Zynga Marketing Master Padma Rao Joins Foundation Capital As An Entrepreneur In Residence

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Padma Rao’s analytical marketing skills have made a big impact at more than one company in the Bay Area, and now she’s bringing a decade of experiences to her new role as an entrepreneur in residence at Foundation Capital.

Her most recent efforts helped turn a gaming startup into a booming public company.

Few people realized it at the time, but in late 2008 and early 2009 social game developer Zynga had figured out how to get a great return on investment from Facebook advertising. The social network had developed its ad system over the previous few years to the point that it was able to deliver ads closely targeted to users’ interests — but most people hadn’t realized that yet, so prices were cheap.

Rao joined Zynga at the beginning of 2009 to help lead the development of its marketing platform. An engineer by training, she took a look at the few third-party ad bidding tools available for Facebook and decided the company needed to build its own. She did the same for its user email system. The market timing turned out to be perfect. Zynga had also just figured out how to monetize casual-style simulation games, and in quick succession over the course of the year, it launched hits like FarmVille, Café World, PetVille and FishVille. As I detailed in this December article, the inexpensive growth it got via ads and social communication features during this period brought it up to traffic levels that it has worked hard to pass even today.

“I like having the technical chops to understand what needs to happen and why — and to understand why something might take a long time,” she tells me. “It makes a big difference, especially in online marketing, which is actually a very technical business. Having that background has saved me more than once… my approach is, if a tool doesn’t exist, we’ll build it.”

Zynga wasn’t the first place she’s done this. During a three year stint at Gap earlier last decade, she discovered that getting results from direct marketing were taking up to two and a half weeks. So she created a tool that would deliver results in 30 minutes. “This didn’t just mean faster results, it meant iterating faster, it changed the business” she explains. “It’s all about getting the right tools for people.”

She’s becoming an EIR for the same reason a lot of other product people do, including her new Foundation EIR colleague and former Twitter product head Anamitra Banerji. “I’ve had my head down working at companies,” she says, “and I’ve never taken the opportunity to see everything that’s out there.”

So what is she working on at Foundation? She’s actually already been doing some consulting work with social browser Rockmelt and other startups already. But she’s far from deciding whether to join or found. “I want to stay on the consumer side of things, and obviously mobile is fascinating — there’s lots of functionality that’s not probably not leveraged like it could be…. My dream is to start something, but I don’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it. If I find something great that someone else has started, I’m not going to ignore that because ‘I want to be a founder.’”