Yahoo!: Tactics Masquerading as Strategy

by Patrick Moorhead   |   April 24th, 2012

Last week on Yahoo!’s earnings call, CEO Scott Thompson outlined six points the company would pursue to return the company to a proper focus. When I looked at the list, they all made sense as operational principles or even action items. The big problem is that unfortunately, operating principles or action items aren’t a strategy, and this does not bode well for employees, stockholders, advertisers and even end users. The best strategies are set in the context of a strong mission and vision, neither which Yahoo! has communicated to anyone.

My Personal Yahoo! History

I remember telling a colleague that I invested my entire life into Yahoo!. I had Yahoo! Mail, had all my contacts, my calendar, read all my news through My Yahoo, all my notes in Notepad, and even got weather and movie times from them. I would even start at My Yahoo! for search as My Yahoo! was the first place I started in the morning. Now, I start my day at Pulse News on a tablet or phone over coffee, listen to podcasts while taking my kids to school then then go to Twitter and Facebook for “cultivated” news. I rarely go to a Yahoo! property with the exception to check out stock prices on Yahoo Finance. I’m not alone as Yahoo users have fled to Google for search and mail, Facebook and Twitter for social media, and vertical, specialized sites like Instagram, Pinterest, Foodspotting, and Goba. It all makes sense, though, the story of a big company’s downfall.

Being the 800 lb Gorilla Difficult

Being the largest kid on the block is great at times. I know; I worked for AT&T and Compaq at their peaks. I worked for companies who created and took markets. It was fun as I worked for the more entrepreneurial divisions. I saw IBM in the late 80′s and early 90′s almost left for dead before they became untouchable as they appear at least today. Then there’s AOL who keeps fading farther into the background, buying content brands that are full of conflict. The jury is out on Microsoft and Google if they have already peaked or can move to where they are perceived as the leader. Net-net, being the 800 lb gorilla isn’t an easy thing because of three primary reasons. First, large, successful companies when they get large, become slower and bureaucratic. The inventors are replaced by people who are great at process and but light on vision. Secondly, these companies are concerned more with playing defense and protecting their ground and less out about winning in new markets. Third, these companies face the innovator’s dilemma, where they incrementally improve their services as opposed to investing in disruptive exploration. It’s hard being the 800 lb gorilla. So how does Yahoo! intend to deal with this?

Yahoo!’s Six Points of “Strategy”

On the Q1 2012 earnings call, Yahoo! CEO outlined six “essential elements of [the] plan.” This was after layoffs and after a reorganization. Most companies let strategy dictate organization, but I don’t believe that’s not the case here. Here are the six strategy elements verbatim:

  1. consolidating technology platforms and shutting down on transitioning roughly 50 properties that don’t contribute meaningfully to engagement of revenue
  2. defining our core media connections and commerce businesses, including News, Finance, Sports, Entertainment, Mail and a handful of others. Those properties that generate the majority of our engagement and revenue.
  3. moving engineers into our commerce businesses to put them closer to our user and dedicating some of our best and brightest Yahoo!s to meaningful innovation in those core businesses.
  4. accelerating the deployment of the platforms and technologies we’ve built to make each of our properties more scalable, nimble and flexible, and therefore, less costly and time consuming to run.
  5. making better use of Yahoo!’s vast data to personalize user experiences and dramatically improve advertiser ROI.
  6. refocusing our R&D on Owned and Operated properties and stopping development of a number of initiatives, including platforms for outside publishers and theoretical science that were outside of our core.
These are great tactics and action items but don’t provide any insights into what matter first and foremost.

Where Does Yahoo! Intend to Win?

The tactics above are great in the context of a solid mission, vision and objectives, but Yahoo!’s says nothing about where it wants to win. You see, getting every Yahoo! employee working in a single direction is the right thing to do, but what if it’s the wrong direction? This would be catastrophic and at least what I see communicated this is exactly where Yahoo! is headed. The first question is, “where does Yahoo! want to win that is uniquely valuable to consumers and to advertisers?” That piece is a mystery for Yahoo!. Yahoo! needs to lean into something, and they have a lot of choices as they are still in the large growth segment:

  • local
  • deals
  • mobile
  • social
  • photos
  • living room
  • specialized verticals

I’m not advocating for any one of these at this moment, but Yahoo! needs to choose something, anything, to get the remaining 12,000 employees focused on. I won’t be enough presumptive to say Yahoo! doesn’t have a strategy floating around on the Executive Staff’s desks, but it certainly isn’t being communicated to stakeholders who need it.

Yahoo! Next Steps

Yahoo! needs to regroup after the last few weeks and in the next few months, decide where they want to win,communicate this broadly, then create a supporting strategy, then organize to deliver on that strategy. The last month has been nothing but triage, and if they need to quickly reorganize again to support a real strategy, most of the few weeks will have been a waste of time for the employees. Yahoo! has two paths they can go as a former 800 lb gorilla; the Apple/IBM way or the Excite/DEC way. I’d like to see Yahoo! make a comeback for more than the nostalgia; I’d like to see a Yahoo! comeback to inspire everyone in the industry that comebacks can happen and employees and key leaders can make it happen. That’s good for everyone. Who doesn’t love a comeback?

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • http://kaizenity.blogspot.com/ FalKirk

    Agree with your post. But if we talked about what was wrong with Yahoo we would be talking all day long. So let me just foucs on strategy number 1:

    “consolidating technology platforms and shutting down on transitioning roughly 50 properties that don’t contribute meaningfully to engagement of revenue”

    First, it seems like Yahoo has already been doing this forever. It’s like cutting off a dogs tail an inch at a time. Painful and counter-productive. More on that later.

    Second, this is not a strategy that you ANNOUNCE. This is a strategy that you DO! Pick what has to go and get rid of it. Now. Today. Don’t tell your employees that some of them are GOING to be fired…eventually…once we get around to it. Announce the cuts. Make the move. Don’t foreshadow that horrible things are going to happen. Do it and be done with it.

    This is the worst possible way to consolidate a company. What you want to do is kill off everything you’re going to kill, pull in the survivors and say: “You’re my guys You’re my team. You’re the one I’ve chosen to go to battle with and you’re the ones who are going to turn things around and make Yahoo a success!”.

    Boom. End of story. Anything less is just management not understanding how employees think. it’s just management watching the company die for fear that they might be blamed. MAKE A DECISION. Then act on it. And do it now.