The Truth About Marissa Mayer: An Unauthorized Biography
On the morning of Thursday, July 12, 2012,
He had just one meeting to go.
That meeting was a board meeting to be held that day in a large conference room on the first floor of Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters. Yahoo called the room “Phish Food” — a funky room with lots of glass and white leather couches and chairs.
The agenda for the meeting: Levinsohn was going to brief the directors on his plan for Yahoo, should he be named permanent CEO.
Levinsohn walked into the room; all of his top executives followed.
There was Jim Heckman, Levinsohn’s top dealmaker, who’d spent months negotiating a huge deal with Microsoft. There was Shashi Seth, Yahoo’s top product management executive, already planning a long-needed update to Yahoo Mail and the Yahoo homepage. There was
Heckman, Seth, Morse, Rosen, Spillman, and handful of others sat off to the side.
All of them believed that the meeting was a formality — that Levinsohn was going to get the job.
They had good reason to be confident. For the two months prior, the chairman of Yahoo’s board, Fred Amoroso, had made it clear that he was going to do everything he could to make sure Levinsohn and his team would be running the company for the foreseeable future.
Amoroso told Levinsohn this in private. He told Yahoo employees this during an all-hands meeting in May. He’d even joined a sales call to express support for Levinsohn to Yahoo advertisers — an oddly hands-on move for a chairman.
In June, Amoroso helped Levinsohn recruit a high-profile Google executive named
Levinsohn had another reason to be hopeful: For the past few months, he’d been speaking with two of Yahoo’s most important new directors, Dan Loeb and Michael Wolf, almost every day. As important as it was for Levinsohn to have Amoroso’s support, he needed Loeb’s more. Loeb ran a hedge fund called Third Point, which owned more than 5 percent of Yahoo and had, only months before, forced the resignation of Yahoo’s previous CEO. Wolf was an important ally for Levinsohn to have, too. Wolf, a former president of MTV, was consulting for Third Point on media investments when Loeb asked him to join the Yahoo board and lead its search committee for a new CEO.
Levinsohn began his presentation. It was going to be a doozy, as he planned to seriously alter the direction of Yahoo.
He wanted it to stop competing with technology businesses like Google and Microsoft and focus entirely on competing with media and content businesses like Disney, Time Warner, and News Corporation. As part of this transition, Levinsohn wanted to spin off, sell, or shut down several Yahoo business units. He said doing so would reduce Yahoo’s head count by as many as 10,000 employees, and increase its earnings before taxes and interest by as much as 50 percent.
In fact, Levinsohn announced during his presentation that he and his team had already started down this road.
Levinsohn told the board that, under his direction, Heckman had begun negotiating a deal with Microsoft to exchange Yahoo’s search business for Microsoft’s portal, MSN.com, and large payments in cash. Levinsohn and Heckman had also been talking with Google executive Henrique De Castro about turning over some of Yahoo’s advertising inventory. There was also talk of unloading some of Yahoo’s enterprise-facing advertising-technology businesses into a joint venture involving New York-based ad tech startup AppNexus.
It was during this part of his presentation that Levinsohn began to feel the permanent Yahoo CEO job slipping away.
Others in the room got the same sinking feeling.
Wolf, the man in charge of the committee tasked with hiring a permanent CEO, began to question the wisdom of the deal.
Wolf asked, in a loud voice with a sharp tone, “I understand why this is good for Microsoft, but why is it good for Yahoo?”
Harry Wilson, another director brought onto the board by Loeb, joined Wolf in his criticism of the deal as “short-sighted.”
Their cross-examination of the deal eventually boiled down to one question: Had Levinsohn and Heckman made any irreversible commitments to either Microsoft or Google?
It was obvious to several people in the room that Wolf and Wilson wanted to make sure another candidate for the CEO job would not be forced to follow through on a deal they had not negotiated.
This was a bad sign for Levinsohn’s candidacy.
But Wilson and Wolf’s loud complaints about the Microsoft deal weren’t the worst sign for Levinsohn’s chances; Loeb’s behavior during the meeting was.
Loeb is the suited, slick, and handsome
During Levinsohn’s presentation, Loeb looked bored. He wasn’t paying full attention. As the interim CEO talked, Loeb stood at the back of the room and played with his BlackBerry.
One person in the room remembers watching Loeb texting for a while and then, “during the most important part of the presentation,” getting up and going to the bathroom for ten minutes.
This person remembers thinking: “Oh, OK. Sorry, Ross, you’re not CEO anymore.”
After the meeting, Barrett, the Google executive Amoroso had helped Levinsohn poach, called Levinsohn to ask how it went. Levinsohn told him he no longer felt like he was getting the job.
But who was?
That night, Levinsohn flew to Sun Valley, Idaho, where investment bank Allen & Co. holds an annual retreat for big-name media and technology executives.
Over the weekend, Levinsohn played a guessing game with venture capitalist
Whom had Wolf and Loeb so clearly already decided on?
Finally, late Sunday night, Levinsohn got a call from a friend of his at Google.
This person asked: Had Levinsohn heard that
Levinsohn realized everything all at once.
Levinsohn now knew who Yahoo’s next CEO would be.
Soon, so would everyone else.
On Monday, July 16, four days after Levinsohn’s last board meeting, Yahoo made it official: Thirty-seven-year-old Marissa Mayer was Yahoo’s new CEO.
The board had indeed already made Mayer an offer by the time Levinsohn went into that final meeting to present his plan for Yahoo.
After the news broke in public, Levinsohn admitted to friends that he was disappointed. He had really wanted the job, and believed he would have done very well with it. He also felt bad for the team he put in place, who would now have to report to an unfamiliar leader.
But Levinsohn was also at peace. If he had to lose out to someone, at least he lost out to an icon.
There is no one else in the world like Marissa Mayer.
