the camera company about to go out of business.
So we talked them into letting us – they gave us, they said, “Do you have any customer information?” They gave us – some of you’ll remember the days when customers actually sent in postcards. And they said, “Do you have any customer information?” And we said, “Oh, yeah, we have a bunch of customer information.” And they said, “Oh, that’s awesome. Here.” And they handed us a couple of shoeboxes. So we wrote questions, we basically asked “How do you like the games? What do you wish there was? What do you wish was different?” And the day we went back in to present our award-winning market research class findings, Wolf Corrigan, who ran Fairchild had just come in and laid off every other person in this office, so they weren’t highly receptive. That’s how I met Trip. We lived together, played a lot of games together on our free Channel F, and I made so much money fishing that I bought a hot tub, so we had a hot tub and a Channel F. Let me tell you, we were party central for Stanford Business School!
[00:23:19] DEREK: What did your friends and family think when they heard you were starting a video game company? I mean, did they, was it…?
[00:23:27] BING: You know, it wasn’t any worse than what I was already doing. I left Stanford Business School…I worked half-time at Intel while I was in business school…and the other half of my time I drove to Moor End to date the woman who’s been my wife ever since. My avowed goal was, in five years to start a consumer tech ad agency to replace Regis McKenna. Regis McKenna was – he’s kind of the (unintelligible) at the time with Intel and Apple, and I thought he was a great PR guy. But I thought, okay, whatever, get a couple years of experience and eat their lunch, because they do everything wrong. And then Trip said, “I’m going to start a software company in five years.” Well, I actually did start an ad agency six years later – it’s called Goodby-Silverstein, it’s in San Francisco – and I pulled them out of their work and joined them for one day, and then I realized that grown-up businesspeople in advertising give up their self-respect about age 40, and I intended to live past then. But the game business in the ‘80s was pretty low-creative. I realized early on that I like being with world-class creative people, and they were not in the video game business in the ‘80s.
[00:24:55] DEREK: So your first role there – were you doing marketing stuff?
[00:24:58] BING: I was the marketing dude. I worked with Goodby-Silverstein to get ads. We created packaging, I did retail marketing.
[00:25:06] DEREK: The company’s how big at this point?
[00:25:09] BING: This was in Sequoia Capital’s EIR Offices. And I think they gave us – free – some white paper, you know, that you put up on the walls. Probably the only thing Don Valentine has ever given away in his life. And we started a business plan there. Don Valentine – he’s the founder of Sequoia whose interpersonal behavior was once described as “bazooka to the chest” – if you ever want (and you should want) the voice of the market from an advisor, he was a great one. You just don’t want it couched in cruelty. But Valentine went to Trip Hawkins and said “There’s 136 computer game companies in the U.S. already. You say you want to start one. Better get on your horse.” You know, you like that from old duffers. A little sense of timing and context.
[00:26:12] DEREK: At what point did you realize – what happened when you moved out of Sequoia’s offices? When was that?
[00:26:18] BING: Oh, we went – you know, you do what everybody does. You get a crummy office for no money with good parking. Our office was over on that little strip of land across from Qui Jun’s south of the airport. And it was kind of one little room, and the first Christmas my wife brought a Christmas party cake, and it was in the shape of an Apple 3. I guess the cake makers couldn’t tell the difference between a Mac and an Apple 3. Then we rented a second room and we ran AppleTalk cables down the hall and everybody…the rooms were what, 800 feet or something. There was not this proliferation of entrepreneur-friendly real estate devices back then. There were a lot of tilt-up warehouses down in Santa Clara.
[00:27:17] DEREK: At what point did you guys realize, “Hey, we’re into something good?” Was there a point where you…What year was it?
