Does Yahoo’s New Vision Miss an Opportunity?

Early in 2014 Marissa Mayer took to the stage at CES to articulate how Yahoo’s new corporate vision would take shape in the real world. Yahoo’s stated vision is: Yahoo makes the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining.” The words are powerful and inspiring but as my grandmother used to say; the proof of the pudding lies in the eating!

One could argue that when we get up in the morning, we brush our teeth, wash our face and we shower; all these are also considered daily habits – so is Yahoo going to make some or all of our mundane morning routines more inspiring? Perhaps, Unilever or Procter & Gamble are better placed to deliver this vision. Of course, I am being facetious but you get my point. The power of any corporate vision lies entirely in how well its products and services are delivered, in a customer-centric manner, and how unique and compelling they can make the offering. At CES, Ms. Mayer also stated that the crux of this new vision was around“…simplifying [Yahoo’s] business, moving from complexity to clarity.” Simplification is a good thing but what exactly does this mean for Yahoo?

Last year Ms. Mayer hired David Pogue, the well-known New York Times tech reporter, and followed this with another high profile media personality earlier this year. Katie Couric will serve as Yahoo’s global news anchor. Ms. Mayer went on to add “we decided to do what I love – harness the power of the web and deliver it in a concise experience, like that found in the beautiful, elegant magazine.” Yahoo’s first digital magazine was launched with much fanfare at CES, by Mr. Pogue. He explained, “At Yahoo Tech, we’re going to speak English, it’s called human – we’re taking care of the middle 85% of internet users, the normal people.” This will be followed by Yahoo Food, and Yahoo News Digest which will utilize Summly’s technology (one of the startups Yahoo bought) to pull content from various sources across the web, and neatly summarize them into digestible little bits for readers; and this “highly personalized content for users” will be delivered in a “mobile-first” experience.

Perhaps, I am a Luddite but my reading of all this translates into Yahoo turning itself into an even more media-focused company than it was at its inception; one that might rival an AOL and Huffington Post one day. I understand this strategy is being driven by the fact that Yahoo has always been a content-driven advertising platform, and content brings eyeballs which in turn brings advertisers and ad revenue. So it would seem that Ms. Mayer is going back to the company’s roots but smartly dressing it up with sexy design, intuitive technology; served up in a mobile offering that is bite sized, easy to digest and highly personalized. While I laud the fact that she is not trying to re-invent the wheel and trying to offer a simpler, more personal internet; at a time when the web has started to feel more and more like an unwieldy behemoth of crappy content – I have two concerns.

The first lies in Yahoo trying to create original content. For them to be successful, their content needs to be stuff that people will not only find valuable but also want to consume and share with others; on a daily basis. When Yahoo was born, back in 1994, the internet was a barren wasteland for content but today it is a very different story. The creation of quality content is no longer limited to companies or organisations with a vast array of talent and financial resources; in fact quite the opposite. These days the most engaging, imaginative and ‘real’ content is being created by individuals with a point-of-view and a smartphone. Yahoo will face the same challenge and struggles that every other content creator and aggregator is facing; from Time to Newsweek to AOL – the ability to differentiate their stuff, stay relevant and do it in a way that appeals to a wide audience and cut across age groups and geographies. A task much easier said than done in today’s content rich internet landscape. It is possible Yahoo will succeed where many others have failed but to me the bigger travesty is that by pursuing this path they might be missing a larger opportunity.

As the internet has grown, it has become much more restrictive and fragmented from a user standpoint. By this I mean that every major service today is trying to silo their users into using only their platform and/or offerings. As a result there is very little ability to share, cross-pollinate and navigate the internet in a free and uninhibited manner. All the major players are busy trying to create their own little fiefdoms; one that forces users to sign-in, browse, share, purchase, read, write, etc. through a single service. They are doing this because it allows them to accumulate valuable information on each of us; our habits and behaviours and likes and dislikes across the entire internet. Whether it is Google forcing people to create a GooglePlus profile to use any of their services (from Gmail to YouTube), Facebook making us use their login across the web, while systematically reducing their privacy barriers, or Apple and Amazon locking us in for all our entertainment needs – it is a race to know us better and read our minds so they can sell this information to advertisers, who in turn can sell us more.

However, unlike, Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft; Yahoo does not have their own social network, operating system, device, search engine or anything else that would tether them to a single platform or ecosystem. In this regard they are the only large internet player that can deliver truly agnostic products and services by combining the best third party partnerships with their proprietary technologies, like Summly. As the larger companies continue to force us deeper and deeper into their siloed ecosystems it will become even more valuable for consumers to find companies and products that allow us to unshackle the internet. Yahoo could be well positioned to do this if they don’t expend their energy and resources on making and selling pretty little digital magazines; which any Tom, Linda or Harry can do today.

This to my mind is where Yahoo should focus its business and efforts; positioning itself as the glue across the internet. They are the only company that can stand behind the promise of delivering a truly consumer-centered, device and platform agnostic vision. So while their goal to simplify the internet is a good one, their current strategy does not go far enough in tapping into what could become a huge differentiator and competitive advantage for Yahoo.

Marissa Mayer and The New Yahoo Employee Policy

Marrisa Mayer is absolutely right that real and meaningful relationships cannot be built purely from behind computer screens, via email, or over the phone. I don’t care what anyone says about the proliferation of technology and the ease-of-access it has provided for an increasingly mobile workforce, and it has, but it is still not close to being a substitute for face-to-face contact and the casual in-person encounters in lunch rooms or other parts of an office that form the intangibles of building human relationships.

I admit that people can be extremely efficient working remotely. It is easy to interact with various departments, have meetings over Skype and pretty much complete every task you need to, in order fulfill your job responsibilities. I also know many companies today are entirely virtual, and are thriving, but I bet even their CEO’s will admit that with more money (or much lower travel costs) they too would want their employees to meet more often, in-person. Ultimately, every company leader realizes that you cannot create that highly intangible yet extremely valuable thing we call “culture.” Corporations that have it feel more familiar, warmer and more like a home away from home for employees. They provide a common purpose, and those that do it better, create a sense of belonging to a tribe.  Just think about the amount of time we all spend working …

Here the rub; you simply cannot build meaningful relationships with people you have never sat across the table from, shared a latte with or broken bread with. A very wise CEO once told me that “everything that happens after 6pm is far more important than what transpires during the workday; this is where the magic happens.” He was absolutely right. It is during these moments; when you share the experience of having faced an abusively irate client, discuss the dressing down your boss got in front of you, or have a colleague offer to do something for you, so you can leave early, because they overheard it was you anniversary– these are the things that form the bonds that make up the intangible glue of real relationships. And these moments only transpire when you let your hair down, share a laugh, throw out a random idea based on something you just overheard, or because someone confessed a problem they were facing over lunch. Try taking your finance guy out for a coffee and ask him what he thinks of your latest project, and you will start to understand what I mean.

So while Ms. Mayer was right to bring people back into the office, it seems she may have relied a little too heavily on data to drive he decision and therefore failed miserable on how she executed Yahoo’s new policy (source: Business Insider). As much as I have talked about the virtues of being in the office, I feel equally that there needs to be a balance. People should be able to work from home a few days a week, and this is where technology has provided the ability to do it seamlessly (just not all the time). It should not be one or the other. If I were Ms. Mayer, I would have made it mandatory to be in the office every day for the first six months, for new hires, and then three days a week after that.

The most ironic thing about Ms. Mayer’s approach is that while she may have used data to inform and even make her decision, she clearly needs to learn that she also needs the human touch when executing and implementing policies across the organisation; especially when her objective is try and get people to build better inter-personal relationships.