Now 38 years old, she is a wife, a mother, an engineer, and the CEO of a 30-billion-dollar company. She is a woman in an industry dominated by men. In a world where corporations are expected to serve shareholders before anyone else, she is obsessed with putting the customer experience first.
Worth at least $300 million, she isn’t afraid to show off her wealth.
While rival CEOs like
Mayer calls herself a geek, but she doesn’t look the part. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and glamorous style, she has Hollywood-actress good looks.
Young, powerful, rich, and brilliant, Mayer is a role model for millions of women. And yet, unlike Facebook’s chief operating officer,
Widely admired by the public at large, Mayer has many enemies within her industry. They say she is robotic, stuck up, and absurd in her obsession with detail. They say her obsession with the user experience masks a disdain for the money-making side of the technology industry.
There is some truth to what they say.
And yet, a year after Mayer took over Yahoo, the company’s stock price was up 100 percent. Engineers wanted to work for Yahoo again. More importantly, so did sought-after startup CEOs like
Most CEOs of Mayer’s stature — people running multi-billion-dollar public companies the size of Yahoo — are gregarious, out-going types — the kind of person who might have been a politician if the world of business and money hadn’t beckoned. Baby-kissers. Back-slappers. Schmoozers. Mayer is not that type. Peers from every stage of her life — from her early childhood days to her first year at Yahoo — say Mayer is a shy, socially awkward person.
How in the world has she overcome such a disadvantage to rise so far, so fast?
To a public casually interested in her career, Mayer’s career before Yahoo — spent entirely at Google — is remembered as one success after another. It wasn’t.
Mayer started off at Google spectacularly well, designing its homepage, creating its product management structure, and becoming the face of the company. She became one of the most powerful people at one of the world’s most powerful companies.
But then, suddenly, her peers were promoted past her. Responsibility for the look and feel of Google’s entire suite of consumer-facing products, including the Google homepage, was taken away from her. She was moved to a less important product:
Mayer’s move to the top of Yahoo during the summer of 2012 was a shock for almost everyone — including the people who convinced her to do it. How did the board pull it off?
Then there’s the biggest question about Mayer: Can she save Yahoo?
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
Marissa Ann Mayer was born on May 30, 1975 to parents Margaret Mayer, a Finnish art teacher and homemaker, and
She grew up in Wausau, Wis., with a sports-playing brother, Mason Mayer. It was a middle-class upbringing. She went to public schools and worked a summer job as a grocery clerk, but her family had enough time and money to enroll her in countless activities.
Most press photos of Mayer today show her on a stage, speaking with an interviewer in front of a large crowd or a TV audience. She’s usually wearing a designer dress — probably from her favorite designer, Oscar De La Renta — and looking strong, confident, and in charge of the moment.
But Mayer, now 38 years old, wasn’t always so larger-than-life. She describes the child and teenage version of herself as “painfully shy.”
Owen Thomas, Business Insider
One of those peers is named Brian Jojade. He took Advanced Math with Mayer in 8th grade. He remembers Mayer as someone who hated social attention. Once, Jojade called the local radio station and told them it was Mayer’s birthday. He asked the DJ to read her name out on air. Jojade, who had a small crush on Mayer, figured hearing her name would make her laugh. It didn’t. “She wasn’t amused at all. You could just tell it wasn’t fun for her.”
Otherwise, Jojade’s overriding memory of Mayer is as the “professional” girl who sat in the front of the classroom and “always worked hard and made sure no matter what she was going to do, it was going to get done right.”
Mayer’s Wausau West High School classmate Elize Bazter says she best remembers Mayer as the girl who was “kind to everyone” but would dodge conversations on her way to go study somewhere else.
Wausau West had a class schedule system where, instead of periods, the day was broken up into 20-minute “mods.” Classes lasted for 40 minutes or an hour. That meant there were 20-minute breaks during everyone’s day. Bazter said most upperclassmen would use the time to congregate in the school’s commons.
“You could study,” says Bazter, “but mostly it was talking and eating and gathering with your friends.”
Wausau West High Yearbook 1993
“She would be the person to come down, get something to eat from the kitchen or the vending machines, and then she would go to the library or the science lab to study. She wouldn’t be the one to stay and sit there and converse for 20 minutes.”
Bazter says the image she thinks of when she remembers Mayer is of her “in school, books in hand, walking down the hallway to do something else.”
None of this is to say that Mayer had a sad, lonely time growing up in Wausau. She didn’t. Mayer is fond of Wausau.
When she got married to a San Francisco banker named Zachary Bogue in 2009, she held two ceremonies: One was in California, and a second at her childhood church, Immanuel Lutheran in Wausau.
As a kid, Mayer’s peers in school had no idea what to make of her. Likewise, Mayer says she was “painfully shy” around them. But teachers? Teachers were Mayer’s kind of people.
In 2010, Mayer returned to her hometown to be inducted into the Wausau School District’s “Alumni Hall of Fame.” At a luncheon held in honor of her and 25 teachers retiring that year, Mayer gave a speech that the school district recorded in a video.
In the video, Mayer stands at a podium in a blue designer dress with a yellow corsage pinned on. She begins the speech by thanking her teachers, “each of whom changed my life forever.”
Then she begins to list her teachers by name. As she does — “… Mr. Freedly, Mrs. Stay, Mr. Flanagan …” — you can see on Mayer’s face how important these people were to her growing up. About six names in, the timber of Mayer’s voice actually breaks toward a sob, and she has to catch herself with a breath and a small gulp. She can’t stop her eyes from swelling with held-back tears, though.
Most teenagers fondly recall sneaking into high school their senior year for a prank — setting chickens loose or toilet-papering the hallways. Mayer once snuck into her AP Lit teacher’s classroom to decorate it like a jungle because she was so inspired by the teacher’s lesson on “Heart of Darkness.”
Mayer’s fifth-grade teacher at Stettin Elementary, Wayne Flanagan, remembers that Mayer refused to leave his classroom the last day of that school year. She did not want to go to middle school.