[00:27:30] BING: I think blind faith is always useful. What I’d say is, none of us knew anything. We had a couple of proof points that this would work. And so we all did what we knew best. I knew management by objectives and I knew branding, so that’s what I did. My advice is, when you start out you need a combination of…you need blind faith, and you also want to recruit a couple people who already know their jobs so well that they can reach out around them and help a little bit. I like to say “Perfect the perfectable.” So I hired a great exec assistant, I hired somebody great with numbers, somebody great with facilities. But in our original business plan, we talked about, someday there’s going to be million-unit sellers for the computer, and the first time we had one, it…you know, success always feels different than you think it is when you’re analyzing it.
Kind of like, for anybody who’s had a child: When you hold your first child, it’s very different than anybody was able to describe. We did a million-unit seller, and the first time I realized it was different I was getting in a cab in New York. This is a little later, but it was a cab in New York with an EA sports logo, and the guy turns to me and goes, “EA Sports. It’s in the game!” And here I am sheepishly counting the quarters to make sure I’ve got enough to tip the dude – I don’t know if 15% is enough in New York – and he turns to me and loves the logo; kind of gives me an emotional bear hug. So that was when a million seemed like ubiquity. Even five years ago when I started a venture – venture capitalists, if you had 500,000 people coming to a web site, that seemed like a tipping point. The bad news is, the new tipping point’s ten million. Back then, a million was an unheard-of number. There was so much friction in distribution.
[00:29:46] DEREK: So I worked at EA for four years. I started my very long career at EA as an intern out of college. And one of the things that was always so interesting to me about EA was that you guys started with this mantra of, “Can a computer make you cry?” Right? And there’s this kind of epic…
[00:30:07] BING: That was created by Goodby-Silverstein.
[00:30:09] DEREK: Okay. I didn’t know that. Huh. But this is like in the early ‘80s and you’re saying – you know, you think of what games, and what even computers were at the time, and to have this huge vision of, you know, someday you’ll be playing a game and it will interact with you so emotionally that it could potentially make you cry. That was the goal, the vision. How did you guys see – how did you have such big vision to kind of see that? Because it’s kind of inconceivable. It’s 30 years before its time.
[00:30:42] BING: Let’s see. How did any of it…I talked to you about the kind of blind confidence. We believed in interactivity, and we believed in learning by doing, as opposed to learning by listening and sitting there. And we thought there would be this crossover from the magic of movies to games. And the games had interactivity. We didn’t know exactly how. We thought it was going to be based more on visual fidelity and audio fidelity and maybe stories. But where that started from was, if games are going to be a new art form – we aspired to art – if games are going to be a new art form, one measure of art is that kind of emotional connectedness. So we didn’t actually start out saying, “We see a game, we see people sitting weeping.” That turned out to be the death of Floyd the Robot in Infocom’s Planet Fall. But we started out saying we aspire to art. And one of the things that David Ogelby taught in advertising is if you want to connote quality, you focus on details. So does Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
People judge quality by focus on details and expression of intent. So we didn’t want to say, games will be art. That’s like Ford saying “Quality’s Job #1.” You know, as soon as they say it, it’s not. The way to connote quality is to focus on the details, use half-tones, complex colors, and don’t do what packaging markers would, say, make the logo big and sort of bash them over the head with media. And one of the things about working with great creative people is when you define a strategy they can always come back with something that’s un-strategy but better than you imagined. That headline was written by Jeff Goodby – an unimaginable committee that we were on: Art and mission – that someday games will stand beside movies, books and recorded music both in size and impact. But you know, no matter how much you talk to Page and Brenner, or Zuckerberg, or you talk to (unintelligible), it’s always richer and different than they think. You can start with a big vision that electrifies people and let other people around you help invent it, then check in. If you’ve got a vision, you have to check in: Are you delivering it in new ways? Are you still focused on it? Are you still taking risks to try to get there?
[00:34:01] DEREK: Could you tell the story about – you talked about EA Sports, the brand, and the role you played in that. Talk about the EASN. Can you tell us about that?
