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The Mayer of Sunnyvale

Meera Siva | | Updated on: Feb 22, 2015
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Journalist Nicholas Carlson presents a lucid and truthful account of how the CEO strove to save the tech giant

The story of internet bellwether Yahoo has all the makings of a soap opera. A fairy tale ascent from it starting as a casual project by college grads Jerry Yang and David Filo for creating an online directory for the World Wide Web to the company’s big bang IPO in 1996; the quick fall when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000; recruiting great leaders to revive the company and the fizzling out of their limited initial success; multiple activist investors such as Jackson and Loeb taking aim at the management; aborted bear hug attempt by Microsoft; the jackpot hit with its investments in Alibaba. You get the drift.

In Marissa Mayer and the fight to save Yahoo!, Nicholas Carlson turns this compelling story into a page-turner with his racy style and descriptive narrative. For instance, in a bid to end competition in search business, Yahoo decided to buy all smaller competitors. Guess what the internal code-word was for this M&A frenzy? Operation Godfather. This is inspired by the classic Coppola movie where all the members of the opposing clan are taken down simultaneously.

A riveting story The author does not fall into the trap of presenting irrelevant tales in his desire to tell a riveting story. The keen attention paid to minute aspects such as font colour, size, spacing as well as the project management issues in creating a hi-tech product are subtly brought out. For example, when Yahoo mail was re-launched, Mayer would grill the product team on the finest detail and knew all the bugs in the product. This was a welcome relief to the team which had to clue-in the management on the details.

But the book unequivocally shows over and over again that it is the people behind these products who determine the company’s eventual success. The case in point is the Yahoo Weather app, which ‘tormented’ a famous Apple designer. The app won an Apple Design Award — clearly, a big deal.

However, the person who went onstage to accept it was not the key contributor to the project. Talented people who were behind the app started leaving the company.

Hence the book rightly elaborates on the personalities of the company’s colourful CEOs. One such story is about how Terry Semel, former chief of Time Warner, could not sit in a cubicle as Yahoo’s earlier CEO did, and turned a conference room into his office. He was not much of an emailer; he dictated a note on the 9/11 tragedy to the employees, which a young woman typed away while the older executive paced and dictated. This old-fashioned scene does not quite fit Yahoo’s image.

Issues with the biggies Likewise, the Silicon Valley culture of innovators such as Google and Yahoo are also touched upon. We see that these companies lack formal processes such as structures and regular employee-management meetings. And any attempt to change these as the company grows too big is invariably resisted by the employees.

And as the book title prominently features Marissa Mayer, the author dwells in some detail on her early life, career at Google and her work at Yahoo.

The view is very balanced, highlighting her good grasp of technical aspects, her keen eye for product design and high drive as seen by her setting up a computer to code on the first day as CEO of the Sunnyvale-headquartered Yahoo.

This is juxtaposed with her shortcomings including her annoying habit of being late to meetings. There is one incident that many techies working in large companies may empathise with. In 2012, Mayer wanted mock-ups of Yahoo Mail by early morning. Vivek Sharma, the executive in charge, and his team worked overnight.

Mayer missed the meeting in the morning. Another sore point for the employees was her new system of performance appraisal which brought much confusion and resentment.

The controversial memo in February 2013 on the new company policy discouraging working from home is reported verbatim. This certainly stirred up a lot of debate in the media, but the author presents some numbers to put it in perspective.

The ban on working from home affected 164 people in a 15,000-strong company. These people worked from remote locations and were offered moving expenses and raises to cover increases in cost of living.

Behind the curtain details of important events such as the Microsoft buy-out are also detailed in the book. The common wisdom is that Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer offered a low price and Yahoo walked away.

But the book points to Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang as the primary deal-breaker right from the start of the take-over episode. Other acquisitions that were not-to-be, include Yahoo’s attempts to buy Google and Facebook in their very early years. In both the cases, the founders were unwilling to sell, even as the acquirer kept raising the offer.

And, of course, no discussion on Yahoo is complete without mentioning the activist investors. Dan Loeb’s allegations that there are discrepancies in their CEO Scott Thompson’s education and turning up the heat on the Board to change the management multiple times is well known.

We also get to know of a less-known activist investor Eric Jackson who owned only 45 shares of Yahoo stock, worth less than $1,300 in 2007. He took up the cause of bringing about a change in the company’s management — replacing Terry Semel — and with the help of media came to represent $55 million worth of Yahoo stock. An inspiring story for small investors globally.

The lessons An interesting takeaway from the Yahoo lesson is it is very important to know where the puck will be, and be there ahead of the competition. Yahoo did not quite see the trend in automatic search using algorithms and went with curated links — a losing strategy given the rate of growth of information on the web.

This failing was the reason for its problem, which no high-profile CEO, management and activist investor could quite fix. Yahoo has been quite lucky, especially with its stake purchase of Alibaba. But Mayer, as hard as she tries, may not be able to undo the opportunity lost early on in the company’s strategy.

An aspect Carlson could have gone easy on is the elaborate description of people. Sample this about Hank Vigil, who was a strategist with Microsoft and advised on the acquisition. “Vigil is round-faced. His olive skin contrasted with thick and bright silver hair. Vigil wore stylish glasses and expensive suits..” and so on.

What would have been nice is a table on Yahoo’s stock performance and financials highlighting the Mayer era. This information is interspersed throughout the story and not easy to cull it out quickly. A quick milestone chart would have likewise been a handy reference for the reader.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Nicholas Carlson is chief correspondent at Business Insider. His investigative reporting re-wrote the histories of Facebook, Twitter, and Groupon. His coverage of Yahoo won Digiday’s award for ‘Best Editorial Achievement’ of the year. He is a contributor to Bloomberg Television’s biography series "Game Changers" and a frequent guest on CNBC.

Published on January 24, 2018

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