Over the holidays, I finished reading journalist Nicholas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! This interesting book offers an account of Yahoo’s steady slide towards irrelevance and Marissa Mayer’s early tenure as CEO.
“Complex Monstrosity Built Without a Plan”
Carlson devotes the first third of the book to explaining Yahoo’s beleaguered history and how years of mismanagement and strategy negligence got Yahoo into the mess that Mayer inherited as CEO in 2012.
The second third is about Mayer and her brilliant career as employee number twenty at Google. In 2010, her career allegedly stalled because Mayer got sidelined after conflicts with other luminaries within Google. Relying broadly on anonymous sources, Carlson portrays Mayer’s intense nature and her personality contradictions: in public settings, Mayer is brainy, glamorous, confident, articulate, and approachable. However, in one-on-one settings, Mayer is a self-promoting, dismissive, calculating, tardy, inquisitorial individual who avoids eye contact. “There was nothing especially abhorrent or uncommon about Mayer’s behavior as an executive,” Carlson writes. “She was headstrong, confident, dismissive, self-promoting and clueless about how she sometimes hurt other people’s feelings. So were many of the most successful executives in the technology industry.”
The last third is devoted to Mayer’s initial efforts to turn Yahoo around. Within the first year at the helm as CEO, Mayer motivated Yahoo’s beleaguered workforce, launched the redesign of some of Yahoo’s major sites, and made acquisitions to make Yahoo relevant in the mobile, media, and social realms. Carlson also describes Mayer’s bad hiring decisions, habitual tardiness, tendency to micromanage, tone-deaf style of communication, and dogged devotion to establishing the universally-despised practice of tracking goals and stack-ranking employees.
Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance
Anybody who follows the internet content industry understands that the principal question regarding the then-37-year-old Mayer’s recruitment as CEO was never whether she could save Yahoo. Rather, the question was whether Yahoo can be saved at all.
Yahoo has been a mess for a long time. For early consumers of the internet, Yahoo’s portal was the internet—from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, Yahoo was the number-one gateway for early users of the internet who wanted to search, email, or consume news and other information. Then, Yahoo floundered as the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft redefined the consumer internet and content consumption. Yahoo’s successive managements struggled to identify Yahoo’s raison d’etre and failed to set it apart from the up-and-coming websites. Yahoo’s management also fumbled on opportunities to harness the popularity of Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Sports, and Yahoo Finance to get advertising revenues growing again.
Mayer’s Arrival Was Too Late for Yahoo
Mayer came to Yahoo with extraordinary credentials, drive, technical savvy, celebrity, and charisma. Her tenure was centered on answering the single question, “What is Yahoo? What should become of Yahoo?”
The odds of Mayer succeeding to revive Yahoo as an independent internet content company were very bleak right from the beginning, because Mayer took on an increasingly irrelevant business with very little actual or potential operating value—either as an internet content company or as a media company. Carlson appropriately concludes,
Ultimately, Yahoo suffers from the fact that the reason it ever succeeded in the first place was because it solved a global problem that lasted for only a moment. The early Internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo was the Internet. Then the Internet was flooded with capital and infinite solutions for infinite problems, and the need for Yahoo faded. The company hasn’t found its purpose since—the thing it can do that no one else can.
Since the publication of the book in December 2014, Mayer has dedicated her leadership to selling Yahoo’s core internet businesses and its patent portfolio. Yahoo is expected to then convert itself into a shell company for its investments in Alibaba (15.5% economic interest) and Yahoo Japan (35.5%.)
Recommendation: As a fast read, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! is great. Beyond Nicholas Carlson’s gossipy narrative and his pejorative depiction of Mayer’s management style, readers of this page-turner will be interested in Yahoo leadership’s strategic and tactical missteps. Particularly fascinating are how Yahoo missed opportunities to buy Google and Facebook when they were mere startups, the rebuffing of an acquisition bid from Microsoft, a lack of strategic focus, the leadership skirmishes with activist investors, the revolving door at the CEO’s office, and an Asian-asset drama.