Riccardo Zacconi is co-founder and CEO of King, a global digital entertainment business with over 300 million monthly active users of games such as Candy Crush. We caught up with him to talk about his career, business philosophy and leadership style.
“It’s important to be a vulnerable leader – someone who people feel they can talk openly to, and someone who is open to criticism.”
How would you describe your leadership style?
To be a good leader, you have to listen, be ambitious, and challenge beyond the obvious. You also have to be able to think two steps ahead. We have a team-orientated culture at King. Being a leader is about encouraging discussion, as much as it is about making decisions. We’re all rational people; if there are different views then there must be different assumptions about what we’re trying to achieve. This is where discussion needs to happen … not just a decision. Also, I always try to make sure I hire people better than me, and then give them autonomy. The best measure of a leader is how good the team is they’ve put together.
How has your leadership role evolved through the history of King – from being a private company through the IPO, to becoming an independent subsidiary of Activision Blizzard?
When we first started, we did everything ourselves. Most of my time was focused on ensuring all the work in my area was done. Once we expanded a bit, the next stage was to actively manage people. But even then, I would still be involved in the detail, and made most of the decisions. Finally, you reach the stage when you’re large enough to bring in “managers”.
You need to hire the best, and then give them the space to manage people and make decisions. Your role is now to provide challenge, to ensure we’re being ambitious enough and thinking far enough into the future.
Looking back over your career – who has had the major influence?
My team. They give continuous feedback. One piece of feedback I’ve been reflecting on recently, is that as leaders, we feel we should always sweep in and add some value. But sometimes that value-add might only be 5%, and in the process of giving it, we’ve taken away 80% of motivation. At times, I’ve learned that it’s best not to intervene.
It has been an incredible journey for King over the last ten years or so. What have been your most painful lessons?
The most difficult lesson we went through was during 2009, when our industry was disrupted very quickly by Facebook. We had partnered with Yahoo, which was the largest portal on the web, and in that one year from May 2009 to May 2010 Yahoo Games lost 45% of their users. We knew we had to crack Facebook, but it wasn’t easy – it took us until April 2011 before we launched our first game on Facebook.
Managing a company in growth is easy, but managing a company that needs to transition is much more difficult. You have to manage your investors, your board and, of course, your team. The most important thing I learned during this time was to be 100% open; it’s important to tell the people around you, your investors … how things really are. I remember saying “we need to crack Facebook. If we don’t, we’ll cease to exist!”.
So how did you achieve this in practical terms?
We split our organisation into two parts; one part focused on the existing business, to make sure we had a lifeline. This meant maintaining as many users as possible … so that we could, ultimately, pay the bills. The other half of the company was focused entirely on cracking Facebook.
The whole team demonstrated fantastic teamwork and humility. A lot of people wanted to focus on making new games but couldn’t as we had to focus on maintaining our position. We achieved the right balance.
It’s clear that the culture of King is incredibly important. How have you managed to maintain your culture when you’ve grown as fast as you have?
Culture is created from the top. People entering the company look to people already there to see how they should behave. It’s important to be a vulnerable leader – someone who people feel they can talk openly to, and someone who is open to criticism. People also need to feel comfortable with disagreeing with the leader, and suggesting alternative ideas.
Everyone in the team needs to feel shared ownership, both so that they feel valued, but also so that they are pulling in the same direction. You can have a boat with the best engine in the world – yet none of that matters if there’s a hole in the bottom – it’s still going to sink.
How does London stack up globally as a city to attract entrepreneurial and digital companies?
London is one of the key locations for start-ups in the world, and that is part because of the history behind it. Historically, London has been the binding element between the US and Europe. When American companies decide where to build their base for Europe, they usually start it in London, and quite simply that is because of language. This has helped create a large ecosystem of tech companies, as well as investors, many of whom came over from the US. Furthermore, the UK has created a place where both human talent and start-ups nurtured. We have to be very careful to maintain and develop this.
Do you think that’s particularly true in light of Article 50 being triggered?
Yes, absolutely. Top of the list when deciding this deal to leave the EU must be ensuring talent from all around the world is encouraged to come here, and that talent already here gets confirmation that they can stay.
It’s obviously an incredibly competitive marketplace you’re in, so what are some of the levers you use to attract top tech talent to your business?
Well it’s obviously a lot easier now than 13 years ago when we were insignificant, and had no users. We now have a number of things that attract top people. Firstly, we have more users than the population of the USA, so when we create a great game, we can show it to the world. Secondly we are very profitable, so we can invest a lot on marketing, which allows even more people to learn about us. Thirdly we have amazing people – the best in their field. This is certainly my motivation to come to work every day, to work with these people. Fourthly, we have a very flat hierarchy, where we try our best to empower people and give them responsibility.
"You need to go where the best people are.
You learn so much more from people than you do from books"
Riccardo Z acconi
What would be your advice to the new crop of talent that are leaving university now – the so-called ‘Generation Z’?
The advice I would give isn’t specific to anyone generation. The first thing is to do something where you can learn as much as possible, and to do this "You learn so much more from people than you do books"
Secondly, it’s often difficult to know what you want, but it’s usually easier to know what you don’t want. When I started, I knew I wanted to build my own company, but I didn’t know what it would be or how I would get there. So, to start out with I decided not to do specific things, which meant that I tended to choose things which were of a more generalist nature, like working in consulting, which still allowed me to keep my options open.
It’s not such a bad career consulting, is it?
Not at all. For me I always knew I wanted to end up doing something else, and consulting allowed me to learn things and gain experience without closing doors.
The other thing you need, especially when becoming an entrepreneur, is patience. Any time you start a company, you place all your eggs in one basket. So you want to make sure you have the right people to do it with, the right experience, and the right idea.
"This is life. When you're up, you must be careful, and when your down, you must be hopeful"
So my last question is, do you have a personal motto that you live and work by?
Well, I don’t have personal motto for work, but I do have a personal belief for life in general and how to achieve happiness. I don’t believe that happiness is status, but rather a variation of a status. For example, a Russian oligarch who dines on caviar every day can be far less happy than a person on the street who hasn’t eaten for days, but suddenly has a burger. So wherever you are in life, you have to look for improvements, and no matter what level you’re starting at, improvement can still bring you happiness. The more you have, the harder it is to improve, so I see failure and down-turns as creating more opportunity for future improvements, and this is life. "When you’re up, you must be careful; and when you’re down, you must be hopeful".