Every Wednesday, London Strategy Unit's Matt Boffey reads one of the most influential books from the world of innovation, marketing or creativity so you don't have to. In today's Booknote, he runs the rule over Nicholas Carson's 2015 page-turner Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo.
Why have we chosen this book?
Because there are a wealth of lessons to learn from Yahoo’s chaotic journey from darling of the dot com era to an old-school giant teetering on the edge of irrelevance. One such lesson is understanding the binary nature of internet acquisitions. Yahoo’s aversion to risk meant it negotiated itself out of buying Facebook for the bargain price of $1bn in 2006. Six months later Facebook was valued at $15bn and Yahoo had lost the chance of ever ‘owning’ the social media market.
What’s the original thought or argument?
That the reason for Yahoo’s decline is because of its failure to give its brand a core purpose. Despite making big plays in search, mail, media and countless other product areas, Yahoo has ultimately failed to corner a market in any area. Carson warns of the danger of being a first-mover in the internet age, arguing that Google succeeded where Yahoo failed because it refused to allow itself to become bloated and lose focus on its core products. But with Android and Chromebooks, is Google now making exactly the same mistake?
If you want to look smart, just read
Part two, where Carson details Mayer’s career at Google before she took the CEO job at Yahoo. Mayer is a genius at going in-depth on user interfaces, going as far as measuring the impact of different shades of blue on click-through rates for various demographics. Her design philosophy is the “98 percent use rule”: no matter how many features a product has, it should provide one simple, fluid experience for the 98 per cent of users want to get one simple job done.
You might want to skip
Part three, which details Yahoo’s investment in Alibaba in 2005 and the tedious boardroom politics in the years after.
Why trust this author?
Having spent his journalistic career covering the ups and downs of Silicon Valley, Carson knows more than most about the inner workings of the internet’s biggest corporations. Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo is based on first-hand interviews with people close to Mayer as well as insiders at Yahoo and across Silicon Valley.
Once you’ve read this you don’t need to read
Other books on tech companies losing their way such as Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry. McNish and Silcoff’s book feels distant and lightweight compared to Carson’s in-depth study of Yahoo’s history from 1994 to present day.
Why should this stay on your bookshelf?
Because it might not be long before Yahoo ceases to exist entirely, at which point this book will become a curious reminder of how the internet can create and kill giants with frightening ease.
What’s the one thing you should do differently after reading this book?
Make a considered appraisal of your organisation’s product strategy. A senior vice president of Yahoo described its strategy as “spreading peanut butter across a myriad of opportunities”. Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, make sure you first concentrate your efforts into shaping up your core product offering.
Best quote in the whole book?
“The early internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo was the internet. Then the internet was flooded with capital and infinite solutions for infinite problems, and the need for Yahoo faded. The company hasn’t found its purpose since - the thing it can do that no one else can.”
Matt Boffey is the founder of London Strategy Unit, which you can follow on Twitter @LSUsocial