A lot of folks have asked me about Yahoo and what I would do if I were CEO [ see the discussion on This Week in Startups. ]
That is, of course, comical and academic because boards don’t put wildcard, product-driven executives in charge of large assets — especially when the assets are struggling.
Who do they put in charge of large troubled assets? Sales folks like Steve Ballmer and Tim Armstrong, and operational experts like Carol Bartz. Why? It’s a safe choice. Your downside is protected because they are guaranteed to stabilise the bottom line with two tactics:
a) cutting costs
b) incrementally increasing sales
Say what you want about Carol Bartz, but for what she lacked in launching meaningful products [ see here ], she did cut expenses and make Yahoo run slightly better. Tim Armstrong might not be able to keep control of the Aol ship or launch amazing new products, but he has built a killer M&A machine and a killer sales offering, and he’s doing a better job concerting with Madison Avenue than has happened since Aol’s glory days.
The downside of protection comes with a big cost: your upside is capped due to a lack of innovation.
Folks like Tim and Carol spend 80% of their time focused on deals, operations and sales — and maybe 20% on product. Maybe.
I mean, how much time does a Tim Armstrong have to think about the next 20 product features if he is trying to clean up the train wreck around TechCrunch, sell off Aol’s access business and merge with Yahoo?
[ Side note: Yahoo and Aol merging is a worse idea than Aol and TimeWarner merging. If you can’t keep one email system best of breed, you’re not going to be able to manage merging two dysfunctional systems into a market leader. Said another way, two dysfunctional individuals don’t solve their problems by getting married and making babies. ]
Paradoxically, Yahoo desperately needs a product-driven CEO because its future is based on three things it kind of sucks at: video, social and mobile.
Now, I love Tim and Carol actually. They are awesome executives, but I actually think they both should play the Sheryl Sandberg and Tim Cook president roles next to product-driven CEOs. Seriously, Sheryl is performing at a much higher level at Facebook than Carol did or Tim is, and she doesn’t have a problem with the “number two” slot — she just cares about winning and having a killer team.
This is what boards need to learn: top slot = product person, second slot = operations person. Not the other way around.
You have to gamble with a product maniac like Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Pincus or Sergey Brin in our business.
As my Asian gambling buddies like to remind me: “No gamble, no future! No gamboule, No foootour Jaeeesun!”
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