She told Flanagan she was worried that she wouldn’t make it there, with all the new kids and teachers she’d have to meet.
Flanagan says Mayer the little girl was “a home person; she liked to be safe and know where she’s at.”
Flanagan, who says it was obvious even then how far Mayer would go, told the reluctant little girl, “Oh, I think you’re going to make it fine.”
Still, she wouldn’t go. Eventually Flanagan called Mayer’s mother to let her know where her daughter was.
Certainly the people Mayer spent most of her childhood with were a particular kind of nurturing, mentoring adult: coaches, teachers, counselors, and instructors.
As a little kid, she was in Brownies. She took piano lessons. She played volleyball and basketball. She went to swimming and skiing lessons. She took ballet for as many as 35 hours a week during middle school and high school. Her mother says ballet taught her “criticism and discipline, poise and confidence.”
In high school Mayer was also on the curling team. She was a “pompom” girl and a debater. She was on the precision dance team.
Mayer was so busy in part because her mother, Margaret Mayer, pushed her to be.
Flanagan, the fifth-grade teacher, says Mayer’s mother would frequently stop by school to check on her daughter’s progress. He says he “got to be good friends” with the Mayers. “They were concerned about her and that she was making the right progress. And she was. And she knew that — that her parents were supportive of her.”
In one way, Mayer owes her career to the relationships she was able to form with teachers.
Statistics show that many high school girls do not feel like they belong in math or science classes. In 2003, 84 percent of high schoolers who took the SAT and said they wanted to major in computer science were boys — obviously, that means just 16 percent were women.
Wausau West High School Yearbook
“It wasn’t until I was a professional woman mentoring other girls in math and science that I learned that openly liking math and science is unusual for girls. It’s actually considered far too nerdy and far too much for the boys.
“Wausau schools were so supportive that I never felt strange for a second about pursuing math and science and being good in them.”
Mayer credits her teachers for helping her become less shy.
They did this by showing Mayer that she could “organize” more than just her backpack, desk, and homework — that she could organize people, as their leader.
Mayer’s childhood piano teacher,
“A lot of kids that age are very interested in themselves,” Beckman says, “She was looking at other people.”
By “looking” at her teachers, figuring out why they were doing what they were doing, Mayer overcame her “painful” shyness with peers by taking on the teacher’s role.
Even when she was in fifth grade, Mr. Flanagan could see the pedagogical side of Mayer developing. He thought she would become a teacher someday.
In high school, Mayer took a leadership position in every club she joined. She became president of the Spanish club, treasurer of Key Club, and Captain of the debate team.
One of her closest friends from Wausau, Abigail Garvey Wilson, says, “When Marissa became captain of the pompom squad, she wasn’t in with that clique of girls, but she won them over in three ways.”
“First: sheer talent. Marissa could choreograph a great routine. Second: hard work. She scheduled practices lasting hours to make sure everyone was synchronized. And third: fairness. With Marissa in charge, the best dancers made the team.”
In 1993, Mayer applied to, and was accepted into, 10 schools, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Northwestern.
To decide which one she would go to, Mayer created a spreadsheet, weighing variables for each.
She picked Stanford. Her plan was to become a brain doctor — a profession that doesn’t draw much on the leadership traits Mayer was quickly developing.
But soon enough, Mayer would find herself once again overcoming her shyness by taking charge of a room full of peers, pushing them to work for hours.
Soon enough, she would find herself at the front of a Stanford classroom, interacting with people in the way that came most natural to her — teaching them.
Teaching was her calling.
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
The summer before Marissa Mayer went to Stanford, she began asking herself a question that would guide her through college and for the rest of her life.
What does Zune think?
That summer, Mayer attended
One day, a post-doctoral student from Yale named Zune Nguyen spoke to the campers as a guest lecturer. He stunned all the smart kids in the room with puzzles and brainteasers. For days, the campers couldn’t stop talking about his talk.
Finally, one of Mayer’s counselors had enough.
“You know, you have it all wrong,” the counselor said to Mayer and the campers. “It’s not what Zune knows, it’s how Zune thinks.”
The counselor said that what made Nguyen so amazing wasn’t the facts that he knew, but rather how he approached the world and how he thought about problems. The counselor said the most remarkable thing about Nguyen was that you could put him in an entirely new environment or present him with an entirely new problem, and within a matter of minutes he would be asking the right questions and making the right observations.
From that moment on, the phrase: “It’s not what Zune knows, but how Zune thinks,” stuck with Mayer as a sort of personal guiding proverb.
In the fall, Mayer went to Stanford and began taking pre-med classes. She planned to become a doctor. But by the end of her freshman year, she was sick of it.
“I was just doing too many flashcards,” she says. “They were easy for me, but it was just a lot of memorization.”
She says she wanted to find a major “that really made me think” — that would train her to “think critically, and become a great problem-solver.” She also wanted to “study how people think, how they reason, how they express themselves.”
“I had this nagging voice in my head saying ‘It’s not what Zune knows, but how Zune thinks.’”
Mayer began to answer the voice in her head — and find a course of study that helped her learn how to think — when she took an introductory computer science class: CS105.
Mayer was engrossed by the challenge of programming — taking a problem and using her mind to solve it.
During the semester, she entered a class-wide design contest for extra credit. Calling on the same part of her brain that made her such an excellent pompom choreographer, Mayer made a screensaver featuring exploding fireworks. In a class of 300, Mayer came in second.
The design was good enough that Mayer’s CS105 professor,
Mayer had also found her major.
Mayer opted for symbolic systems — a combination of disciplines straight out of Zune Nguyen’s head: Linguistics, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and computer science classes.
Symbolic systems has become a famous Stanford major in Silicon Valley. Besides Mayer, other alumni include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; former senior vice president of
Mayer’s teacherly leadership streak came out in a big way when she took Philosophy 160A, then considered a “weed-out course” for prospective symbolic systems majors.
