Yahoo at 20

Assessing the company as it reaches a milestone

CLICK PHOTO FOR SLIDESHOW - Yahoo corporate offices and headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. (Getty Images)
CLICK PHOTO FOR SLIDESHOW - Yahoo corporate offices and headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. (Getty Images)

I have been at Yahoo all of seven days, which makes me something less than expert, but for the purposes of what I’m writing that probably serves me well. I’m still seeing things from an outsider’s perspective.

(I should remind you that I’m writing about the company that pays me. There are those who believe a news organization should never cover or write about itself, and while it’s obviously difficult I think it can be done. We did so at my previous job.)

What does it mean for Yahoo to be 20 years old? In a way, I think “company years” are actually not that different from human years. Centenarians like GE (founded in 1892) are exceedingly rare. And sadly, I guess, many companies don’t make it out of childhood — think failed startup. (I wonder which country’s life expectancy companies best compare to.) So Yahoo at 20 maybe resembles a young person in his or her sophomore or junior year of college. There’s energy and potential and, yes, some growing pains. If Yahoo is a bit more unsettled than others in its class — and let’s not pretend otherwise — it’s fair to point out that the company has had seven CEOs over the past eight years (Semel, Yang, Bartz, Morse, Thompson, Levinsohn, and now Mayer). Is this akin to being a military brat or even being shuttled around foster homes during adolescence? Could be. But no excuses. All kinds of people have grown up in those environments and thrived. It’s just like when we tell our kids that at some point there are no excuses, you must take responsibility. Your success and failure are to a large degree your own making. And so it is with Yahoo.

I always hear that it’s so much more difficult for a tech company to keep up and survive than it is for other businesses. The cycles in tech change so fast, they say — once you slip you can’t come back. But is it really so different? Tell that to an automaker. Wikipedia lists more than 1,800 automobile manufacturers in the U.S. starting in 1896. (Remember Hudson, Marmon and even Fiberfab?) Today there are two biggies — plus German-owned Chrysler—and a handful of startups including, most famously, Tesla. I don’t think the millions of Americans who worked at these car companies would believe that succeeding in tech is harder than in their industry. Ditto with airlines, aircraft manufacturers and many more.

The point is that all business is hard, really hard. Why did Ford survive? How did Apple come back and take over the world? How does Starbucks succeed? Great leadership, for sure, but also a relentless culture that insists on always delivering the very best to its customers. Yahoo will need to focus on that as it heads toward the big 3-0.

Final point: For companies, age truly is a state of mind. To me, Google seems more mature than its 17 years — and not in a bad way, while Apple at 39 is still partying hard. Remember what Mark Twain said: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Many happy returns, Yahoo!