Fortune Magazine has claimed that Yahoo’s reported 40 potential buyers is nothing more than a publican relations attempt to drum up more interest, as the market becomes – if possible – even more wary of the business.
The former darling of silicon valley and pioneer of homepage browsing is set to become nothing more than an ominous footnote in the history of the Internet. This however, would be a shame, not because Yahoo deserves more credit, but rather that it serves more purpose as a cautionary tale rather than the story of a good business that slowly went bad.
Yahoo had numerous opportunities to turn around its fortunes, including numerous attempts to diversify its product offering, with former CEO Terry Semmel saying in 2002 that they were experiencing “Big growth in three different buckets,” those buckets being it’s traditional advertising sales, listings (including an acquired online jobs page,) and early search advertising. However, at it’s core Yahoo remained a homepage. Even while moving into other services such as email, groups, classifieds and news, it always centred around the outdated concept that uses would orbit a single page.
Yahoo’s culture of excess has been well documented. Even after the dot-com crash of 2000, which saw a realignment in the hierarchy of tech domination, Yahoo continued heedless spending, including the purchase of Geocities for 4.6 billion and Broadcast.com for 5.7 billion, both around 2001. This set the scene for a string of CEOs, seemingly unencumbered with shareholder obligations, to go on numerous spending sprees, often for no apparent reason. Even taking into account Yahoo’s sprawling campus and lavish corporate headquarters, the amount spent on needless initiatives would be difficult to calculate.
It’s difficult to directly criticise Yahoo’s corporate structure, because it doesn’t seem to have one. Somehow, the business never evolved from being a start-up and internal tales of ‘mini-empires,’ being created by managers who didn’t seem to report to anyone became commonplace. Yahoo was said to be the place to go if you wanted power, money and no responsibility. In fact, the business became synonymous with ill discipline and was spoken of as the antidote for anyone considering creating an empowering workplace without structure. Of course, this isn’t entirely fair and Yahoo’s hierarchal issues can be traced back to various personality cults and a rapid turnover of senior executives, resulting in reduced accountability, measurement and intention within the sprawling business.
Critically, Yahoo’s business strategy centred around acquisition, with over 100 companies being purchased, the most recent of which was social commerce website Polyvore in 2015. However, post-acquisition strategy seemed non-existent, as businesses were left to languish or thrive on their own – an extension of Yahoo’s culture of empowerment. Unfortunately, it didn’t work and businesses acquired by the tech giant often failed to meet either Yahoo or market expectations.
Whether Yahoo can find a buyer or not remains to be seen. Enough has been written about it’s finances for any member of the public to be able to complete due diligence, but that is not the issue. Yahoo still attracts a staggering amount of visitors and portions of the business are still doing exceptionally well, but many are not. The right buyer will have to come in with an aggressive strategy to repair years of cultural damage, which will have many wondering, is it worth it?