During Philosophy 160A, the students break into study groups of a half dozen or so students, and the groups are assigned problem sets. Mayer’s group — just like all the others — put off doing their problem sets until the day before they were due.
So that semester at Stanford was full of all-nighters for Mayer and her Philosophy 160A group.
Mayer ended up in a group that included Josh Elman, now a venture capitalist. Looking back on those study sessions, Elman remembers “times when people in the group were bouncing off the walls.”
He says, “Marissa was always like, ‘OK, back to work. Let’s get this done.’ She was focused on making sure we got the right answer quickly.”
“It felt like she was the smartest student in the room — and the most serious. You always knew those two things about her. Very smart. Very serious.”
The social dynamic of the group was typical for Mayer. As usual, she commanded the room — organized the group’s work in an all-business fashion — but was otherwise shy, and somewhat reclusive.
In the years ahead, this combination — Mayer’s willingness to be authoritative and demanding the way a teacher would, with a “painful” fear or reluctance of being personal — would cause problems for Mayer.
One Stanford classmate interpreted Mayer’s shyness as being “kind of stuck up.”
“She would do her work and then leave. When other people would stay and hang out and have pizza, she’d just be out of there because the work is done.”
Indeed, Mayer doesn’t seem to have had a very active social life in college.
One person who lived in her dorm said she appeared to always be “down to business” and “not much for socializing.”
“She wasn’t one of those people into making new friends around the dorm. She was always doing something more important than just chilling.”
The simplest explanation for Mayer’s social behavior at Stanford remains that Mayer was, as she has said many times, “painfully shy.”
Later at Stanford, Mayer found herself in a group setting that was less social, more comfortable, and more familiar for her. As an upperclassman in symbolic systems, she was tapped to teach a class.
She took to it naturally.
Computer science professor Eric Roberts, still Mayer’s mentor, supervised her teaching. He says she was “unusually good at it” and “extremely effective.”
After Mayer taught a course in the spring, Roberts took a survey of her students. The results were astounding: They loved her — even if she did sometimes talk “a mile a minute.”
Roberts asked Mayer to stick around Stanford to teach another class over the summer; she readily agreed.
“She loved teaching,” says Roberts.
Of course she did. Stanford students called her “stuck up” when they were her classmates. But when she was their teacher, they thought she was great.
|WATCH: Marissa Mayer teaches a class at Stanford|
Mayer excelled the rest of her years as an undergraduate at Stanford. After she got her bachelor’s degree, she stayed at the school to get a master’s in computer science, with a speciality in artificial intelligence.
As graduate school drew to a close, word got out about Mayer’s teaching ability.
She soon faced a choice.
Should she become a teacher, and step full time into a role that had always suited her so well?
Or should she challenge herself and work somewhere in the technology industry?
Taking A 2 percent Chance On Google
When people ask Mayer why she joined Google after getting her masters in symbolic systems at Stanford, she likes to tell them her “Laura Beckman story.” It’s about the daughter of her middle school piano teacher, Joanne Beckman.
Mayer begins: “Laura tried out for the volleyball team her junior year at high school. At the end of the tryouts, she was given a hard choice: bench on varsity, or start on JV.
“Most people, when they’re faced with this choice, would choose to play - and they'll pick JV. Laura did the opposite. She chose varsity, and she benched the whole season.
“But then an amazing thing happened. Senior year she tried out and she made varsity as a starter, and all the JV starters from the previous year benched their whole senior year.
“I remember asking her: ‘How did you know to choose varsity?’
“And she said, ‘I just knew that if I got to practice with the better players every day, I would become a much better player, even if I didn’t get to play in any of the games.’”
The moral of Mayer’s story is that it’s always better to surround yourself with the best people so that they will challenge you and you will grow.
“My quest to find, and be surrounded by, smart people is what brought me to Google,” she says.
And that’s the overriding reason why Mayer joined Google. But quests for self-improvement aside, it’s also true that Mayer almost missed her chance to join the company that would make her rich and powerful someday.
Late on a Friday in mid-April of her last year at Stanford, Mayer sat at her computer, eating pasta and reading emails.
She already had 12 job offers to choose from, and wasn’t looking for any more hard choices.
So when yet another pitch from a recruiter popped up in her inbox, she tapped on her keyboard’s delete key to get rid of it.
Only, she missed.
Instead of hitting delete, Mayer hit the space bar and opened the email.
That email’s subject line: “Work at Google?”
Mayer realized that Google was their startup. Trusting Roberts' recommendation, she replied to an email she had meant to delete, writing that she’d like an interview.
She got one, and met with engineer Craig Silverstein. Silverstein blew her away with his smarts. In the Laura Beckman analogy, he was varsity.
Google offered Mayer a job. She seriously considered it.
Her reservations were that she had planned on taking a job at consulting firm McKinsey, where her clients would be Silicon Valley companies.
Google was a riskier career choice. In her typical, precise way, she’d crunched the data and had decided that the company only had a 2 percent chance of succeeding.
Also, some small part of Mayer was worried about Google’s weird name, which she imagined would be the punch line of family jokes for years to come.
She got over it.
“The turning point for me,” she says, “was realizing that I would learn more at Google, trying to build a company, regardless of whether we failed or succeeded, than I would at any of the other companies I had offers from.”
For the next 13 years, Marissa Mayer worked at Google.
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
Marissa Mayer joined Google as a programmer and rose to become the executive in charge of the way Google search and many other popular Google products looked to Web users.
She became a senior vice president, with thousands of Google employees reporting to her and hundreds of millions of people around the world using products she helped build. The job made her worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But then something strange happened to Mayer, and people in the industry wondered what went wrong.
Google in its early days was a fun place to work, energized by incredible success and perks like free food. But it was also a grinding, stressful environment.
