Pando

Waiting For Yahoo's Turnaround: A four-year one act Beckett play

By Kevin Kelleher , written on October 19, 2016

From The Disruption Desk

Above is the photo that Yahoo put up on its Investor Relations page to accompany its third-quarter, and possibly final, earnings report.

It's a photo of a room, a sadly spacious room with two empty, clearly uncomfortable chairs. The room looks like it's from some outmoded, yet never quite developed TV talk show – imagine a moody six year old designing the set of The Mike Douglas Show. The predominant color is purple, the universal shade of the bruised.

“I am pleased with our Q3 results,” Marissa Mayer said of Yahoo's third-quarter earnings today. Only she didn't say it from the purpled room. Nothing was said in this plaintive room, from which Mayer and others had labored, quarter after quarter, to put a happy face on a worsening situation. A four-year one act Beckett play (“Waiting for Turnaround,” perhaps), half-penned and then shoved into some pressed-wood drawer, part absurd tragedy and part epic farce.

But because this is the business world, the ending has to come some time. Art can fuck around all it wants; money demands finality.

Instead, Mayer expressed her happiness about an earnings report (which showed revenue rising thanks to an accounting change, and down 14 percent without it) outside of the conference call that Yahoo and its publicly traded Silicon Valley peers have customarily held for decades. Mayer issued these words instead through a press release. Which means, in other words, the silver lining is that Yahoo is gaining ground in bot technology, because this is clearly a successful example of earnings report by bot.

There's a semi-plausible cover story for Mayer not having to endure a conference call that would almost certainly have been an unpleasant one. Yahoo is (probably?) being bought by Verizon soon, and companies that are about to be bought sometimes refrain from conference calls with analysts to keep things from getting complicated from the soon-to-be owner.

Here's the catch. Nothing, from an investment standpoint, has been uncomplicated about Yahoo during Mayer's tenure. Investors let her chase her Mavens strategy as long as they could have a piece of a hedge fund whose primary holding was Alibaba. Then the tax situation got messy. Then Alibaba stumbled. Then the Mavens strategy went sideways. Around that time, Yahoo investors wanted to be rid of Mayer's turnaround.

Those complications may have scared off a number of suitors, but Verizon persisted, saying it would buy Yahoo for $4.8 billion. What happened next tested even Verizon's hunger for Web 1.0 Properties That Are Starving in the Era of Facebook But That Can Be Turned into Swine Feed for Tim Armstrong's Programmatic Ads. (Laugh, but this is actually a thing.)

First, millions of Yahoo accounts were breached by hackers in 2014. One might shrug and say that, being on Yahoo, spam is the price of admission, but it took Yahoo two years to realize and admit the breach. Second, and more worrisome to users if not to Verizon, Yahoo used spam filters to aid state surveillance of emails.

There is a tempting narrative here: Verizon is so upset by these revelations, it may opt out of the Yahoo acquisition. But if you listen hard enough, you can hear the chuckles in the Verizon board room over this strategy. Most Verizon customers will assure you the company has our interests in mind on, at best, an intermittent basis. Any anger toward spammers is surely directed at the notion that said spammers aren't financially benefitting Verizon. And the company's history of rolling over like a giddy puppy to regulators is well documented.

No, Verizon wants Yahoo. It just wants it cheaper. Yahoo in 2016 is like a hotdog at a baseball game. One can't be sure what's in there yet might gobble it up if it's at the right price. Nobody goes to ball games for the hot dogs. But once we sit in our elevated seats and see the action going on, some primitive hunger stirs. Stadium dogs never taste better than they do at the stadium, but back at home the regret can be palpable.

Back in early 2013, Mayer said this, a quote similar to her optimism this week: “I'm pleased with our pace of execution.” And then she added, “we’re on course to do what we said we would do over the next few years.” Right. A year later, she acknowledged that it would take years to “get the revenue growth that we desire” but “felt confident” Yahoo was on the right course. Hmm. One more year later, and here's how Mayer explained it. 

Yahoo!'s focus can clearly be seen in this quarter's financials in the quality of the products we deliver and in the energy, enthusiasm, and purpose that permeate our workforce. Yahoo!'s transformation is well underway and, overall, I'm very pleased with our progress across people, products, traffic, and revenue.

Instead of financials, Mayer touted the quality of products. Products that never improved the financials. Instead of solid outlook, she cited progress across people, etc. Progress that never... you get the idea. Time has undone this optimism, even as it has retreated further and further into vague words. 

And now Mayer has even retreated from the room inside which these vague words were uttered. It's like Yahoo is trying to swallow itself into a vortex of its own happy jargon. An existential drama with no script, only PR releases. Welcome to the edge of corporate oblivion: If you stare into the void, please wear these safety glasses that are filtered through our new accounting rules.

Yahoo may soon be swallowed up, but I wonder if there is ever an escape from the legacy of Yahoo. There is just the purple room. In some alternate world, Samuel Beckett arches over his Underwood. “The room bleeds purple,” he types and sits back. He grins wickedly and adds, “Forever.”