Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What to do with Yahoo!

So, Jerry Yang has finally stepped down. The search for a new CEO has begun. I have to say I'm puzzled by most of the candidates that have been rumored so far. Yahoo is at a crossroads and requires a true change-agent. Someone who will ignore the past and play the ball as it lays.

Yang's decision to play chicken with Steve Ballmer will certainly go down in business history as one of the costliest CEO moves ever, particularly now that the economic crisis has only reinforced how rich the Microsoft offer was. Now, with a yawning $30B gap between Yahoo's current market value and the implied value of the Microsoft deal to Yahoo's shareholders, the departure of many senior executives, and a sense that the last best chance to create shareholder value has come and gone, the company is in ruins. Yang will forever be characterized as a reckless Ahab intent on pursuing his personal Moby Dick (Google) to his company's destruction.

But not so fast. Despite everything, the skeleton of a great business remains. The company is still on a $6.5 billion revenue run rate, and quite profitable even given the many squandered opportunities and mediocre execution. The next CEO of Yahoo needs to understand what Yahoo's value creation vector really is, and refocus all of his or her energy on growing precisely that business. Here's what I think the next CEO needs to do to get Yahoo back on track:

1. Maximize the exit value of the search business, and don't get hung up on competing with Google. Face it, Google won. There are plenty of ways to make an honorable exit from the search business, raise a significant war chest of cash, and cut a favorable deal with Google for the Yahoo ad and search inventory (while maintaining the ability to maximize future revenues from search-related monetization as the search business gets more complex over the next decade). Don't waste time on this one -- cut a good deal, preserve upside and flexibility, and be done with it. Yahoo's future is not in search.

2. Understand what it means to be a next-generation online media company in the modern world. Hint: it means being a marketplace. Make Yahoo a customer acquisition engine for web/media companies. Customer acquisition is the defining problem of the modern web. It's the wind behind Google's revenue sails. The massive investment by companies in virality and SEO are two common ways to attack customer acquisition without paying Google. But a huge amount of interesting internet content is not really susceptible to viral distribution or SEO, and doesn't really lend itself to discovery through Google search marketing. Yahoo could own this space.

The future of the internet (and IP-enabled media) is going to be dominated by what Anthony Noto used to call "access platforms." These are the traffic aggregation points that normally serve as an initial point of contact with customers and a jumping off point to further interactions or explorations. Examples include Google, Facebook, Myspace, iTunes, Xbox Live, and all the smaller finance, weather, sports and news sites that people access directly. As the internet gets even more fragmented and innovative, these aggregation points are even more valuable.

Yahoo is a massive traffic aggregator -- 500MM monthly uniques. Its finance, sports, email, news, IM, mobile, photo sharing, groups, and games are huge direct on-ramps. There's an opportunity to leverage cross-platform identity (think TenCent/QQ), the fire-hose of traffic to new content (think MiniClip on an order of magnitude larger scale across multiple content types, not just games), and a place people go to discover new content in a hierarchical, taxonomic way rather than noisy Google search (think Comcast). This is how Yahoo can fight Google: by not trying to beat them in search, but rather in all the things that are not best served by search.

3. Cut costs to the bone and really clean house in the executive ranks. This can be a significantly more profitable company with some strong leadership. Brad Garlinghouse said it very well in his "Peanut Butter Manifesto" -- this is a company where multiple fiefdoms, unfocused acquisitions, and overlapping operational responsibilities have led to insane redundancy of effort. This doesn't just duplicate costs, but also creates lassitude and absence of ownership for key verticals.

Fixing this will be hard, because it will involve the firing of a lot of decent middle management and talented engineers. But it is absolutely necessary. In my experience, the preservation of a few good people in a company this fucked up is never worth the risk of organizational paralysis. If you put a weak CEO in here, who will try to "inspire the existing team" you might as well shred your stock certificates. You need a ruthless ass-kicker, who will sleep well at night after firing a couple thousand people, including many senior executives.

I've heard cogent arguments that Yahoo would be best served by being chain-sawed up into it's constituent parts and sold off. That seems like a terrible waste to me. It's really, really hard to aggregate as much traffic as Yahoo has -- it feels wrong to atomize it when it could be such a wonderful revenue engine.