[00:34:12] BING: Yeah, this was…well, let’s see. So in the (unintelligible) original business plan…I do think – my own experience is, business plans matter, especially if you can take them and put them on the wall, and kind of give them ongoing value. In our original business plan we talked about the importance of branding. Most people haven’t lived on the inside of a brand. When you live on the inside of a brand, you understand it has this that’s kind of hard to describe, but it changes people’s behavior. Almost like a really good bowtie. So we said we’d try to have brands. Well, we kept trying. We tried a brand called Amazing Software. We tried a brand when we shipped the game called Bardsdale. I’m a big fan – for quality brands, you want people to discover. It wants to be a pull rather than a push.
We tried a little brand in the corner called “Tales of the Unknown” to see if anybody picked up on it, and nobody did. Then we did a thing called sports legends, because we always knew wanted to do sports. Sports Legends sounded cool to us. And we were trying to let grown-ups know that games could be for people that already had their driver’s license. So we wanted it to sound more distinguished, so we kept picking these long names. My learning about names: Electronic Arts is too long of a name. Sports Legends is too long of a name. If you have more than two syllables in one word…the longer it gets, the more you’re saying, “We’re an art film or we’re a Mensa test.” As you can tell, most humans don’t go to art films and don’t like Mensa tests. So short names that don’t have bad connotations that you can say with confidence and spell in multiple languages is a good thing. Sports Legends, we realized after we did Earl Weaver, Ferrari and John Madden, we realized that our sports legends were all people that weren’t relevant. When we went to put Madden football on Sega Genesis, we talked to teenagers for the first time.
I was marketing dude, but I was also product dude at the time. I asked them in questionnaires and focus groups (which are now archaic and you should probably never use them – use Mechanical Turk instead or a flow test on a web site.) Okay, three football games: Which do you prefer? Electronic Arts Football? Touchdown Football? John Madden Football? And Electronic Arts Football: Average. Touchdown Football: 30% higher. Madden Football: 30% lower. The language under, it said: Comments. And the comments were, “You mean that old guy in the Ace Hardware commercials?” He had no – he hadn’t been coaching anymore. And I said, “We’re going to go with John Madden Football,” because we’d done Dr. J and Larry Bird 1-on-1, Julius Irving never endorsed – never did any commercial endorsements. But he did this game with us. He came and shot hoops with us at the Y in Burlingame. And we sat with him and the developers did like seven iterations of the whole graphics system to live up to Julius Irving. And I thought that our dev team would have the same fire in its eyes with Madden. So Madden tested bad. But kind of, a couple humans decided, “Maybe John should make $50 million.” It gave a backbone. You’re always trying to figure out with creative people: How do you keep their confidence and keep them on point? We had people who believed in Madden. He had a tuning fork. He also – most people don’t know besides his books – he created a junior college curriculum. He had a guy who was a ratings expert, and he had two sons that went on to be coaches. Madden hated everything electronic.
But he had a body of work that we had found with Earl Weaver was really useful. If you want to extract AI from real people, it’s nice if they’ve already tried to create a work for you to start from. So now we’re doing this, and there’s a guy named Michael Casaca who was a graphic artist. And his job was to make what’s called a “splash screen.” Think of a title screen. Now we call it a loading screen, you know, a page load. A landing screen if you’re in e-commerce. His job was to make one for a basketball game. And he was trying all kinds of stuff, so he decided – and I believe in design, you should do a squint test. You do like this and if you want it to look different, it has to look different. When you squint, if it looks like Google Maps, customers are going to think you’re doing a map mash-up. They aren’t going to think you’re doing a communication platform with PATH. So always use a squint test. So he decided to do something different, and he did a diagonal thing and he had to fill it up, and he put in EASN. It was the font from ESPN. We’d always been talking around the office about brands. We were sports fans, and we’d had a launch commercial called “It’s in the Game.” “It’s in the Game.” And he did this.
