How Marissa Mayer can rescue Yahoo (maybe)
Following the appointment of Marissa Mayer to run the moribund Yahoo there has been lots of speculation about what she can achieve at a company that has failed to innovate in recent years, wasted opportunities, and watched like a bystander as the biggest trends in digital passed it by.
Mayer’s job is to turn Yahoo around, but can she do it? Can she be the chief executive to succeed after four CEOs have been and gone in the last five years. Most recently with the best to forget episode of Scott Thompson’s short-lived stint as boss.
As this piece from the New Yorker points out turning around tech firms is a tough job. The list of failures is long. Silicon Graphics, Excite (and all those other dotcom search engines), Digg, Bebo and MySpace. Add RIM to that list and Nokia — like Yahoo another one time leader.
You could throw in Kodak and Borders as well. Two more companies where technology was integral to their fall.
At the other end of the spectrum the list of turn around companies in the tech sector is much smaller club. There are IBM and Apple and…
It isn’t like Yahoo hasn’t had its chances. It has bought start-ups along the way and it once had the future in its hands when it bought Flickr.
But as this Gizmodo piece put it that turned into a ”case study of what can go wrong when a nimble, innovative start up gets gobbled up by a behemoth that doesn’t share its values”.
“What happened to Flickr? The same thing that happened to so many other nimble, innovative startups who sold out for dollars and bandwidth: Yahoo. Here’s how it all went bad.”
And it hasn’t really gone right since. Not only was there the Thompson’s five month stint and more job cuts, but for a while it briefly went to war with Facebook in a bid to generate cash from patents. The move looked desperate.
Sure, Yahoo makes money, $228m in the second quarter, but its business is flat. It is essentially a news and sports portal with ad revenues, but these operations as the New Yorker puts it aren’t attracting innovators who are going to help Yahoo break out, grow and develop, and get back to its silicon valley roots.
It is that reason the piece argues why Mayer is such a good choice:
And this is why Marissa Mayer, the new C.E.O., is such a good choice. She’s cool; she’s a coder; she’s connected to a huge network of engineers. In other words, she has all the right qualities to make Yahoo relevant again, to attract and retain the best people, and to reverse all the trends that bring faltering tech companies down. Yahoo’s last two C.E.O.s have been bureaucrats with ideas for cutting fat and reorganizing divisions. That’s all well and good, but it’s not what inspires young engineers.
I knew Mayer slightly in college. We lived in adjacent dormitories as freshmen at Stanford and are friends on Facebook. But I remember nothing specific about her—besides that she had a reputation for being a really good coder. And I also knew what that meant: she could pick any job she wanted.
Mayer’s task is formidable, and there are questions about how good a leader she really is. If she has a bad first year, it will revive all the doubts about Yahoo’s survival. Still, for the last decade or so, ambitious, young coders—like the Marissa Mayer of fifteen years ago—didn’t go to Yahoo. It just wasn’t an exciting or interesting enough place to be. Maybe, just maybe, though, such young engineers will now give the company a second look. And if this happens, there’s at least a chance that Yahoo can keep running, and not end up as a pile of bones on the veldt.