Photo: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s chief strategy for turning around the Web giant comes down to one thing: people.To start what she calls a “chain reaction,” Yahoo must first hire talented designers and engineers, who will then build great products, which will then attract large audiences, which will then bring in advertisers.
To that end, she is buying startups on the cheap to bring in small, nimble teams and infuse Yahoo with new energy.
It is not the first time a Yahoo CEO has tried this strategy.
In the middle of the past decade, then-CEO Terry Semel and his top lieutenants bought a handful of Web 2.0 startups and also hired innovators to reboot Yahoo.
It was called the “Flickrization of Yahoo,” after the famous photo-sharing site, the best-known of Yahoo’s acquisitions. Yahoo would transform itself by letting its users create and share content, whether it was photos, event listings, or links. It was a bold strategy meant to counter Google’s cold algorithms.
Then there was the day when Beck played a Hack Day event at Yahoo in September 2006.
Hack Days were all-day coding events meant to generate new products quickly, in a fun, loose, open way.
“When we all got together to play, it was explosive,” recalls former Yahoo executive Kakul Srivastava. “It was a really generative time … where openness bred creativity and innovation.”
Beck’s surprise appearance at that Hack Day “felt like a high point,” Srivastava recalled—a sign that the whole company was backing the effort to hack Yahoo into something new.
The effort failed, for a variety of reasons: from Google’s unstoppable rise, to a lack of focus that former Yahoo executive Brad Garlinghouse lambasted in a famous “Peanut Butter Memo,” to a lack of engineering resources, to a stifling bureaucracy.
Yahoo, having started down this road early, also missed its chances to acquire the companies that would really matter in social media—YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
But it did have talent, in spades. And they are now pursuing their potential elsewhere.
Can Mayer put together a dream team that measures up to this generation? We’ll see.
Then: EVP, Network Division, Yahoo
Now: CEO, LinkedIn
Weiner was a champion of Yahoo's social push. He left in 2008 after a time of turmoil, even though many thought he could be Yahoo's next CEO. He joined LinkedIn in 2009, and has done such a stellar job as CEO taking the company through its IPO that people still wonder what might have been had he gotten the chance to run Yahoo. (Read all about his roller-coaster career.)
Then: Senior Director, Advanced Products, Yahoo
Now: CEO, Etsy
Besides running Yahoo's experimental Brickhouse, a corporate incubator for new products, Dickerson created Hack Days at Yahoo, a predecessor to the hackathons now popular at companies like Facebook and at startup conferences. These freewheeling coding sessions aimed to unlock creativity by forcing engineers to code and ship a working product in a single day.
Then: SVP, Community, Communities, and Front Doors, Yahoo
Now: CEO, YouSendIt
Garlinghouse was CEO of Dialpad, an early, Skype-like VOIP startup acquired by Yahoo. He was part of the entrepreneurial blood Yahoo wanted to infuse. He aired his frustrations with Yahoo's lack of focus and decisiveness in a 2006 memo dubbed the 'Peanut Butter Manifesto.' He's since discussed what he got wrong in that memo. Yahoo's lack of focus, he said, wasn't the real problem--it was just a symptom of a deep-rooted cultural problem.
Then: Founder, Delicious
Now: CEO, Tasty Labs
Schachter's work at Delicious, which let users save, categorize, and share Web links, anticipated everything from Twitter to Evernote and Pinterest. It brought concepts like tagging to the mainstream of tech. (Yahoo eventually sold it YouTube cofounders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen.) At Tasty Labs, he's rolling out products like Human.io, a set of tools for making apps that collect data and coordinate group activities.
Then: Cofounder, Upcoming.org
Now: Advisor and former CTO, Kickstarter
Baio, a coder and journalist, created Upcoming.org to help you find events your friends were going to--long before Facebook and Eventbrite came along. After leaving Yahoo, he helped kickstart Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, as its CTO.
The Yahoo Pipes team included Daniel Raffel, now CEO of Snapguide, an app for making how-to guides, and Pasha Sadri, founder of Polyvore.
Cameron Marlow and Danah Boyd of Yahoo Research are now researchers at Facebook and Microsoft, respectively.
And we haven't even talked about the teams working on search--chief among them, Qi Lu, who now runs Microsoft's online services group.
The talent once gathered together in Sunnyvale is staggering.
Can Mayer match it?