And Rod Swanson, who’s here, knows a lot about this because he took it to the next level. We went around and said “This is awesome. Let’s do this for all of our sports games.” And for any of you who try to get employees here in the Silicon Valley, you know there’s more jobs than people in the Silicon Valley, so they don’t have to do what you say. Just as in marriage: It helps you grow. And people said, you know, “No. We don’t want to do this. We want to do our own stupid splash screen.” So there was a guy named Don Transeth who was the marketing manager, and Transeth said, “this is perfect, we have to do this!” Nobody would do it. Everyone else was giving up – “Boy that was going to be a cool idea!” And so he went out to the equivalent of the day of Zazzle – this is, I’m on the board of Zazzle, I believe in the customized life, even back then – he went out and came back a week later with a stack of T-shirts that said EASN and some beanies that said EASN and he called meetings. He called meetings with all the product line leaders of the sports games with kind of a presentation about “Why You Should Believe in EASN.” He had the schwag sitting on the table.
[00:41:44] DEREK: It looked just like ESPN.
[00:41:47] BING: Well by now it did not look like ESPN because you can copy when you’re creating, but then you have to be more original. One at a time, these guys came in and looked straight at the schwag and paid no attention to this, and they said, “Okay.” So basically, EASN got created because Don Transeth spent $100 on T-shirts. And then four years later, Rod Swanson was the person who said, “Make everybody’s interface the same.” And he went around to everyone and they said, “You gotta be crazy. Our interface is better than theirs.” So he didn’t do it with T-shirts, he did it with charm. Charm is cheaper than T-shirts, but T-shirts are pretty damn cheap! So now we’re out there, we launch – and the launch of the Sega Genesis – and the EASN line, the first interactive sports network.
And everybody liked it except ESPN. ESPN said, “We’re going to enter the games business.” And also Fox Sports at the same time, they said, “You guys better get out of the way. If you don’t give us half ownership of EA Sports, we’re going to take your business.” Another thing we launched – in the initial business plan we said, “six of the top seven interactive entertainment companies will be based on the integrated movie studios, but we’re going to be the one independent.” We overestimated Hollywood. It took us a decade to realize that Hollywood doesn’t want anything but suits – really good suits. So if any of you have Hollywood friends that want to negotiate for part of your business…So ESPN calls up and says, “You owe us.” And what they settled for is they gave us a few million dollars’ worth of free media time. So now we’re sitting there going, “Now what do we call this thing?” It’s hard to come up with new names. When in doubt, go with something protectable. So I was a fan of Microsoft’s branding strategy which is “Microsoft generic.” And green. So we did “EA Sports.” We didn’t call it “Electronic Arts Sports.” We learned our lesson and didn’t want it to sound like a Mensa test.
[00:44:03] DEREK: I’m going to ask you one more question about EA and then we’ll move on to some other things, but my first quarter as an intern was in January 2005, so I came in, stock price at an all-time high, about $70. When I left, it was at about $20. I feel somewhat responsible for that. Should I feel that I was the cause? I mean, what happened to EA? It’s not like EA is gone or anything, but what happened to EA over time that…Trip Hawkins left in the early ‘90s. You left in 2008. Tell us, what happened?
[00:44:44] BING: It’s always a danger to go from missionary to mercenary. I was on the board of a school in Hillsboro called Nueva School. It was very missionary. Nobody wanted to go there unless they had to. And over time it became a trophy school. And the people who showed up, who wanted their kids to go there because it was a trophy school put a lot of pressure on the sense of mission. At the same time as the school underwent a succession. So when you have to do a succession plan from founders to professionals, it’s really hard. EA did it pretty well. They did it better than Apple. I think the other thing is, for all of you that get successful, you know, success is the enemy of invention and risk-taking. I remind people constantly that 35 year-olds are the enemy of organizational risk-taking. They’re at the perfect point in life to not take risks. They’ve finally arrived and they’ve got car payments and house payments and a significant other who expects to be taken to dinner.