On Mayer’s second day at Google in 1999, she went to the kitchen for a snack at around 11 A.M. There, she bumped into Larry Page, then CEO of the company. He was standing in a corner.
“I'm hiding,” he said. “The site is down. It’s all gone horribly awry.”
He was exaggerating, of course. Google was actually doing too well at the moment.
In 1999, Google.com was a cleaner-looking and faster search engine than any of the others on the Web, and it was rapidly taking share from older search engines like AltaVista and Lycos. In fact, the site was down that day because Google had just signed a deal with
Down went Google.com.
Google went back online that day, but only after hours of work from Mayer, Silverstein, and her new colleagues. She went home at 3 a.m.
Perhaps because of long nights like that one, Mayer and Page eventually grew very close. At one point during Mayer’s early years at Google, she and Page started dating.
Long hours would prove the norm for Mayer. During her first two years at Google, she worked 100 hours a week as a programmer.
Mayer thrived working the tough hours. She only needed four hours of sleep a night, and when she was
By 2005, Mayer moved into management, overseeing the look and feel of Google’s most important products.
She was very good at it.
She created a mentorship program called “APM” which stood for “associated product manager.” Each year Mayer would select junior Google employees for the APM program, give them assignments, and teach them classes. Then, at the end of the program, Mayer would take the entire APM “class” on a weeklong trip abroad to Google offices around the globe.
When it came to developing Google products, Mayer had a bigger challenge.
Mayer has never been someone who easily relates with others. That’s why people call her robotic or “stuck up.” This trait is why people sometimes walk out of meetings with her feeling deeply insulted by a perceived slight.
But being in charge of how Google products should look, Mayer’s job was, basically, to relate with Google’s millions of users. How would she do that?
In the end, it proved to be an advantage for Mayer that empathy doesn’t come naturally to her. It forced her to be intentional about figuring out what users want and how they behave.
She came up with two clever methods of relating.
Mayer’s second method was to lean on data. She would track, survey, and measure every user interaction with Google products, and then use that data to design and re-design.
Mayer’s design-by-numbers approach to product development was not always popular.
Famously, a lead designer named Doug Bowman quit Google over it.
In a farewell blog post, Bowman wrote: “… a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.”
Bowman went to Twitter.
Mayer’s obsession with data-driven design would only gain more and louder critics over the years. But Mayer’s methods also made her one of the Internet’s most effective design and product development leaders during her years at Google. People at Google credit her with the success of not just Google search, but also many others, including Gmail, Google Maps, and Google News.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin says: “Marissa makes the decisions she feels are right, and history proves that she probably calls it right.”
San Francisco Magazine
Fame and Glory
San Francisco Magazine
As Google became a world-famous company, Mayer began to get attention from the media. Newsweek called her one of the “10 Tech Leaders of the Future.”
Then, in 2004, Google went public. Its stock price soared. This made Mayer and hundreds of her colleagues rich in an instant. The media’s fascination with Google kicked up several notches. Mayer, in charge of the look of Google’s most important product, and a rare photogenic woman in the technology industry, was a natural subject of the media’s fixation.
Mayer also boosted her public profile by deciding to spend her new riches conspicuously. She bought the $5 million penthouse suite at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, and another home closer to Google’s Mountain View campus. She started throwing fabulous parties at both, jumping feet first into San Francisco’s high-end social scene. Guests at her homes would see expensive original artwork from famous artists, like the 400-piece glass installation Mayer commissioned from Dale Chihuly.
Mayer did not mind the attention. In fact, she asked Google public relations staff to get her more of it, but in the right outlets.
Mayer’s eagerness to be known by the public may appear to contradict her claim that she suffers from shyness. It doesn’t. She describes her shyness as a need to withdraw from social situations almost as soon as she enters them. Being featured in a glossy magazine does not require her to interact with every reader, so she probably doesn’t have as much anxiety about it as she does making small talk at a party.
Plus, there is such a thing as overcompensation.
Outside Google, her star was never brighter. Inside Google, however, where wealth was supposed to be quietly spent, and engineers were supposed to rule, Mayer would soon be under siege.
At the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, Marissa Mayer’s remarkable career suddenly lost momentum.
First, in Oct. 2010, Mayer was removed from the top of Google’s search organization and put in charge of Google Maps and other “local” products.
Technically, this was a lateral move, if not a promotion, because Mayer retained her vice president title and she was, at the same time, given a seat on Google’s Operating Committee — then CEO
In reality, it was a demotion. Mayer was no longer in charge of what Google’s most important product looked like or how it worked. At Google, there is search, which generates nearly all of the company’s revenues and profits, and then there is everything else. Running Google search, Mayer was managing the most important product at the world’s most important Internet company. Running Google Maps, she was not.
Still, there was the mitigating factor that Mayer was on Google’s Operating Committee, and she therefore reported directly to CEO Eric Schmidt.
That went away too.
By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
When Page formally took control of Google in April 2011, he dissolved the Operating Committee and created a new council of executives who would report directly to him. This group came to be known as the “L-Team.” Mayer was not named to it.
Then, to make matters worse for Mayer, Page put another Google executive, Jeff Huber, in charge of “Geo/Local,” the group Mayer had been tasked to run only months before. Mayer now reported to Huber, who joined Google in 2003 — four years after her.
Mayer’s loss of authority was felt across the company. One former colleague says that prior to 2010, Mayer was always able to “get what she needed” from management.
“If her boss [Google senior vice president of product]
That now stopped.
“She would try to do something and HR would say that’s not the kind of thing she could do anymore.”
“That whole paradigm broke apart.”
Another former colleague says, “When I first turned up, Marissa was very powerful at Google. Marissa used to issue edicts and everyone did them. Over time that proved not to be so true.”
Another way to track the rise and fall of Mayer at Google is to look at the company’s own, public list of executives in the “About Google” section of Google.com.
In November 2005, Mayer’s name and bio finally appeared on Google’s management page. By May 2011, her name was off the site.
