[review] Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!

I am always fascinated at the history of companies, particularly those that we interact with on a daily basis.  Yahoo is one of the original pioneering internet companies that seems to be a poison chalice for any CEO that attempts to reform it back to its glory days.

This book, contrary to the title, is not all about Mayer and her fight to save Yahoo.  It is instead a history of Yahoo, the many board room drama’s it has faced, the near misses and numerous hits.   There is a number of chapters focusing on Mayer at Google and how she rose up through the ranks there.

I had the good fortune of meeting and chatting with Marissa Mayer a long time ago, after a talk she delivered on the design of the Google search page.  I was impressed by her nervousness that overshadowed her brilliance trying to break through publicly.   That was nearly 10 years ago and after reading this book, it looks like she still suffers from this nervousness.

The book is fast paced and well written, taking the reader through each episode of Yahoo’s beleaguered history.  I read this book, 341 pages, in one night, failing to put it down as each chapter kept my interest and excitement at how things were panning out.   I knew of Yahoo’s many failures (attempt to buy Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc) but what I didn’t know was the real story behind those.  Fascinating.

An example when Microsoft attempted to buy Yahoo, for 3 times the price of the stock at the time.  Too much pontification and posturing ensured the deal was destined for failure, including the creation of a “suicide pill” which would make it very expensive for any would be suitor to make big changes.

It voted to adopt a new severance plan for Yahoo employees where, if the company were to be acquired, any Yahoo employee who quit “for good reason” would get a large cash payout and a bunch of stock they would have otherwise had to stay in their jobs for years to get.

A “good reason” would be “any substantial adverse alteration” in the employee’s job over the two years following the change in control. Given that many Yahoos had very specific responsibilities and qualifications, many of them would have been able to walk with cash and stock after the deal.

What was fascinating for me to learn was just how many CEO’s Yahoo went through that never knew technology – one never even used email!  This was ultimately the failure that lead Yahoo to be where it is today; two founders that never had the business ambition of Page/Brin. Got the sense they were never really that passionate about the business.

Yahoo created the very industry that made it irrelevant.  Netscape, an early pioneer under Jim Clark/Marc Andreessen, had the decency to call it a day and realize it was no longer in the game.  Yahoo suffers the same fate, however, management have checked out, but HR haven’t been told so the payroll continues.

The sheer size of the company was staggering to learn, the amount of projects (400+) it was supporting, all with their own infrastructure and languages.  There was no standard.  No unifying business strategy.  An example was Yahoo Photos competed with Flickr (an acquisition Yahoo made) for many years.

The only reason that Yahoo is still in the game today, is due to a $1B investment it made in Alibaba (the chinese online marketplace company) a number of years ago.  This has resulted in Yahoo’s stock to be in excess of $37B.   This is a good problem to have, however Yahoo’s stock is trading high not because of what it is doing back at home, but how it’s investment in Alibaba is doing.

Mayer is having to make a big decision this quarter on what she is going to be doing with that investment as shareholders are itching for her to give back.

Mayer has a big battle in front of her.  She has made huge progress with Yahoo in the first couple of years since taking over.   Focusing on some of its flag ship products (mail, home page) and bringing in a focus on mobile apps (their weather one won an Apple design award last year).  She is running the company finally as a product company with a laser like focus of her time going over the smallest of details.

“This page is too busy. What you need to do is look at every font on the page, every font size. And every time you see a new color or a new font size, you add up a point. I want this page below five points.”

Moral overall is much higher, employees are far more engaged and resumes are coming in.

She isn’t without blunders so far though.  She hasn’t hired terribly well for those around her management team, with one costing Yahoo $100M.

The book is unfinished.  Mayer is only just getting started in Yahoo and while it is easy to quickly snap to judgement I believe there is more to come on the Yahoo story.

[review] Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!