Jia Lynn Yang is a business editor at The Washington Post.
By Nicholas Carlson
Twelve. 357 pp. $30
Of all the tech companies in the world, it’s hard to imagine one less appealing for exhaustive treatment in a book than Yahoo, a firm that has meandered from one bad strategy to another for more than a decade and lost its cultural currency before Mark Zuckerberg even started Facebook in his dorm room. But a book about Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s chief executive, is an entirely different story.
Like Hollywood, corporate America has its stars. And Mayer is one of them. Even before she became the leader of Yahoo two years ago, Mayer’s rise was the stuff of Silicon Valley lore. She was one of the earliest employees at Google — a brilliant Stanford grad who had her pick of companies but, because she could sense its potential, chose to work at a start-up focused on Web search. She quickly rose to a powerful perch overseeing the look and feel of Google’s consumer products, from search and Gmail to Google Maps. Users responded, flocking to Google’s products and abandoning rivals such as Hotmail and MapQuest. In an industry where women are a rarity, here was one in the top ranks who also wrote code. Soon, Mayer became a face of Google, routinely appearing on magazine covers and on TV to brag about the company’s latest products.
When she left Google in 2012 to run Yahoo at age 37, her star power only grew. She was pregnant when she accepted the job — news that shocked the business world but a milestone that Mayer carried off with aplomb. There were more magazine photo spreads, including a much-discussed Vogue feature showing Mayer posed upside down in a lounge chair, her blonde hair fanned out, holding a tablet with her face on the screen.
Two years into her tenure at Yahoo, the only question is: Has any of Mayer’s glow brightened Yahoo’s prospects?
In his new book, “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!,” Business Insider writer Nicholas Carlson determines that, for all the fanfare, Mayer hasn’t delivered much. Of course, you don’t need a 300-page book to reach that conclusion. The company’s financial results on Mayer’s watch have been unimpressive. Revenue from the company’s most recent quarter is essentially flat, if not slightly down, compared with when she started. The stock is up, but that’s mainly because of Yahoo’s valuable stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, rather than anything Mayer has done.
What Carlson offers, instead, are juicy details about Mayer’s missteps and management style. For instance, she handed over responsibility for Yahoo’s revenue, sales force and media business — pretty much the most important parts of company — to Henrique De Castro, a former top sales executive at Google, even though he had no experience for a job of such magnitude. To Mayer’s credit, she fired De Castro when he turned out to be a disaster. Carlson describes this moment as one in which Mayer “failed fast,” a Silicon Valley cliche often used by executives to put a good spin on bad judgment calls. Never mind that she failed to fully vet her hire and that she negotiated his pay: $109 million for 15 months of work.
Mayer also has stumbled in her attempts to turn Yahoo into a successful media company. She starved the budget for Shine, the company’s popular Internet destination for women that brought in $45 million a year. To her, the site seemed too dowdy, and she wanted to steer the company in a more upscale direction. So she poured money into launching what she called “digital magazines,” hiring pricey personalities such as TV anchor Katie Couric and tech columnist David Pogue. Nonetheless, revenue from ads running alongside Yahoo content is declining.
Employees describe Mayer as cold, prone to micromanaging and unwilling to listen, even though she instituted unprecedented weekly all-employee meetings where anyone could ask her any question about the company. She doesn’t like talking about her gender (and Carlson doesn’t bring it up much, either). But it’s nonsense to pretend that being a woman doesn’t shape how she is perceived. Research has established that female leaders are expected — more than men — to be warm and nurturing, and they get punished when they’re not. When women act more authoritatively — which Mayer has certainly done at Yahoo — they’re disliked much more than men. But Carlson doesn’t note any of this. Instead he just passes along the critiques of the Yahoo CEO without attributing them to anyone.
And Mayer’s gender is important for another reason. Like other women in corporate America, she was tapped to run a company that was slipping fast. Examples of this “glass cliff” abound, from Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, to Ginni Rometty, the current head of IBM.
The title of Carlson’s book is a little misleading. His account begins with a scene of Mayer at Yahoo, but not until two-thirds of the way into the book does she have her first day on the job. Everything before that is a preamble, guiding the reader from the early, genuinely exciting days of Yahoo through every crummy strategy since. No one who has followed the travails of the company will be surprised by the history Carlson lays out in detail. But it is amusing to remember that Yahoo’s Web site began mostly as a diversion for co-founders Jerry Yang and David Filo: David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. It was just a list of Web pages that the two thought were cool, from porn sites to a page with a lava lamp on it.
Carlson tries to inject as much drama as he can into Yahoo’s story, but sometimes his efforts fall flat. We learn, for example, that Mayer talked to her mother on the phone every day and that, toward the end of 2012, her mom said: “You know, Marissa, you just seem really, really confident. It seems like you have a really hard job. Should you really be this confident?” Carlson writes that Mayer went to bed rolling her mother’s question over in her mind, and when she woke up the next morning, she “decided the answer was yes. The fact was, things were going really well at Yahoo.”
Great books about businesses focus on spectacular success or failure. David Price’s “The Pixar Touch” traces the improbable rise of the exciting animation company. Roger Lowenstein’s classic “When Genius Failed” tells the gripping story of how Long-Term Capital Management went bust. There’s only so much Carlson can do with his material because, ultimately, there’s not a lot that’s spectacular about Yahoo’s story, a fact the author tries to mask by focusing on Mayer.
Reading “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!” does, however, make one thing clear. The question isn’t whether Mayer can save Yahoo. It’s whether Yahoo can be saved at all. Either way — and even if the company tanks tomorrow — Mayer remains the most interesting thing about Yahoo. And she appears to be unstoppable.