Yahoo isn't just a big business story anymore. It's great theater. Think about it. A woman soars through the engineering ranks to become a top exec at a company on the brink of controlling the world. Yet she abandons a life of certain riches to embark on an adventure aboard a ship lost in space. Our heroine isn't just one of the few women to captain a tech titan. She's one of the youngest. Oh, and yes, she's six months pregnant, too.
Hey Aaron Sorkin, I'm claiming dibs on the movie rights.
But let's do what every audience does when the curtain rises--suspend disbelief--and accept what a chorus of her Silicon Valley neighbors have been saying about 37-year-old Marissa Mayer: Yahoo pulled off a coup in luring her from Google, where she led its search unit to utter dominance.
It's not so hard to give her the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, most everyone else you could blame for Yahoo's missteps during the past five years has departed. Jerry Yang, the company's prideful founder, is gone. So is its hapless chairman Roy Bostock. Several other members of its notoriously weak board have been replaced by others including Daniel Loeb, the investor who led a shareholder's challenge before the turnover.
You also have to assume that the new board knew what it was doing when it shifted away from what seemed like a certain bet that it would go long-term with interim CEO Ross Levinsohn, an experienced media exec who seemed like the right choice to leverage Yahoo's consummate strengths in news, sports, and finance.
Nevertheless, it's still bound to be high drama as the plot proceeds from here, with Mayer occupying the controls of a company where the physics of momentum prevail--a big company moving toward irrelevance tends to keep moving there. Mayer, Google's most famous female engineer, is bound to be at the center of more tension, if only because she now must take on the complicated task of reconciling the opposing forces that have long been tearing at Yahoo's soul: Its substantial media properties and its engineering-driven culture.
What's more, she'll also have to confront (like the CEOs before her) the bias inherent to Yahoo's Silicon Valley roots. The SV harbors an innate disdain for media's creative content types and a singular obsession with those who build "scalable products."
Many people, including me, have described Yahoo's fate as a binary matter. It's either a media company, or it's a technology company. One or the other. Yahoo's problem is that it's been in denial. It has stubbornly continued trying to become a Silicon Valley product and platforms company, even though its most enduring lines of business are its media properties.
But it's time to cease framing Yahoo's dilemma as either-or. The fact is this: All of media now relies on technology for its very being. For heaven's sake, media is software.
But here's the nuance Meyer and her minions at Yahoo must realize: While the platform is essential to its media properties, Yahoo's media properties are essential to its platforms. The combination--platform and media property--constitutes the company's real calling. Everything else is dross.
And Yahoo has its dross. It's compiled a long list of failures, most of them products with little or nothing to do with its essential content properties. Among its fizzles: Yahoo 360 (social networking), Go (mobile phone app), Briefcase (file storage), Auctions (online sales), and Jukebox (streaming music).
Because I worked at Yahoo as a VP and general manager--I was let go in a cutback--I have an insider's perspective on this peculiar company impulse. Yahoo took on the costly--and ultimately wasted--product development efforts because that's what Silicon Valley companies do. But succumbing to peer pressure on this count is like saying CBS needs to develop its own proprietary 3D TV technology, or that News Corp. needs its own telephone network.
Perhaps that's the moral in the Yahoo story for all of us: Companies succeed when they identify their most differentiating strengths, and teeter when they fail to abide by them.
Marissa Mayer arrives as a new--and sympathetic protagonist--in the twisty Yahoo narrative: A young mother and rare female head of a tech behemoth facing long odds. I'm rooting for her. I hope she comes out starring as the heroine who saves the day, because there is, after all, nothing better than a happy ending.
Patrick Houston is a former SVP for a new media startup, a GM at Yahoo, and editor-in-chief at CNET.com. He is now a offers strategic product, content and business development consulting to technology-driven media companies. He can be reached at email@example.com.