Exclusive interview with Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon

Mark Kingdon, Linden Lab's CEO, has been a bit of a mystery figure since his appointment about a year and a half ago. While he has not been uncommunicative, it's been hard to get a very good sense of the man at the helm of Linden Lab, his passions, interests and direction.

We were very pleased, therefore, when he took the time to sit down with us and answer a whole grab-bag of questions, about himself, about Linden Lab, and – of course – about Second Life. Bear with us, because we've got a lot of ground to cover.

Massively: Some folks think he is the proverbial 'empty suit', while others consider him a pretty amazing guy. Who's the real Mark Kingdon (or M Linden), and what has he brought to the Lab?

I have three passions that seemed to me to be a very good fit with Linden Lab when I joined. First off, I love art and design. From the time I was old enough to hold a paint brush, I wanted to be a painter and until I was in my 20s, that was my intent. As I was about to finish my Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts, I decided I didn't want to follow the rocky path of an artist. Other than art, I really liked geology (I love rocks) and economics. Economics seemed the more expansive of the two.

So I graduated with a BA in Economics then went on to get an MBA. My interest in technology came later, in the early 90s, when I was at PricewaterhouseCoopers (it was Coopers & Lybrand then) doing new media consulting -- before the advent of the commercial internet. Remember Prodigy and Compuserve? I was fascinated by the online world and the rich possibilities it offered people, organizations, businesses.

Later, at Organic, I got deeply immersed in user experience design which handily combined many of my interests. Throughout my career, I have been most attracted to challenging (really challenging!) business problems and have always chosen opportunities that involve a major transition of some type. That's me.

I laughed when a SL blogger called me "conventional." I am anything but that, although it is amusing to think somehow I have "assimilated." As for being an "empty suit," you'll have to be the judge. I hope I am effective in what I do and not remembered solely for what I wear. Feel free to critique the real me, but please don't insult my avatar!

I'm someone who is naturally curious and likes to learn.

I brought an open mind and a deep interest in learning what makes Second Life such a powerful phenomenon and Linden Lab such a compelling organization.

So what else have I brought? Compassion, an artistic sensibility, an obsession with experience design, a willingness to take sharp left turns, a deep interest in free-market economics and the interactions of companies and people in markets and management experience helping companies through substantial transitions. Oh, and my doodles. I am an avid doodler.

Massively: Did you ever see yourself even three or four years ago getting into anything like this?

Three years ago, I knew my work at Organic was nearly done. We'd taken a publicly-traded company private, restructured it during the dot-com bust, turned it around then rebuilt the company into a market leader in its space. Along the way, we developed a reputation for excellent user-centered design. The management team was solid and the business was humming along nicely with its own momentum. I felt it was time to "graduate." Because I am comfortable making sharp left turns, I knew my next step would be -- uh -- unconventional.

Two and a half years ago, I invited Philip to speak at a management team offsite on Second Life and his organizational philosophies. He was the highest rated speaker ever. From that moment on, Second Life was in the back of my mind. Fast forward a year...I was sitting in a hotel room in LA, having coffee and reading the paper on the first day of my vacation. I came across a blurb that Philip was looking for a CEO. I thought, wow, that would be a really cool job! I pondered it for five days before writing Philip a note because I knew that email might take my life in a different direction. Minutes before I boarded my flight home I finally hit "send."

Over a drink at the Slanted Door in San Francisco, I accepted the job by giving Philip a photograph of a carpet that depicted a road through a field with a fork that went to the left and right. One fork was labeled, "Same Old Shit" and the other was labeled, "Crazy New Shit." I told Philip I was up for some "crazy new shit." He framed the photo and hung it next to our pod in the Lab.

Massively: How does a typical day for you run, or is the notion of a typical day without meaning?

My day starts early because I like "Mark-time" before going into the office. I speed through the Times and Journal, skim my favorite blogs, check email and scan Tweetdeck to see if my hair should be on fire for the day, then go to the gym for a workout. Most days I hop into Second Life (Hamlet's blog usually highlights something to see), read notecards, tour around, shop, play on my islands, chat up some Residents and take some snapshots. Then I walk to the Battery office. Walking to work is like walking meditation for me.

Most days I do some or all of the following: interviewing and on-boarding new Lindens, talking to staff about our strategy and how the company is changing, catching up on the first-hour redesign project (web, viewer, orientation), talking about new efforts like our virtual goods commerce business, international (more than half of our Residents are outside the US) and Enterprise.

Many of my meetings are in Second Life because our executives and teams are all over. One thing I am doing a lot less now is asking the Systems Infrastructure team why the grid crashed and that's because outages are rare occurrences these days. Often there is a press interview or a presentation I need to work on.

Until he decided to "graduate," I spent a lot of time with Philip (he sat literally three feet away), understanding his vision for Second Life, debating the merits of different strategies and just exploring whatever topic came up. With Philip, conversation is never difficult, never conventional and never boring.

Massively: What do you feel your best initiatives have been?

Although we started a lot of very ambitious projects in 2009 that won't bear fruit until next year, there are several things I am very proud of:

  • Expanded executive team: With the help of one of the most beloved Lindens (inside the company) – our head of HR – we recruited an amazing team of individuals to take the company forward.

  • Grid stability: When I joined in May of 2008, the grid was crashing with alarming regularity. People were speculating whether Second Life was viable as a technology or could survive. The user base had grown at a staggering rate the prior year and the infrastructure simply couldn't keep up. My first hire was FJ Linden (head of Global Technology) and his mission was to lead the effort of stabilizing the grid and preparing for future growth. The team delivered. The percent of user hours lost to downtime is down 80% in the last year and in Q3, total downtime as a percentage of total user hours was 0.15% which was our best performance ever. Our work is not done here, but this achievement is key to positioning Second Life for future growth. Next up: Lag!

  • User growth: Before I joined, Second Life had stopped growing. With some basic changes to the registration process, we were able to convert and retain more new Residents so our user base was up 20%+ year over year by last June. I highlight that because we kick-started user growth by delivering one of the dozen or so things on our roadmap. There is much more to come!

  • Web: One thing I talk a lot about is bringing more of the web into Second Life and more of Second Life out to the web. Why? We want Second Life to be an extension and an enhancement of everyone's daily lives. The web will help us make that happen. You've seen our new website and our acquisition of XstreetSL and OnRez. You'll see more social tools added to our web properties over the next year. You also see tools enabling Residents to bring rich web media into Second Life.

  • International focus: More than half our Residents are outside the United States. When I joined, Second Life was pretty much an English-only experience. With some extraordinary crowd-sourcing, much of the Second Life experience has been localized for our major markets. A big thanks to the many Residents who did this hard work.

Massively: What do you see as your biggest challenge as CEO at the Lab?

Leading the company through the next phase of growth. Keeping Second Life as staggeringly wonderful as it is today while making it relevant and accessible to a wider audience. Keeping my perspective while listening intently but intelligently to the many voices in and around Second Life.

Page 2 of 3 >>