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Yahoo: old media redux

At a time when much of the advertising industry is focusing on technology and data to reach ever more specific groups of consumers across the web, Yahoo has instead invested huge sums of money in content and talent geared to the mass market. “It becomes vanilla in a land of not 32, but 5,032 flavors,” said Rob Norman, the chief digital officer of WPP’s GroupM, the world’s biggest buyer of online advertising. “What Yahoo tried to do both with magazines and video was to be old media in the Internet age, and I suspect that that wasn’t the answer.” The result, advertisers say, is that Yahoo has gone out of fashion. And the money is moving away. Yahoo is predicted to take in about $3.4 billion in digital ad revenue this year, or only about 2 percent of the global digital ad market, down from 2.4 percent in 2014, according to eMarketer.

Yahoo's staff ratings killed morale

One of the uglier parts of the process was a series of quarterly “calibration meetings,” in which managers would gather with their bosses and review all the employees under their supervision. In practice, the managers would use these meetings to conjure reasons that certain staff members should get negative reviews. Sometimes the reason would be political or superficial. Mayer herself attended calibration meetings where these kinds of arbitrary judgments occurred. The senior executives who reported to Mayer would join her in a meeting at Phish Food and hold up spreadsheets of names and ratings. During the revamping of Yahoo Mail, for instance, Kathy Savitt, the C.M.O., noted that Vivek Sharma was bothering her. “He just annoys me,” she said during the meeting. “I don’t want to be around him.” Sharma’s rating was reduced. Shortly after Yahoo Mail went live, he departed for Disney.

Marissa Mayer's staff meetings

Mayer also had a habit of operating on her own time. Every Monday at 3 p.m. Pacific, she asked her direct reports to gather for a three-hour meeting. Mayer demanded all of her staff across the world join the call, so executives from New York, where it was 6 p.m., and Europe, where it was 11 p.m. or later, would dial in, too. Invariably, Mayer herself would be at least 45 minutes late; some calls were so delayed that Yahoo executives in Europe couldn’t hang up till after 3 a.m. In theory, Mayer kept up with her direct reports through weekly individual meetings. In practice, she often went weeks without seeing them.

Marissa Mayer copy/pastes Steve Jobs on innovation

At an F.Y.I. around that time, she read a speech that Jobs gave to Apple employees at the beginning of his turnaround. Afterward, channeling Jobs, Mayer told hundreds of employees sitting at URL’s, “Our purpose is to inspire and delight our users, to build beautiful services, things that people love to use and enjoy using every day, and that’s our opportunity.” She continued: “We are the world’s largest start-up. We have $5 billion in revenue, but it can and will go in the blink of an eye if we don’t do our jobs.”

Marissa Mayer making a late call on e-mail colors

Months into her tenure, she was meeting with Sharma’s team regularly in a conference room that started to look more like a design studio: projectors hung from the ceiling, rendering screens displayed on the wall. All around, dozens of foam core boards were pinned with ideas. Mayer would regularly interrogate designers about the minutest details of display and user experience. By early December, one day before Yahoo Mail was set to release, she convened a meeting at Phish Food, a conference room in the executive building of Yahoo’s campus, to talk about the product’s color. For months, the team had settled on blue and gray. If users were going to read emails on their phones all day long, the thinking went, it was best to choose the most subtly contrasting hues. But now, Mayer explained, she wanted to change the colors to various shades of purple, which she believed better suited Yahoo’s brand.Some around the table were encouraged that their C.E.O. refused to release a product that she was less than fully satisfied with. If changing a few pixels led to an increase of 0.01 percent more users, that could translate to millions of dollars in ad revenue. Others, however, were visibly furious. According to one senior executive, Sharma’s body language changed the moment Mayer issued her request. He looked deflated. Altering the color of such an intricate product would require that members of his team spend all night adjusting colors in thousands of places. He slumped off and prepared to tell his staff the bad news.

How late was Yahoo to mobile?

A couple of days into the job, Mayer was having lunch at URL’s when an employee walked up to her and introduced himself as Tony. “I’m a mobile engineer,” Tony said. “I’m on the mobile team.”Continue reading the main story Mayer responded to Tony, “Great, how big is our mobile team?” After some back and forth, Tony replied that there were “maybe 60” engineers. Mayer was dumbfounded. Facebook, for instance, had a couple of thousand people working on mobile. When she queried the engineering management department, it responded that Yahoo had roughly 100. “Like an actual hundred,” Mayer responded, “or like 60 rounded up to 100 to make me feel better?” The department responded that it was more like 60.

Marissa Mayer's micro-managing

In order to revive Yahoo as a product company, Mayer would try to treat it as a giant start-up itself. Hours after entering Yahoo’s complex on the morning of July 17, 2012, she set up her computer to log into the company’s code base so she could personally make changes, much like the founder of a tiny tech firm might do.

Yahoo in a paragraph

Yahoo essentially invented the online-advertising business. In 1994, two graduate students at Stanford, Jerry Yang and David Filo, dreamed up a way to help early users navigate the web. They picked URLs that they each liked — beginning with around 100 links, including one for Nerf toys and one dedicated to armadillos — and listed them on a page called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Within a year, their guide had to be divided into 19 categories (art, business, etc.) and was generating one million clicks a day. In 1995, the year Yahoo started selling ads, a former company executive estimated that the entire market was about $20 million. By 1997, Yahoo’s ad revenues alone were $70.4 million. The next year, they were $203 million.To keep up with the growth, Yahoo quickly expanded beyond its directory to create a multitude of ad-supported products. The company aimed to be all things to all web users, and for most of a decade, it was a wildly successful strategy. In 1997, Yahoo added chat rooms, classified ads and an email service. In 1998, it introduced sports, games, movies, real estate, a calendar, file sharing, auctions, shopping and an address book. Even during the crash of the Internet bubble, a profusion of more traditional advertisers began to migrate from print to digital. The search business, in particular, was growing enormously. In 2002, Yahoo’s first full year monetizing search results with attendant ads, its revenues reached $953 million. In 2003, they eclipsed $1.6 billion. In 2004, they grew again to $3.5 billion.