Marissa Mayer of Yahoo tries to infuse with startup’s spirit

yahoo-marissa-mayerSince taking the reins at Yahoo, Marissa Mayer has been trying to convince customers and employees that there is still life in a company that Silicon Valley long ago left for dead. Yahoo, an Internet pioneer, missed the boat on social networks and mobile devices as the new gateways for information and, in recent years, had been losing advertisers and employees to rivals like Facebook and Google.

Critical to Mayer’s turnaround effort is infusing fresh blood and ideas into the company by buying creative startups and integrating them into the company. So since she took over last July, she has been on a splashy shopping spree, spending tens of millions of dollars to acquire six startups.

But in many ways, it has been a tough sell.

In part, that’s because of the past problems with acquisitions. Yahoo’s neglect of Flickr, a pioneering photo service that was the Instagram of its time, and Delicious, an early social bookmarking tool that predated Twitter’s rise, are prominent examples of the company’s mishandling of promising acquisitions.

These days, too, Mayer has to compete against the deep pockets of competitors like Twitter, Google and Facebook, which are also trying to buy great technologies and hire top talent.

Still, there is evidence that she is making inroads.

Increasingly, entrepreneurs say, she is getting personally involved in acquisitions, focusing particularly on mobile-minded engineers. She is also trying to reverse Yahoo’s reputation as a company that acquires talent and innovative technologies and then lets them wither.

Last month, Yahoo made headlines when it acquired Summly, a newsreading mobile app started by a 17-year-old in England, for an undisclosed sum. In October, it acquired Stamped, a mobile recommendation service.

Robby Stein, who sold Stamped to Yahoo, said he was willing to take a chance on the company given Mayer’s solid track record at Google, where she helped perfect Web search and was largely credited with the clean aesthetic of the Google home page.

“After conversations with Marissa and others, it became very clear that this was a unique moment in time where we could have a phenomenal impact and affect millions of people,” said Stein, a former Google employee himself, who worked alongside Mayer on Google’s mail products. “There are few opportunities like that.” (The New York Times Co. was a small investor in Stamped.)

Stein said he was now concentrating on building a “major mobile development center in New York” for Yahoo. He is determined to imbue it with the ethos of an agile, lean startup, not as an outpost of a large corporation.

Stamped’s offices are covered in chalkboard paint and whiteboards, for scribbling down ideas and code, and also feature a fully stocked kitchen. They are decorated with posters of software applications the employees admire and aim to compete with. The team has also installed two large television screens for testing app prototypes and has built a gaming room with club chairs.

“I feel remarkably empowered and able to get things done,” Stein said. “I’m supported to the fullest extent by Marissa and the executive team.”

Mayer’s other acquisitions include OnTheAir, an online video service; Snip.it, a clipping service for the Web; Propeld, a maker of location-based apps; and Jybe, a social recommendation site.

Despite the string of purchases, some say Mayer’s pitch – which could be a part of the biggest technology turnaround since Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1996 – seems as if it’s still in rehearsal.

Shortly after Mayer joined the company last year, one Valley entrepreneur in acquisition talks with Facebook and Google reluctantly met with Yahoo on the counsel of advisers, who told him he owed it to investors to hear the company out.
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