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DealBook: Diagnosing Yahoo’s Ills: Ugly Math in Mayer’s Reign | One Herald
Home / Technology / DealBook: Diagnosing Yahoo’s Ills: Ugly Math in Mayer’s Reign

DealBook: Diagnosing Yahoo’s Ills: Ugly Math in Mayer’s Reign

Let’s do some basic math about Yahoo since Marissa Mayer took the helm over three years ago.

She paid about $ 3 billion for acquisitions of companies you’ve mostly never heard of, like Aviate, Polyvore and Distill (and one company you may have heard of, Tumblr). She spent $ 9.4 billion on stock buybacks; over the last two years, when the stock was trading higher, the buybacks have been a $ 2.5 billion money-losing trade. About $ 365 million of compensation went to Ms. Mayer herself, assuming she stays for an additional year and a half. And $ 109 million to an executive she hired to be her chief operating officer, who was then summarily fired 15 months later. An estimated $ 450 million on free food for the staff. And, depending on whom you believe, double-digit millions of dollars on parties and events, including a “Great Gatsby”-themed holiday party several weeks ago that was held with no apparent irony.

Many of those figures come from a devastating new presentation sent to Yahoo’s board over the weekend by Eric Jackson, who runs a small hedge fund called SpringOwl Asset Management and who has long railed about the company’s missteps.

Inside Yahoo, Mr. Jackson is dismissed as a “small-time” shareholder who “doesn’t have his numbers right,” according to one person involved in the company’s recent travails.

But whatever the size of his stock position in Yahoo or even if his numbers are slightly off, there is an underlying truth to Mr. Jackson’s critique: Despite Ms. Mayer’s insistence that Yahoo is a very different and better company than the one she took over three years ago — and it may well be — it is being valued as if she has done not much of anything.

Indeed, investors think Yahoo’s core business, stripped of its investment in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan, is worthless. Actually, Yahoo is less than worthless, as it is now being ascribed a negative number.

Is it Ms. Mayer’s fault?

That might seem like a fairly straightforward question, but the answer is complicated.

In recent weeks, as a pile-on has taken place over Ms. Mayer’s stewardship of Yahoo — with its stock plummeting and the company reversing a nearly yearlong plan to spin off its stake in Alibaba — a series of Silicon Valley luminaries have come to her defense.

“Marissa Mayer is a hero for taking on the challenge at Yahoo,” Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist and co-founder of Netscape, said on Twitter.

“Huge respect for @marissamayer for leading @Yahoo with courage and heart. It’s easier to criticize than solve innovate or lead. #marissafan,” Mark Pincus, Zynga’s chief executive, wrote.

James Titcomb, a columnist for The Telegraph, defended Ms. Mayer, writing, “It’s not clear that anybody could have saved Yahoo: The succession of failed turnarounds that preceded Mayer’s arrival show that.”

And yet, here we are still talking about a failed turnaround. It’s hard to call it anything else.

Why is Silicon Valley so invested in this story? The obsession with Yahoo overstates its importance within the battlefield that is the big digital advertising and media business. Yahoo remains a touchstone in the Silicon Valley firmament — a fallen angel from the dot-com era that inspired an entire generation of entrepreneurs who still seem to yearn for a bygone era and remain frustrated that this onetime icon can’t find its way back to success that always seems just out of its grasp.

(Two decades ago, Yahoo was arguably the hottest company in Silicon Valley, a true Internet pioneer. Today, there is an acronym, GAFA, that stands for the four dominant players of the digital age — Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon. It’s hard to imagine now, but that acronym, had Yahoo made different strategic decisions, could easily have been Gafay.)

And Ms. Mayer was one of the valley’s so-called rock stars, a successful, whip-smart female executive from Google who was celebrated in financial and fashion publications alike. The problem, perhaps, is that Ms. Mayer never realized that she wasn’t running Google. She spent money as if she were still operating one of the valley’s most coveted companies. Like Google, she provided free food — about $ 108 million worth a year, according to Mr. Jackson’s report. Perhaps one could argue she felt the need to compete with the likes of Google on perks if she were to recruit top talent, but she also managed to overpay to bring people on board through her “aquihire” strategy — basically buying entire companies, often failed or zombie companies, so she could use the “talent” for other purposes.

And while she might have spent too much money on bad acquisitions, she has also been criticized for spending too little. (Yes, she gets criticized coming and going.)

What could she do with the $ 9.4 billion of cash she used for buybacks?

Start making your dream shopping list. There was a time when Netflix was in her price range before its stock rocketed to a market capitalization of more than $ 50 billion. If she had arrived at Yahoo three months earlier, she could have picked off Instagram. Spotify, the music service, has been available the entire time. Snapchat, at one time, would have been a perfect acquisition.

But she never made any of those deals, instead opting for tiny bolt-ons that thus far don’t appear to have moved the dial.

She often points to the growth in Yahoo’s mobile business as a bright spot and a business that didn’t exist three years ago. That is true and the market hasn’t given her credit for it, but mobile remains a fraction of the company’s business. There are most likely other positives she hasn’t gotten credit for either.

But to most investors, her strategy — which she says she will be revising again in January — seems no different than the zigzag strategies of her various predecessor chief executives and dysfunctional boards.

Of course, it is possible that Ms. Mayer could prove everyone wrong. But she is running out of time.

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NYT > Technology

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