It’s really hard to get 35 year-olds to take risks that are appropriate for the enterprise. Really hard to make decisions based on expected value rather than lowest common denominator. There’s math about it I can explain, but the bottom line is: Most humans value one unit of success as one-third the value of one unit of failure. So one of your jobs as a leader – and I think the people who are most prone to feel that way are either grown-ups in their last year of life or 35 year-olds. So your job as a leader is to get people to work on expected value, not on minimum hurdle. So I think organizations tend to get sclerotic, but at EA – EA’s original mission statement was make software that makes a home computer worth owning. And EA deeply – EA did not believe in Nintendo. I didn’t believe in Nintendo. We didn’t believe that technology could go backwards and be successful. I think that even with good marketing, EA started making games for people like themselves and gave up on everybody. You know, it’s always – at some point you can’t give up on everybody. I also think any time you have an organization where you don’t have twentysomethings rocketing to company leadership by the time they’re 29 or 30, I think you also run the risk of getting sclerotic. In fact, what exactly happened with EA is when you showed up, EA had discovered – and Rod was part of this – EA had discovered a job category called “Visual Effects Supervisor.” T’s basically the digital graphics guys in the movie business and the advertising business. And they’re unionized hourly workers, and EA discovered them and got two or three years of outside success basically with hourly workers.
What we didn’t realize is that we doubled the cost of development and injected the organization with people with kind of an hourly-worker mentality who didn’t really like games. It was just kind of a meal ticket. So about ’06-ish, other people started hiring the same type of people. So the market share gains went away, and at the same time – it’s always a problem when you have leaders that get too rich, so when your leaders’ passions start being nonprofits instead of the company, or corporate headquarters, either one, and you know, they stop coming in on Saturdays, or they never did. If you have a leadership team, most of whom don’t know that your developers are working on Saturday, you’re screwed. I don’t know. Like Patton, you have to be at the front lines. So when you get so rich you don’t want to be at the front lines, you get brittle. When you get an organization that can’t take someone like you and make them a vice president of something by the time they’re 29, you know, or if not you, someone who looks just like you but was a better performer, you know, you’re toast.
[00:50:21] DEREK: Well, I was free.
[00:50:23] BING: Electronic Arts, up until about – I kept track – no former employee of Electronic Arts did anything better outside of Electronic Arts in its first 8 or 9 years. At the time Electronic Arts I didn’t think (unintelligible) I counted the top three objectives every year for Electronic Arts in the ten years before it became Stanford Business School’s Entrepreneur Company of the Year, and we never hit all three, but we always hit at least one. We always hit one or two. Every year we hit half our objectives. And once you get to a point where you get punished for not hitting all three, yeah, that’s another problem sign. The number one is, if the leadership is allergic to the trenches, you get brittle. Sometimes companies can run with no leaders for a long time, but you get brittle.
[00:51:21] DEREK: Mark Pinkas has called you one of the world’s best CEO coaches. And you do this for Zynga, you do this for Amazon…you’ve got a room full of very early-stage CEO or founders, what do you tell these people?
[00:51:40] BING: Let’s see, so…so first, most of business can get explained by high school. If you were a fan of how things worked in high school, whether you were in the middle of how things worked or not, the same kind of, you know, nervousness and vying for attention and having trouble getting your needs met, and being overworked and over social – it’s still what’s driving the people you’re doing business with. So anytime you run into a complicated situation, imagine it’s Glee and it will all be explainable. The next thing is – the most important thing for people in their 20s – my experience is everyone in their twenties wastes a year. You do it from bad choices. Kind of working in local maxima. Everyone in their twenties should have a mentor who – all they’ll want from you is thanks and feedback for when it’s working, and they have to believe they have your best interests at heart. It’s hard to get that from an investor. It’s hard to believe or even test that an investor will put your needs ahead of theirs. Most won’t. Money is very corrupting. So get a mentor.
