Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

If I were the Yahoo! CEO (for a day…)

Posted by shannonclark on May 10, 2012

So many people around the tech world have been writing about the current  Yahoo CEO’s problems with honesty.

Which got me to thinking – what would I do as the Yahoo! CEO (even if just for a day – though really it will take years to revitalize Yahoo! if it is even possible to do so)?

First the full disclosures

1.  My resume is messy. I don’t have a college degree (I entered the University of Chicago in 1991 as part of the class of 1995, but in 1994 I took a year off  - I was 19, on track to graduate at the age of 20 and had just had a very rough year emotionally as my then girlfriend left me for another woman, that year off during which I wrote a play and parts of two novels, turned into many more years as I was able to first start a business selling collectibles that paid extremely well and then started a series of computer consulting jobs that just kept paying more and more, in 1998 and 1999 I returned to school while also working full time, wasn’t able to negotiate a leave of absence to finish my degree so quit but instead of finishing completely took a better job offer – after seeing my clients through the Y2K transition and after not getting paid commissions on the nearly $2M in renewals and new sales I had negotiated I left in early 2000 to start my own company. Since 2000 I’ve worn many different hats at various times – as an entrepreneur, consultant, conference organizer, writer/blogger, advisor to startups and more – none of my various startup ideas have resulted in big successes and at times have overlapped – so yes, my resume is “messy”).

2. At present I’m not a direct Yahoo! shareholder (though mutual funds my wife and I own likely hold some Yahoo! stock) but I have all kinds of personal conflicts of interest. Lots of friends who were at one time employees (and even senior leaders) at Yahoo!, plenty of friends across Silicon Valley (and indeed the world) who are investors in competitors to Yahoo! in one form or another, have sold companies in the past to Yahoo!, are building companies that compete with Yahoo! or who work at competitors to Yahoo! including Facebook. I also have a number of consulting clients, including some in whom I have small equity stakes that may compete with some division of Yahoo! now or in the future. For that matter I’ve personally tried ventures that would have competed with some part of Yahoo!.

But all that aside here is what I would if I were offered the chance to help Yahoo! turn around.

Step 1. Immediately halt the patent trolling lawsuits & apologize to the tech community for the lawsuits (including to former employees whose works were used as part of these lawsuit.

The lawsuits even if there is a chance of “winning” via a large settlement (or judgement if the case makes it to trial) of money from the flush with cash post-IPO Facebook would be at best a Pyrrhic victory – the cost in future trust, in diminished ability to hire the best and brightest or to retain those who remain at the company would be immense – making any future hope of innovating out of the current mess difficult to achieve (at best).

Step 2. Repair relationships with Alibaba and SoftBank. 

See this article from February to see what I’m referring to if you aren’t familiar. According to a more recent report a new deal without SoftBank may be in the works. Clearly this is one of the best remaining assets that Yahoo! has which could be divested to generate cash to fund reinvigoration efforts for the rest of Yahoo! However while taxes matter, Yahoo! also needs to repair the underlying relationships with two major Internet giants (Alibaba and SoftBank) if Yahoo! wants to remain a powerful and viable global Internet company. I don’t know what it would take to repair these relationships – but if I were CEO doing so would be a very high priority.

Step 3. Clean house with the Yahoo! board.

Somehow the Yahoo! board has presided over the long, painful to observe from the outside, decline of what was once one of the most innovative online companies to one that is while still important decreasingly relevant. The board has dickered, fought founders and shareholders alike and generally underperformed in a huge way. Of course, if I were appointed CEO (for that matter this is true of nearly any new CEO) I would likely “owe” the board for that appointment – but this is in part one of the problems. As the founders have departed there seems to be a big leadership and vision gap at Yahoo! Perhaps a smaller and newer board, refreshed by a mix of outsiders, former insiders and even a critic or two would be able to help guide the company into a new direction.

See http://specials.yahoo.com/forward/ for what the current board and revitalization effort looks like. Given the current scandal I don’t think it is working as intended.

Step 4. Define a clear vision for Yahoo!