What happened to Marissa Mayer’s career?
One explanation is that Mayer’s career stalled as 2010 ended and 2011 began because that is exactly when Larry Page decided he was going to become Google CEO again.
Because Mayer and Page had dated years before, some wonder if Page decided he could never allow Mayer to report directly to him because it would be unethical or show favoritism.
Everyone at Google had long known about the relationship, and no one ever made it an issue — it was too
One Googler explains: “Google is one of those places where, like a cult, there are things that are OK to talk about and things that are not OK to talk about. That was one of those things that was not OK to talk about.”
It’s actually hard to find someone at Google who was bothered by the fact that there once was a romantic relationship between Mayer and Page.
Perhaps this is because both of them have so publicly moved on.
That same year, a Google colleague emailed Mayer to say: “I’m bringing a boy I think you’d be interested in. Be cool.” The “boy” was Zachary Bogue. Tall and dark-haired, Bogue looks like he could be the star of “The Bachelor.” He had played
It’s possible that Mayer’s romantic history with Page stalled her career at Google. But that’s not a widely held belief among Mayer’s former colleagues.
A more common explanation was that she may not have had the right kind of ambition to go much further.
There’s a philosophy that corporations exist to benefit three constituencies: shareholders, employees, and customers. At Google, there are two kinds of customers: the users of Google’s services and the advertisers who pay Google to be seen by users.
Mayer spent all her years at Google worried about just half of one of those constituencies: users.
To be fair, that was her job.
From Google’s earliest days, Mayer had always been tasked with making products that users love. And she pursued this task with a single-minded passion, sleeping four hours a night, working 100-hour weeks, grinding through back-to-back meetings without breaks.
But Mayer may have been a bit too single-minded in this pursuit — at least for the sake of her future at Google.
Compared to some Google executives who joined the company around the same time as Mayer, Mayer showed much less interest in learning about the business side of the company.
One former Google executive who worked in ad sales says, “I did not work with her, and that’s telling.”
This executive says that even before Mayer joined Google’s Operating Committee, she had an open invitation to join its meetings — out of respect for her importance to the company and in an effort to develop her career. But while Mayer would always show up for meetings about Google’s products, “she would never show up for a business review.”
Doug Edwards, Xooglers
By 2010, when Mayer’s Google career started stalling, Wojcicki and Huber were getting promotions. Both would end up reporting directly to Larry Page. Huber would become Mayer’s boss. Today, Wojcicki is considered one of the two or three most powerful executives at Google.
Mayer missed several of these types of opportunities. In the months before he became CEO again, Larry Page would hold two-hour, post-Operating Committee meetings on Mondays that were more focused on long-term strategy.
One executive who was flattered to be invited says, “I was pretty interested in understanding the connection between Chrome and Android.”
But Mayer would hardly ever show, “either because she was traveling or who knows.”
Several of the regular attendees at those meetings ended up with positions reporting directly to Page.
One of them was Sundar Pichai, now leading development of both Google’s Chrome and Android products. Pichai’s ascent had to be bittersweet to Mayer. He used to work for her, and she had promoted him. Now he was passing her by.
“Sundar would do anything to help the company. He was internally working cross-functionally to get results. If someone was offline and didn’t get the strategy he’d sit down with them one-on-one. He really put work into it. Marissa didn’t do that at all.”
One of Mayer’s former colleagues says she skipped all those meetings because, when it came to the business side of Google, Mayer was always “less interested.”
“She has a disposition toward the consumer side, and users.”
This trait undoubtedly shaped Mayer’s career at Google, and it would be very important later at Yahoo.
But more than her lack of interest in the business side of Google, and certainly more than her history with Page, there was one overriding reason for Marissa Mayer’s sudden decline in power.
Her great strength, her teacherly I-know-best leadership style had finally begun to grate on people at Google. Worse, it had begun to slow the company down.
Eventually, a group of Google engineers decided to try and do something about it.
John Battelle, who has put on several large tech conferences in the Bay Area, many of them featuring Marissa Mayer as a speaker, says of her: “I've never had a conversation with her when she wasn’t completely certain she was right.”
This pedantic style works when you are the traffic cop in a room full of designers and product managers, but it alienated some of Mayer’s colleagues over the years.
Mayer and Kamangar clashed often.
The specific habit of Mayer’s that drove Kamangar nuts was her ability to speak incredibly fast, not allowing him to re-enter the debate.
“In an academic situation, that’s okay because the best ideas rise and you have discussion,” says one Googler, familiar with Kamangar’s complaints about Mayer. “But in a place where there are personal feelings involved, if you can’t win the debate regardless of how hard you try, because she will out-talk you, that’s a challenging situation.”
The rivalry between Mayer and Kamangar was so intense that when Kamangar was made a vice president before her, she threatened to quit the company. She got her promotion months later.
Another Mayer habit that annoyed colleagues was one she picked up straight from academia.
For many years at Google, Mayer insisted that if her colleagues wanted to speak with her, they had to do so during her “office hours.” Mayer would post a spreadsheet online, and ask that anyone who wanted to speak with her sign up for a five-minute window.
When Mayer’s “office hours” rolled around in the afternoon, a line would start to form outside of her office and spill over into the nearby couches.
“Office hours” are socially acceptable in an academic environment because the power dynamic is clear. The students are subordinate to the professor, usually their elder and mentor.
But Mayer’s office hours were not just for her subordinates, but also her peers.
So there, amid the associate product managers waiting to visit with Mayer to discuss their latest assignment or a class trip to Zurich, sat Google vice presidents — people who had been at the company as long as Mayer, and in some cases held jobs as important as hers.
What made the “office hours” even more obnoxious for some Google engineers and product managers was that all consumer-facing product launches or updates required Mayer’s sign-off.
