The New York Times Magazine ran a scathing article about Marissa Mayer two weeks ago, adding fuel to the meme that she’s failing at leading Yahoo out of their lost decade — and that she has to get fired.
It’s complete bull and, frankly, embarrassing for the Gray Lady to have published.
Marissa has accomplished a ton, and she should be judged after seven years & $10b in acquisitions—not 30 months and $2b. This piece was designed to sell books and get page views — it doesn’t match the reality of how hard these turnarounds are.
Six not-so-quick points regarding Yahoo under Marissa follow.
1. Talent & Acquisitions
Yahoo was a complete disaster when MM joined: A half-dozen or so folks have tried to shepherd the company during the last decade and at no point has anyone succeeded at making the place in any way competitive at acquiring startups or talent.
In our business, the most talented people have an array of absurd options. If you’ve done anything with moderate success, or if you have elite technical ability (top 20%), you are looking at everything from becoming a venture capitalist (short hours, high pay, no stress) to creating your own startup funded by the insane amount of cash sloshing around the streets of the Bay Area (higher stress but complete control of your destiny).
Heck, I know people in the top 25% of the tech market who have joined Google, gotten paid six figures and literally do 20 hours of work per week. Google prints money and I’m told that they are more than happy to pay you to not compete with them. The way they think, I’m told, is that if there is a chance that you’ll do something productive in the actual 1,000 hours you work there per year it’s worth them not maximizing their value on your time. They are probably right, too: a .001% improvement on tens of billions of dollars in advertising revenue is huge!
Today people actually want to sell their companies and go work for Yahoo. This is 100% due to what Marissa has done. She made the place liveable again. It’s not in the top 20 places anyone would choose to work in the Valley — but you would no longer get laughed at for saying you were going to work at Yahoo.
On the measure of ’desirability to talent,’ Marissa’s tenure is a huge success.
2. The Steve Jobs comparison
The piece was given the insane title “What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs,” and goes to painstaking lengths to paint Marissa as being delusional in thinking she is Steve Jobs.
I’m not BFFs with Marissa, but we hung out a half-dozen times when she was coming up at Google. She’s a geek who got lucky enough to join one of the super-unicorn rocket ships that leave Silicon Valley every five years or so.
She does not think she is Steve Jobs — the article just fabricates that to make her look silly. That’s what the link-baiting press does today: they literally make stuff up to get you to click the headline.
In this case, the author isn’t a NYT employee. He’s an up-and-coming writer from the masters of linkbait: Business Insider. Yes, the same Business Insider that brought you the headline & slide show of “Why People Hate Jews!”
The story comes to the conclusion — and makes it the headline — because Marissa pointed out to her board and team that Steve Jobs didn’t make the iPod until he was well into his second tenure at Apple.
Oh yeah, Marissa read a Steve Jobs quote at an all-hands meeting.
News flash: every CEO in the Valley quotes Jobs at every meeting. Steve Jobs is worth quoting!
3. The Henrique De Castro disaster
In an effort to get Yahoo’s revenue issues fixed, she bet on a former Googler named Henrique De Castro. In order to get him, Yahoo had to give him a $60m package to make up for the lost Google stock options he would leave behind.
It’s a sick amount of money, to be sure, but over four years that’s $15m per year. It’s maybe 4x what he should get — but we live in competitive times and Marissa took a big risk.
It looked even worse because, I think (someone please confirm if they can — it’s not public/clear), the value of that stock almost doubled during his short tenure. He walked away with over $100m for 15 months of work.
Sickening to be sure, but Marissa has to make bets like this when running a company at this scale.
If she had three or four examples like this it would be a proof point. With only one example, it’s just “gotcha!!! journalism.”
4. The Content Strategy
Mayer has no idea what she is doing when it comes to content — but she’s learning. She made a bunch of bad bets on bad talent like former NYT journalist David Pogue. Pogue is considered a laughing stock in the gadget industry. He’s the type of reporter that has no following and has never had to generate page views for himself.
So, he got a huge pay day (probably $1m a year), trading on his NYT gig. Good for him, bad for Marissa.
Marissa made a similar mistake hiring Katie Couric, who although delightful on TV, has exactly zero pull online.
So, she learned a valuable lesson that I learned a decade ago: being famous in one medium rarely translates into a second (see Michael Jordan/baseball, William Shatner/singing, etc).
The truth is, Yahoo’s best business move is to go all in with content — and specifically video content. So, Marissa is doing exactly that and she’s learning that she — like 99% of Silicon Valley — has zero talent in picking content.
Now she can simply hire someone who is an expert in the content business — and she will.
The CEO shouldn’t be picking the programming. That’s why TV networks & movie studios buy their content from producers, production companies, etc.
Marissa has either learned this or will come to that conclusion when she reads this sentence: the better you know technology the worse you probably know good art. Get help.
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