Next thing is, I believe that there are a lot of pathways to success. And the people who succeed have a higher likelihood if they’re doing something they’re passionate about. In almost all walks of life, opportunities are created. People who are doing something they like will just pay more attention. So if you do something – this is kind of a negative for enterprise software – but if you’re doing something that matches a hobby, you’re going to have redoubled time and attention. Make sure you check while you’re actually doing stuff. I think there’s – I have a lot of – I think I posted some other lessons. Here’s one that I haven’t written about that everybody should (unintelligible), I call it – is profanity okay here?
[00:54:18] DEREK: What’s that?
[00:54:19] BING: I call it the “Wow-Fuck” scale. It’s a 4-point scale. I discovered this in game designs; it also works in exec assistants. I’m a big believer in feedback – it’s one of the things that’s good about games, because wouldn’t we all have appreciated it if our spouses or our professors gave us instant feedback that was clear and actionable? The “Wow” – here’s what it’s like, and you can check this out with a camera. A camera’s a better way to check what people are thinking than asking them – people always lie about what they’re thinking.
A “Wow” is “WHOA!” “Did you see that griffin in World of Warcraft?” Or did you see Sandy Fitzgerald at Electronic…Did you see my assistant just wrote a business plan for a $600,000 information center? WOW!” And all great games have one of those in the first session, and all great employees have at least one of those a year. If you’re building a company – and great teams set up a rhythm of surprise: As you finish, great teams should be getting a surprise a week, and if you have a ten-person team, you now your job is one every ten weeks. So as a leader you want to set up a surprise pace. Great teams finish fast. They start fast, but they really finish fast. So that’s the “Wow.” Then there’s the good, and that’s the lean forward. Any of that have ever presented to venture capitalists, you know, it’s the lean forward. They go, “Huh.” Same thing with gamers. You’re playing a game and you go, “Huh. I like that. Huh.” We did a game called Pinball Construction Set where we actually showed virtual hands going through the screen to get the pinball. And Activision, the brand name, really was, “reach into the TV and do something.” And it was like, “Huh, I like that.” That’s a plus. In the first session of your web site, you should get three of those.
Then, the “Oh Shit” is lean back. You’ve seen this from investors, when you’re going, you know, “I’m doing this, and it’s a seed, and I’ve never done anything before, and I want a $30 million pre-money valuation” they kind of go, “Hmmm.” Or you go, “You know, I’m a professional chef and I’m doing an enterprise software company and they kind of go, “Hmmm.” In a website – the most important thing to notice in web design: When the consumer lands and they feel stupid, they do this: “Hmmm. I don’t understand what’s going on here. There should be a button here and I clicked it and nothing happened.” If their first experience they get more than one Oh Shits to three Goods you’ve lost them. I think it’s a risk. You can grind out the Oh Shits. And then the “Oh Fucks” are like FUCK! Put you hand through a screen or – it’s usually a disconnect. What it means in the Web is DC and uninstall. With secretaries, one of those a decade is the max. An Oh Fuck is a fireable offense if you define it. You should be able to define an event. I tell them, travel problems for me are an Oh, Shit. Any kind of hang-ups where my family is at personal risk because of an error of commission, that’s an Oh, Fuck. I can take care of myself, but we all know if we have loved ones, their pain we feel worse than our own. Especially if you’re German. I’ve found again and again with high-achieving people, if you give them the rubric in advance, they’re more likely to outperform.
A surprise when I did classes at Stanford – after the first class (I’m doing something with David Kelly) – Video Game Design – and at the end of the class there are 12 people out of the 15 people standing in line waiting to talk and I’m going, “Huh. Maybe this class will work out.” And they come up and say, “Oh, Mr. Gordon that was so great. I’m so inspired. Now, what are you going to consider ‘A’ work in this class?” I kinda go, “Well, I don’t know, probably pretty amazing stuff, and you learn a lot…” and they go, “Oh, okay, thanks.” The next person comes up and goes, “I really like that thing you said about, you know, what you learned from Super Mario. What would it take to get an ‘A’ in your class?” I kinda go, “Oy!” This is Stanford for you! You can’t get into Stanford if you haven’t made it a religion to always get “As.”