“Her weakness was an unwillingness to delegate,” says Craig Silverstein, the Google engineer who hired Mayer years ago. “She doesn’t need any sleep. When you have four or five more hours in the day than most people do, you don’t learn to delegate because you don’t need to.”
The team who grew most frustrated with Mayer over the “office hours” and, more generally, the need for her to sign off on product changes, were the engineers in charge of Google search.
While Mayer was in charge of the way Google Search looked, Singhal, was one of the engineers in charge of creating the algorithms that actually power the search engine. After he re-wrote Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s original code in 2001, he was named a “Google Fellow.” He’s a big deal inside the company.
One of Mayer’s former Google colleagues says that it was actually Singhal and three other search engineers who finally went to Larry Page and asked that Mayer be removed from the top of Google’s search organization.
“These four guys, they were constantly being hampered. They’d say: ‘We want to roll out this ranking change.’ Marissa’s like, ‘until I review it, you can’t launch it.’ They’re like: ‘But it’s been three weeks.’”
Finally, says this source, Singhal and the other engineers went to Larry Page and said, “Take your pick. Her, or us.”
In this person’s telling, Page made his choice and that’s why Mayer was moved out of search. She had become a bottleneck.
Other people say Page removed Mayer from her perch atop search after lots of input from lots of people.
Says one Googler: “What Larry saw as he became CEO was that Marissa has a tough user-interface that causes problems with other stakeholders.”
Another Googler familiar with those discussions says: “Everyone agreed that something needed to change.”
This Googler wonders if Mayer was unfairly punished in 2010 and 2011.
“Sometimes she got into trouble because she’s ambitious and a woman and that’s tough in a man’s world. People take potshots at her because she was very young and successful. I also think she’s young and learning and you sometimes don’t get things right.”
Another reason for Mayer’s career stall in 2011 was that Google, as a company, had grown up.
By 2010, Google had 24,000 employees. It wasn’t going to be the kind of place where, just because an executive had been there a long time and knew the co-founders personally, she was going to be able to get whatever she wanted.
“You couldn’t run the company like that anymore,” says one person who lived through the transition.
“As you grow you have to hire people who have done this stuff before, and having people who haven’t lord over them doesn’t work.”
So, by early 2011, Marissa Mayer’s progress at Google had stalled. But another, greater opportunity was about to come her way.
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
On the afternoon of Monday, July 16, 2012, Yahoo chief revenue officer Michael Barrett stood at a gate in New York’s JFK airport, waiting to board a plane to London.
The reporter told Barrett the news: Yahoo had a new CEO. It was Marissa Mayer from Google.
Barrett was shocked.
Barrett himself had only joined Yahoo from Google less than a month before.
Barrett’s job at Google had been a good one. He’d only left because Yahoo chairman Fred Amoroso had told him that interim CEO Ross Levinsohn was going to get the full-time job.
As Barrett got back off the plane, he thought: What the hell happened?
- - -
The story of how Marissa Mayer came to Yahoo begins in the summer of 2011.
That’s when Dan Loeb, the manager of a hedge fund called Third Point, decided he could make a lot of money investing in Yahoo if he could force a few people to quit its board and install a CEO of his choosing.
There were two simple reasons Loeb believed Yahoo was a worthwhile investment, despite a decade of mismanagement. The first was that 700 million or so people still went to Yahoo.com every month, even though the company hadn’t come up with a cool new product in years.
The second was that Yahoo had made a brilliant investment in two Asian Internet companies, Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan, and Loeb did not believe this investment was being taken advantage of by management.
So Loeb took a 5 percent stake in Yahoo and began a letter-writing, shareholder-activist campaign to unseat its CEO and several of its board members. In his letters, Loeb accurately pointed out that Yahoo had been mismanaged for a decade, and that it was largely the board’s fault. In December, Yahoo’s board hoped to appease Loeb by hiring
Loeb was not appeased. Publicly, he began lobbying Thompson to install new board members. Privately, Loeb asked a consultant he’d hired, former MTV president Michael Wolf, to begin looking for someone who could replace Thompson.
One morning during their trip, Loeb and Wolf drove south to meet with venture capitalist Marc Andreessen for breakfast at his house. Famous for cofounding Netscape, the original Web browser company, Andreessen had gone on to found two other billion-dollar companies and a successful venture capital firm. By the winter of 2012, Andreessen had become Silicon Valley’s go-to wise man.
Loeb and Wolf asked Andreessen if he’d join their slate for Yahoo’s board. He refused to participate in a deal perceived to be hostile to Yahoo’s founders and current management, but said he was happy to talk about Yahoo strategy.
The New Yorkers asked him: Whom should Yahoo hire: a media person or a product person?
By a “media person,” they meant an executive who could run Yahoo almost like a television network or magazine publisher, but on the Internet. This person’s specialties would be the ability to identify great content, close deals with the people who create it and those who could distribute it, and the skill set to sell ads against it. CBS chief executive
By a “product person,” Loeb and Wolf meant someone who could get teams of engineers and designers to build software tools that consumers find useful, addictive, or fun. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is this kind of executive. So was Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs.
Almost since its beginning, Yahoo had struggled with its identity.
Should it act like a “media” company — one that tries to attract consumers by producing and buying content and distributing it through Yahoo.com? Or should Yahoo act like a “products” company — where Internet software tools like search, Webmail, stock charts, and photo storage attract users?
Andreessen talked about the difference between technology companies and “normal” companies. He said the output of normal companies is their product: cars, shoes, life insurance. In his view, the output of technologies companies is innovation. Whatever they are selling today, they will be selling something different in five years. If they stop innovating, they die.
Andreessen said the person at the top of Yahoo needs to know how to pioneer and produce a steady stream of innovative products if the company was going to survive in a competition with large companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple or even some of the Valley’s many startups.
The message stuck.
In May 2012, Loeb finally figured out a way to get Scott Thompson out of the CEO job.
