I try my best not to call out particular companies in my writing though from time to time I have done so. I do so when only absolutely necessary to make a point that I would like to make, basically because it’s not great business to have people (or entire companies) upset with you. Also, though I work for enlightened people who have given me freedom to express my personal ideas through presentations, blogs podcasts, etc., I don’t want to strain that relationship. As always, the thoughts expressed here are my own and not necessarily endorsed by my employer.
Caveats aside, I wanted to address something that has been weighing heavy on my mind. I have found that expressing myself through writing has a tendency to clear my mind so you can view this blog as a form of self-therapy. My topic this week is the fall of a company I (still) have a great deal of affection for, one that I continue to support. To me this company “was” the internet and their rise and past prominence represented what was best of Silicon Valley. More troubling is their subsequent lack of direction and downfall represents what can be thought of as the worst of Silicon Valley. I am not the first (and will not be the last) to weigh in on the tragedy that goes by the name of Yahoo!
I have often stated that when a company has hit “rock bottom” (as in my previous blog) it is time to acknowledge some core truths about their business and, only then, can the healing process begin. There is much to heal at Yahoo! I speak not simply about financial concerns. Although these are paramount, in many respects financial difficulties are merely the symptoms of much larger problems, for instance, confidence in Yahoo! as a brand. While many, myself included, continue to use Yahoo!, it has, for some time, lacked the cache’ that brands like Google, Facebook, Apple (and even Microsoft) have. Not only does it not seem to have a particular direction, if it had some direction, that direction would not be seen as “cool”.
This begs the question as to what direction should Yahoo! take. This is where I believe Yahoo! has squandered some opportunity because I believe that the only mission worthy of enticing talent back to a failing enterprise must be a bold one, a moon shot if you will. To date, Yahoo! appears to have taken no real bold moves (with the exception of over spending on Katie Couric). Their competition, the ones “eating their lunch” have – Alphabet (formerly Google) has multiple moon shots, including self driving cars, Elon Musk is in Fremont forging a new future of electric cars and rockets, Apple is rumored to be developing their own car, etc. Technology IS talent and talent will go where it is inspired. I thought of this the other day when I attended an event at AOL. Tell someone that you attended an event at AOL and the first thing out of their mouth is “you mean they are still in business?” Yahoo! will be the same in very short order unless they can change perception. To me that will begin when they find their own “moon shot.” It will not happen anymore with only incremental change.
I remember reading somewhere that the problem with Silicon Valley is there is a tendency to solve the problems of no longer living with your mother. There are a ton of startups not taking on the larger battles society is facing (and many like global warming that society is currently losing). I think there are two lessons for Yahoo in this; one, they must begin acting more like a startup, and two, they must be a startup that is actually solving problems whose solutions will be meaningful and impactful to society at large.
While there are a number of societal problems Yahoo could choose to tackle, like global warming or clean and safe drinking water, let me suggest one that I feel would be a good fit – education. In fact, I have a great name for it, Yahoo University (or as my wife affectionately calls it – Yahoo U). Why education? Yahoo is now primarily a content provider so a great deal of infrastructure is in place to begin solving the problems of the current educational system. I think that smart acquisition or partnerships with a number of companies operating in this space (think Khan Academy and the various coding bootcamps) could give Yahoo University an advantage. It would certainly have name recognition (which is one of its few convertible assets outside of Alibaba).
Attempts to solve the problems of education for the way we work today have been made by many parties, but no satisfactory solutions have been made. At issue is creating education that is actually useful to the general populace in positioning them for gainful employment in our quickly shifting, knowledge-based economy. Traditional classroom education has suffered because it still dictates “what” to learn instead of “how” to learn. For example, what good is it to teach someone Objective C when it is no longer being used or desired in the real world? What happens when the world has moved on to Swift? The real issue is to teach someone how to teach himself or herself to learn Objective C so that when they need to learn Swift they have the skills to teach it to themself. In other words, we must move away from content for content’s sake and teach the mental agility necessary to survive. Technology has existed for sometime to solve this particular issue yet we have done little to use technology for this goal. Instead we have used the technology to shovel content. It’s as if we teach people to drive a Ford and when given a Chevy they cannot drive it.
While I could rant more on this topic, I feel it is important to also address how one would go about making real money from such an endeavor and how Yahoo can reinvigorate its sagging stock prices. It would be most obvious that Yahoo University could borrow the model from existing online educators such as the University of Phoenix, but this would be a mistake. Anyone paying attention to this space would know that the fortunes of private sector online educators is bleak. I, myself, worked for the Apollo Group, the parent of University of Phoenix and personally know some of the problems that have crippled them over time – things like over-reliance on government-backed student loans, high tuition costs, students with high debt and poor prospects of repaying debt, etc. Online education was a brief success and made some wildly prosperous – just not necessarily the students.
I propose a more radical solution for Yahoo University – free education. But how can you make money providing education for free? You can, if the education you provide actually has a value to the world at large. I propose that students entering courses that have a good prospect of being placed in real jobs be given a free education with the stipulation that Yahoo University be reimbursed when they student is placed in a job related to their education. This aligns the motivation of the educator in doing what is necessary to provide marketable skills and the motivation to actually ensure that the student get a job! Being in the staffing industry I know that a properly educated and placed individual can provide enough compensation on the back end to justify the expense on the front end. In talking with my friends in software development, this is exactly what is happening in countries outside the United States with H1-B candidates taking the jobs that could be filled with Yahoo University graduates.
As to the issue of stock value, I think that taking this course of action will make it much easier to increase shareholder value. If I were the CEO of a company on the course described above, I would take my argument not only to Wall Street but to Main Street. The incredible societal value of providing free and meaningful education and job placement would inspire investor outside of Wall Street. While I am the last to wrap myself in the flag, there is certainly not only something not only highly practical to this plan, but something downright patriotic in solving American problems with American citizens. I don’t find it hard to imagine that people would want to purchase shares of a company that had such a unique and worthy vision. Of course, it would not hurt that as Main Street bought shares that Wall Street would join.
I do not know Marissa Mayer and it may be that where Yahoo! is now has nothing to do with her leadership. She may be the most competent individual on planet earth (we all know she was successful at Google), but what matters is perception, and right or wrong, the perceptions of Marissa Mayer are predominantly negative, both with the public at large and within the employees (and ex-employees) of Yahoo! I cannot see how Yahoo! could make the necessary transition without removing the current CEO.
I guess you can file this blog under the title of a modest proposal. I wish Yahoo all the best and I am sure that there are many others who agree and would like to see this once proud company bounce back. If you, dear reader, agree, I would suggest that you take the time to share this post with others, like this post, or feel free to leave your comments. Perhaps the folks at Yahoo will take notice. Perhaps if they did they might find something valuable as they face the tough times ahead. At the very least one can hope.