Go read the new CEO’s Strategic Vision for Yahoo!. Don’t worry I’ll wait – though I do recommend you have a large shot of espresso first…

Can you summarize his vision? Not sure that I could.

And I think that’s the problem. Yahoo! sees itself as being so many different businesses (and has grown so large that it really is) that it no longer has a clear vision about what Yahoo! does (or should do) or what value Yahoo! offers to others. Is Yahoo! a technology company? A media property? An advertising platform? A search engine? A portfolio of Internet services and properties? Something else?

Yahoo! needs a clear, concise, simple vision that dictates everything that Yahoo! does – something that every employee, partner, client, customer or site visitor would get immediately and understand. This is HARD.

I can’t claim to have it fully – but I think it should be something like:

Yahoo! makes the web personal.

Okay perhaps that needs work – but listen to my logic. When Yahoo! launched years and years ago and as they grew the crown jewel of Yahoo! was not any specific website or part of Yahoo! – it was the user profiles that Yahoo! had for every user (and they had millions at a time when few sites had over 100k users) which they were able to extend to nearly every new property or site they launched. These user profiles meant that you could add a new service that Yahoo! created without needing to create a new username and password, user profile and more.

Now this seems like a minor achievement – Yahoo!’s profiles have been overtaken for more web users by their Facebook accounts (or their Twitter accounts) which are the login tool that millions of people use to access other services beyond Facebook or Twitter. But done well it is still an opportunity for Yahoo! – and one that starts to help inform what Yahoo! should focus on (and what they may want to forget about).

It is also a question of what is Yahoo!’s identity and offering to companies that will partner with Yahoo! or which will generate revenue for Yahoo! in some manner (most probably via purchasing advertising through Yahoo! in some capacity – currently limited mostly to Yahoo!’s own properties). If Yahoo! were to focus on making the web personal – making it relevant and interesting and useful to every user of Yahoo! – across whatever service(s) and platforms (including sites and services not created or owned by Yahoo! potentially) this would be challenging – and would require that Yahoo! take the side of the individual user over the advertiser – but in exchange the advertisers would get a more valuable placement and likely see far better results when they do (since Yahoo! would in theory only show ads when they were really targeted and of interest to a given user).

In today’s Internet this would also require that Yahoo! focus on building products and services that cross ALL platforms and forms – not just the web but mobile, touch, TV and more. Find ways to expose their services and properties that made them available on every platform – including making advertiser’s campaigns available and relevant to the given form factor. This would be hard, this would be challenging, this would require rewiring/rewriting/reinventing most of Yahoo! currently. It would also require renewed interest in building products and services for non-Yahoo! developers to leverage (Yahoo! just a few years ago was on the forefront of building open APIs and hosting Hackathons to encourage developers to build on top of Yahoo! platforms but I think they never fully committed to this and never made it a strategic priority). I would encourage Yahoo! to explore directions that included revenue sharing with outside developers – potentially putting Yahoo! in the middle of a vibrant mobile development future. Yahoo! would also need to explore lots of service offerings that instead of relying on advertising and mass scale rely instead on subscriptions and direct payments by users – again including pass through payments to outside developers in many cases.

Would this be enough to “fix” Yahoo!? 

I don’t know but it would be a start.

And there is, of course, “one more thing…”

Yahoo needs to streamline and eliminate as many layers of management and approval processes as possible. Likely this means a lot of transitions for current employees and a total rethinking of their current workforce. This might not be easy or painless but I would start by carving out small entrepreneurial teams within ALL of Yahoo!. Teams that would have full authority to spend a given budget in whatever manner they require – with encouragement to be creative – and few requirements that they wait for a committee to approve everything. This would of course work best if a unified, simple vision can be shared by every employee – something would make it easy to answer the question of “would this new …. further the big picture vision for Yahoo!?” – would it help make the web more personal (for example). As much as possible I would look at models from innovative firms such as Valve to attempt to flatten the structures of Yahoo! as much as possible. This is, of course, challenging in a global, large public company – but it isn’t impossible.

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