So I learned: Create a rubric. And my rubric as a professional educator is, “You cannot get an ‘A’ from the professor. From me you can get a B+. If you’re such a weenie that you’re dependent on me for your total feedback, B+. I will bring outsiders in who are objective and have no reason to be nice to you.” You know, it’s kind of the way the world works. You get an “A” from the real world. Or at Stanford it’s, you know, “You got in, you get an ‘A’.” That’s an understandable rubric. So as managers, it’s hard to set performance rubrics, because – especially if you do it task-based – task-based performance rubrics usually don’t hold up over time. Especially if you’re going to change the environment. So what I tell general managers is, it’s your job to do these things that I think will change the value of the whole organization in about this timeframe. And employees, your job is to obtain the skills and demonstrated capabilities in this timeframe so you can get promoted if the job still exists, but you’re going to be this much more valuable and you’re on this kind of career path…I’m not a fan of management by doling out tasks for college grads.
[01:00:41] DEREK: I’m going to ask you one more question. Somebody wants to ask Bing a question. Why don’t you come right over here and I’ll bring the mic over to you.,,
[01:00:47] BING: Yeah, if you’ve got one and a half things already, then congratulations. If you haven’t, I’d encourage you to – you can tell that I’ll say anything. So if you’ve got something, you know, “How do you get funding?” “Why are there only two commas in Kleiner Perkins’ name?” “Why is it so long?”
[01:01:11] DEREK: Why are there only two commas in Kleiner Perkins’ name?
[01:01:14] BING: It turns out the ampersand was just valued more highly back in the day.
[01:01:23] DEREK: Meredith, are you here? Where’s Meredith?
[01:01:23] BING: Um, let’s see…I find usually when talking to people trying to start companies, that I tend to focus on things to do at 50 employees rather than 5. But there’s not a whole lot of wisdom for the 5-10. Let me try to list a few wisdoms for a group of 5-10 people. One is: Beat the calendar. Great enterprises get two weeks’ of work done every calendar week. As a leader, the most important thing to do is prototype at low resolution fast, and don’t leave finished stuff on the cutting room floor. Save your people time. Hire really great people. And then, have tools. Invest in tools up front so you can finish fast. And there’s a bunch of ways to get people started fast.
My discovery with most project teams is they start as slow as they can because they’re afraid of wasting time and, also, they’re tired. I’ve found as a college professor: All college kids can do things in a week. You give them two weeks, they’ll spend a week working on it. And boys, only 24 hours. But a week – then those same people who are the best and the brightest go into a job and they do the same amount of work and it takes two weeks. One week to do the work, two days up front to make sure you got it right, and a few days to get it approved before you embarrass yourself. You get to be vice president and it takes three months. It’s the same amount of work, but it’s a lot more checking to make sure people avoid embarrassment. So keep people on the one-week check-in. Especially if you’ve got an organization that wants to have the energy of the young. One-week check-ins with clear, measurable goals, and the clear, measurable goals could even be, “Okay, there’s ten of us. What do we think of this idea, scale of 1 to 10?” And I’ve got a rule about scale of 1 to 10. I go around to people and ask, “Your most productive day in your life was a 10, your least productive day was a 1, where are you today?”
And I’ve found that if people give a 6 or below, they are unhappy. And they’re usually poorly managed. A good number is 7 to 8. That’s kind of marathon. My experience is, people in their 20s, if they say it’s a 9 or 10 day, they’re usually pissing people off around them writing bad code and breaking things. A 7 or 8, you can go forever. So if you get everybody to a 7 or 8 with an occasional sprint, it’s kind of like if you’re a cycling fan: You’ve got to be able to cover attacks. So if you’re going at a 7 or 8 you can cover attacks. So you know, do that. After you get to the “Wow-Fuck” scale ask everybody how you’re doing. If everybody’s flat-out at 10s, I’d declare a Sunday off, because they’re probably breaking things.
[01:04:48] DEREK: Let’s give Bing Gordon a big round of applause.