What Really Really Happened to Yahoo? [A Perspective]

[I wrote this article after reading Paul Graham’s ‘What happened to Yahoo’ (published about 3 months back) to share some of my observation/experience at Yahoo. I earlier decided not to publish this, but recent news/confusion about Yahoo’s Delicious shutdown really got me to hit the ‘Publish’ button.]

First of all, let me tell you that Yahoo is a great company to work for – especially if you are a geek and enjoy hacking. Yahoo has a great working culture and is a lot more open organization than Google or Facebook.

Having said that, Yahoo is one of those companies who have simply lost the game – not because of external environment, but purely because of internal decisions, politics and the status-quo loving middle management.
Yahoo had the strongest hold in ‘social’ space (don’t you think that Yahoo groups was one of your most active/intimate social network), but today, it’s no way close to Facebook when it comes to social. Same with search, mail and pretty much each and every property Yahoo was known for.

So what really happened? Well, here are a few observations from my experience working for the giant (between 2007-2009).

Decision @Snail Pace

My first job in Yahoo was to sunset one of the most well known brand that Yahoo owned. I worked with several geographies, BU owners and took ~2 months to convince them that the deed is worth it (falling traffic/old code not worth rewriting/new web2.0 easy-to-build services etc etc). The biggest challenge was convincing the super hero, i.e. the boss (lets call him ‘Mr. X’) who was supposed to allocate $$ (i.e. resource) for the same (he never said NO, but simply kept delaying the decision).

Mr. X never agreed to the act (he kept citing 2004‘s consumer brand research report,  when this property was among the top 5 Internet brands in US) – he kept delaying any decision and resorted toall is well and stale strategy.
Over a period of time, he moved on (he was promotedn within the BU!) and interestingly, his replacement (lets call him Mr. Y) took only 30 minutes to understand why we need to sunset this property. More than the data reason (i.e. falling traffic), he agreed on the strategic reasons to sunset this specific property. That was a milestone day for me (and the product).

Question for you : Who was let go, in one of the layoff season? The guy (Mr. X) who believed in status-quo or the guy (Mr. Y) who believed in shaking up the status quo?

Answer: Mr. Y!

Why Y? I guess he was too fast for the company?

Lack of Internal Evangelist/Product Champions

How many Yahoo employees use GTalk over Y! IM for personal purpose? Can Yahoo search team convince their 12,000+ colleagues (or what’er is the number these days) to use Yahoo search (and share feedback/suggest features) and not Google?

Can product managers stand up and answer this? Why is it that there are multiple teams building similar products (with few feature difference, but none of those qualify as a product).

This reminds me of a talk by Paul Buchheit (of Gmail fame), where he mentioned how important is it to have atleast 100 internal happy users, before you launch a product. Most of Yahoo new products have failed because they were launched for wrong reasons (read the next point). There hardly are passionate internal users of the system and that’s because there is a sincere lack of internal evangelists (or rather, believers) in the company.

Yahoo Needs Apple Like Focus

Buck Stops…But Where?

Remember Spotm? The social network from Yahoo? Remember Mash? Remember Searchmonkey? What about Y! Pipes?

Who owns the responsibility of such products (and their failure)? Trial and error is part of the game, but the most important part is to ensure that there is an accountability to all these experiments (and ensure that there are more trials than failure).

Typically, once a product is launched – everybody in the product team gets promoted. They are moved to ‘more’ challenging opportunities. Celebration happens after product launch (launch=success!). But what after that? Many senior execs use product launch as a tool to move up the chain, leaving the product in the middle of nowhere.

The thing about Yahoo is that nobody owns the product – there are too many teams having a stake in the product and what you see is an experiment that is launched before appraisal cycle and is phased out later, citing ‘we had a good learning from this experiment’ reasons. This is what the ‘peanut butter’ email was all about.

Somebody needs to fix this and I hope ‘WTF’ CEO just does that. She needs to drop a *F bomb* somewhere inside the company.

Need for a Hard Hand?

Apple has Steve Jobs. Google has the trio. Amazon has Jeff Bozos.

What about Yahoo?

You need a hard hand to drive business plus product decisions. Somebody just needs to be the bad guy (or girl). Yahoo needs one. Right now. Somebody who has great insights and vision for the Internet 2020.

Yahoo probably has (or atleast used to) some of the best engineers, but it’s the senior management that is to be blamed for its current state. A lot needs to be achieved – especially when it comes to accountability (can you really trust Yahoo if tomorrow they announce an API for LBS?). When was the last time you had an awesome feeling after using a Yahoo product?

There was a time when Yahoo was synonym with Internet, but then..

My 2 cents (after her $48mn salary) to Carol Bartz (or the next CEO) – Break the local power centers in the company. Get rid of all those who have stayed in the company for more than 7 years – they are a liability as they live in a ‘know it all’ state and are anti-change. You need fresh blood. And for god sake, stop bleeding (purple) please.

Yahoo needs to pivot, just like a startup. The time is now.

[Please note – I have moved on and like I said in the beginning of the post, I didn’t plan to publish this (what you see is a much sober version), but the recent Delicious/MyBloglog etc story has washed away all the confidence I had in Yahoo (that they will make a comeback). I am switching off comments (a rare thing at Pluggd.in) as its time to focus on more constructive things. As far as Yahoo is concerned, I have met some of the most amazing geeks/product/sales guys during my stint in Yahoo and wish them all the best.]

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