Diary of a Financier

Bookshelf update: Marissa Mayer & the Fight to Save Yahoo

In Bookshelf on Tue 17 Mar 2015 at 06:39

Seven takeaways from Nick Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!, as embodied by the following excerpts…


1. Fishing analogy describes the state of Yahoo in 2002:
The company’s salesforce had no idea how to drum-up business, because business had always just come to them when $YHOO was in its glory…

“In Yahoo!’s first several years, the fish had jumped out of the water and into the boat, so nobody at the company had bothered to learn [how to fish]…

“After the [dot.com] crash, The fish were still on the water, Yahoo! just needed to teach everybody how to fish.”

In some cases, you can retrain employees to learn the skills they lack, but in others, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

#Sales & marketing

2. Think better, think different:
On the Google vs. Yahoo search rivalry, specifically why $GOOG ended-up winning…

“There are a million reasons why Yahoo lost to Google in search, but there’s also one reason why: Yahoo put the results on its search pages in the wrong order…

“Ads were typically sold on an impressions basis [CPM, as was the convention at the time for traditional, offline advertising].”

Overture then started selling ads on a cost per click (CPC) basis instead, which better aligned the seller and buyer’s interest in success rates.

However, every search engine arranged ads in search results “in the order of which advertisers were willing to pay the most cost per click. It was a straight auction for every keyword. To the highest bidder went the top [slot].”

In contrast, “Google’s system… optimized the order for yield… [because] an ad that pays 55 cents per click is more valuable than an ad that gets $1 per click, if [the former] gets clicked-on twice as much.”

Google spent its time building an algorithm to pick quality ads — winners that were the most relevant to the user, as opposed to the most expensive.  That’s what made its ads more useful — not for its advertising partners or its own revenues, but for its end users.

In a similar vein, Google preferred Vickrey auctions (second-price sealed-bids), in which the highest bidder wins, but pays the second highest bidder’s price.

Previously: End-users are a product’s real target
#Target market #Do the right thing #Socially conscious #Don’t be evil

3. Leadership by dictator:

“The reason tech dictatorships work… is that dictators make mistakes quickly, and the good ones learn from them.”

See also: Bezos on decentralization & minimizing collaboration; Christensen on failing early & inexpensively
#Bureaucracy #Committee #Streamline

4. Steve Jobs on focus & prioritization:

“I take a sheet of paper, and I say: ‘if my company can only do one thing next year what is it?’ Literally, we shut everything else down.”

Yahoo’s focus was too scatterbrained until Jobs gave their management team this advice, at which point, Yahoo was able to narrow-down their jumbled vision to three initiatives, intended to make the site a derivation for these groups…

i. Media consumers

ii. Advertisers

iii. Developers

Previously: Mayer’s “MaVeNS” strategy for Yahoo

5. Design rules:
Marissa Mayer’s famous rules-of-thumb to help product managers keep #UIs & #UX simple…

i. 5 point rule:
A maximum of 5 fonts + colors per page (combine)

ii. 98% use case rule:
Minimize keystrokes and make it obvious for people to perform that one, big, core function (e.g. anybody can walk up to a Xerox machine and make it copy, because the standout is a giant green button)

iii. Depend on data:
Data is the only objective way to make decisions

6. Intra-company communications:
Mayer worked hard to open channels of communication among all of Yahoo’s employees with a few resources…

i. “FYI meeting”:
She scheduled a weekly, all-hands, town hall, in which the entire company had access to executive management for fully transparent strategy explanations, product status updates, Q&A, and feedback. (Reminiscent of Google’s “TGIF” meeting.)

ii. “Backyard”:
Yahoo’s internal suggestion box, where employees can collaborate and submit feedback.

In aggregate, these were all-powerful means to improve corporate culture and promote a flatter organization.

The concern with such radical transparency is leaks of corporate secrets/inside information to the media. Mayer managed that by encouraging colleagues to be whistleblowers for any leaks.

#Personnel #HR #Collaboration

7. Failure is ok:

“Failure was good so long as you quickly recognized you were failing, corrected the problem, learned from it, and moved on to the next thing.”

This is a real controversial subject in Silicon Valley, because it’s reminiscent of giving every teeballer a “Participation Award,” instead of handing out one MVP.  The important takeaway is to be fearless, take smart risks, and know when you’ve failed.

Previously: Fail early & inexpensively


The thing I found interesting about this book was how balanced the author treated the project — although his epilogue communicated some frustration with Mayer’s own lack of cooperation. By no means did the author covey a bias or a prediction related to Yahoo’s future.  Significantly, he wouldn’t vote whether or not Mayer has successfully turned-around Yahoo.  She’s a visionary, but an idle idol who’s learning how to be a CEO — gifted the role due to the Valley’s #halo effect.

There’s a lot to learn from how Mayer turned-around the Yahoo culture, which is incontrovertible.  There’s also a lot to learn from the criticism her underlings dole out.


#Entrepreneur #Startup

  1. […] Previously: Fail early & inexpensively; Failure can be ok if… […]


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