Marissa Mayer’s had a year at Yahoo, and I’ll give her a B

After a year at Yahoo, I have to give Marissa Mayer at least a B. She’s managed to keep investors happy — partly by a fairly aggressive stock buy back, using funds from sales of Alilbaba stock — but also because her fast clip of acquisitions and strong morale of Yahoo staff look like she’s actually building something in the formerly inert web company.
Let’s revisit that acquisition spree. In just the last few months, Yahoo made nine acquisitions: Summly, Astrid, Milewise, Loki Studios, Go Poll Go, PlayerScale, Rondee, Ghostbird Software and Tumblr. Some of these are acqui-hires, but Tumblr is potentially a huge deal, if Yahoo can figure out how to make money there.
Actually, I think making money on ads should be straightforward on Tumblr, since the company curates so-called ‘topics’ (more or less tags), like ‘design’ and ‘tech’. It would be fairly simple to rent ad space on those topics (and all the others) to brands wanting to be there. And they probably get good traffic, and could get more if Tumblr made the pages public, so visitors wouldn’t have to login to get there.
But money is exactly the point, because Mayer apparently is spending a lot, and ad and search revenues are falling. Ad revenue fell 12% to $472 million from $535 million a year earlier. Search is a mixed bag, but revenues are down 9% since the year before, but Yahoo’s deal with Microsoft means that Microsoft will make up for poor search revenues.
All told, Yahoo has spent $1.2 billion since the start of the year, even after selling $846 million of Alibaba stock back. Yahoo still has an estimated $10 billion in Alibaba stock, and $4.8 billion in the bank, but $1.2 billion in six months is worrisome.
However, Yahoo’s market perception is falling, down from an index of 38 in July 2012 to around 25 today, as measured by YouGov. That was much higher than competitors, but now the difference is negligible.
So, the bottom line: can Mayer build a new social media centered leviathan quickly enough to satisfy the market and her shareholders? I think the jury is out, but she is making the moves that would be the first steps of a future winner. She’s made some fast cosmetic fixes to existing properties (although I think the Flickr ‘upgrade’ just moved the ugly around), and the acquisition of Tumblr could be the start of something gigantic, if she can get David Karp to open up the topics to Tumblr non-users.
We’ll see if she can pull together some other monster product from the tiny start-ups she’s fond of buying. She’d better, or it will just look like expensive hiring.
And finally: the ‘no remote work’ policy is a step backward for worker rights. Yes, Mayer believes that it is necessary to create the kind of culture at Yahoo that she believes is the foundation for being a better company. So if it is a short-term, ‘let’s act like a startup’ sprint, maybe we could all just hold our noses for a year. But the proof is in the pudding, even in that case. If she does get that culture to ferment, then she’ll have to relax the rules, or it’s simply building a stress factory that will drive away anyone who wants a life, or children, or needs to care for aging parents. So, we’ll have to see what sort of culture emerges, and what it produces. I’d give her a B+ if she’d figured out that a great corporate culture can support remote work, even when trying to turn it around.
So, she’s bought herself time, but the clock is ticking.