Can Marissa Mayer Save Yahoo! (Part III): The Product Focussed Turn-Around
Continued from Part II
Cahan’s division, called Mobile and Emerging Products, now exceeds 330 people and has its primary offices in New York, San Francisco, and Sunnyvale, Calif. Underscoring mobile’s importance, Mayer ordered the team’s work space in Sunnyvale renovated. Unlike the soporific purple and beige cubiclevilles that fill the rest of Yahoo’s dot-com-era headquarters, the mobile group has adjustable workstations that let employees sit or stand. There’s an exposed ceiling, whiteboards on every other wall, and big colorful posters that display giant iPhone screens.
The division’s employees also get personal attention from the boss. Mobile engineers describe regular product reviews where Mayer pushes them to move faster and think bigger. She often focuses on individual pixels on the screen and is comfortable letting her instincts trump empirical data. “Just because we have a ruler doesn’t mean we have to measure everything,” she said at one review, according to Lee Parry, senior director in the mobile group and a seven-year Yahoo veteran.
Over the last few months, Cahan, Parry, and their colleagues have released apps for Yahoo Mail, Weather, Fantasy Football, and the Flickr photo-sharing service. They’ve also unveiled the Yahoo news-reading app, which integrates technology from Summly, a startup founded by London teenager Nick D’Aloisio that Yahoo bought in March for $30 million. The app uses Summly’s text-summarizing software to abridge everything from sports game recaps to Mayer’s own quarterly earnings presentations.
Yahoo says that after redesigns, traffic to mobile applications such as Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Weather, and the news app is up 120, 150, and 55 percent, respectively. There are clearly more apps on the way: A large chart on the office wall has a schedule crammed with product launches and suggests that apps for Yahoo Groups and Messenger are in the works. “We know there is going to be skepticism,” Parry says. “The fact that we are already seeing the payoff is giving everyone faith that we’re on the right path. That’s what Marissa is so great at. She’s shining a light and beating a path to the horizon and saying, ‘This is where we are going.’”
There was no shortage of skepticism when Mayer departed Google, her only professional home, for the dismal scene that was Yahoo last summer. A pay package valued at $36.6 million in salary and stock for 2012 alone, according to company filings, was no doubt convincing, but Mayer insists she was passionate about the opportunity. And though she vows to focus an interview on corporate strategy, she can’t resist describing her momentary panic and disappointment when she thought she didn’t get the CEO job.
Mayer had pursued the position in total secrecy. She had to say the code words “project cardinal” to a limo driver waiting outside her Palo Alto home, who then drove her to a Silicon Valley law firm for a meeting with Yahoo’s board. The board was supposed to call with its decision by 8 p.m. When the hour arrived, she and her husband, investor Zachary Bogue, were at a dinner party, and Mayer was battling the urge to keep checking her phone. “I saw such an opportunity here,” she says, “and felt like I had so many ideas.” She also felt that after 10-plus years at Google, it was time to leave.
At 9:45 p.m., Mayer’s phone was still silent. She was crestfallen and making frantic hand gestures to Bogue that she wanted to leave the party. (Bogue, enjoying his seat next to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, wanted to stay.) Finally, as they were saying their goodbyes, Mayer got a call from Jim Citrin, a partner at Yahoo’s executive recruitment firm, Spencer Stuart. Propriety demanded she let it go to voice mail. A year later in the Yahoo cafeteria, she taps her iPhone screen and plays it: “Marissa … you should be smiling,” Citrin is saying. “We’re smiling. Call me ASAP.”
Mayer is relentless in her search for other believers. In addition to her mobile hiring spree, she’s begun shifting funds back into Yahoo’s research organization, which previous CEO Thompson gutted in a round of layoffs. She says the lab has a goal of hiring 50 Ph.D.s this year and has already signed up 30.
Continued to Part IV