Loeb learned that Thompson had graduated from Stonehill College in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting — not a “bachelor’s degree in accounting and computer science” as Yahoo claimed on its website, and more importantly, in an SEC filing from April.
On May 3, Loeb drafted a letter containing this information, and sent it to the Yahoo board and the SEC, which would publish it for the public. On May 13, Thompson resigned, citing health issues.
Five directors resigned immediately. Loeb and Wolf gained board seats, and more importantly, the chairmanship of two important committees. Loeb would chair the board’s transaction committee, which meant he would have sign-off power on any sale of Yahoo’s valuable Asian assets. Wolf would lead the executive search committee, which had the immediate task of finding Yahoo’s next CEO.
Wolf had someone in mind — just the kind of “products” CEO Andreessen had recommended. He hired executive recruiter Jim Citrin of Spencer Stuart, and gave him a description of the Yahoo CEO job.
The document Wolf gave Citrin said Yahoo needed to hire someone who can “modernize” Yahoo’s “user experiences” on mobile devices by building a culture that attracts the best “content, developer, product innovation, advertising, marketing and managerial talent.” The document said the board sought someone who could “reestablish Yahoo!’s credibility and reputation in the tech-innovator community” and build partnerships with companies such as “Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.”
At Citrin’s first meeting with the board the week of May 21, 2012, he told the directors there were only a few people in the industry who could do the job described in Wolf’s document. Citrin said those people were at companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. He said that it was going to be very difficult for Yahoo to hire any of them.
The board came up with a list of candidates for Citrin to approach.
Though he was a “media,” not a “products” executive, the top prospect for most of the directors was Ross Levinsohn, who became interim Yahoo CEO when Thompson stepped down.
Levinsohn, who worked in Yahoo’s Santa Monica office, is the kind of executive who looks like he belongs in the CEO’s office of a West Coast entertainment company. He'll point at the camera when he’s having his picture taken. He’s got a wide smile. His hair is combed back. He wears suits. He looks good in the fleece zip-up sweater vests they give out at Allen & Co’s Sun Valley conference for media moguls.
Levinsohn joined Yahoo in October 2010 as an executive vice president in charge of the “Americas” region. Levinsohn had impressed shareholders with his performance at Yahoo’s annual shareholder meeting in 2011, when he presented a vision for Yahoo as “the world’s premier digital media company.” For a moment, he’d ended the confusion about what kind of company Yahoo was — a “product” company or a “media” company. To many directors, it seemed like Levinsohn understood the value of Yahoo’s audience, and had a plan to tap it.
The board also asked Citrin to approach Google’s Marissa Mayer.
Citrin cautioned that Mayer appeared to be a lifer at Google and was unlikely to be interested in the job.
Many of the directors wondered whether Mayer was actually capable of leading a large public corporation. They asked question like: Had she ever managed a balance sheet? Hadn’t she been demoted only a year before?
Citrin said he’d call Mayer anyway.
- - -
Would she like to speak to Wolf? She would.
Now Mayer was flying to New York to have dinner at Wolf’s Manhattan apartment with Wolf, Citrin, and three other Yahoo directors: David Kenny,
After 13 years at Google, she was surprised to find herself actually, finally, truly considering leaving.
The past two years at Google — since she was, according to the rest of the world “demoted” — had been quieter than the first 11, but in many ways more challenging and exciting.
In local and geo, she’d taken over a much more massive operation than the one she’d been running at Google.
Whenever people asked her about the “demotion,” as Wolf and the other directors might over dinner, Mayer always pointed out how she had gone from managing 250 product managers in search to supervising a much larger, more diverse group of managers — 1,100 people managing engineering, design, marketing, and sales. Mayer would tell people that she was supervising some 6,000 contractors.
She’d figured out that by the fraction of the company, the geo and local piece that she was running was something like 20-25 percent of the company’s overall headcount.
The business challenges she’d dealt with in those years had been as diverse as the types of people she managed.
In September 2011, she went and bought Zagat for $125 million. It was not the kind of deal someone who had been “demoted” could do. It was Google’s tenth-largest acquisition ever. More than that, the integration of Zagat into Google search signaled a major change in Google’s philosophy.
Previously, the company had steadfastly refused to own or produce content that would show up in its search engine. It would just index what was already out there being created by the rest of the world.
But after Mayer joined geo in 2010, she found that the “rest of the world” wasn’t as good at gathering geographic data and putting it on the Web as it was creating websites for Google to index. So she decided it was time for Google to start owning data. Her boss, Jeff Huber, and Larry Page had backed her on the deal and the philosophical change, and now Google had lots of content for location-based searches — a popular kind of search to do on mobile, which was quickly becoming the future of the Internet.
Even as Mayer was on the plane, she was playing a crucial part in helping Google fend off one of its toughest competitors in mobile: Apple. Months before, she’d noticed that Apple had started buying companies in the mapping space. Then executive recruiters sent by Apple had started reaching out to her people.
Obviously, they were up to something big. Mayer didn’t know — Apple would never announce it until it was done — but she figured it planned to remove Google Maps from the iPhone and replace it with its own Apple Maps. She’d already countered Apple’s offers by giving her people what they really wanted. Sometimes it was raises. Sometimes it was independence. Sometimes it was new titles. Sometimes it was actually more work, more responsibility. She knew what her people wanted. None of her reports ended up quitting to join Apple. Now, Mayer had her team working on a new Google Maps app for iPhone. She was confident it was going to beat anything Apple’s people could come up with.
Mayer knew that her job switch in 2010 looked like a demotion to some people outside the company — especially people in the media. But as she flew to New York that day in June 2012, Marissa Mayer knew that she’d spent the previous two years learning a lot from a bigger job than she’d ever had before.
And now she knew that she was ready for an even bigger one.
On the evening of June 24, Mayer arrived at Wolf’s modern, Fifth Avenue apartment. An informal dinner was served.
Mayer read for the part of Yahoo CEO.
Throughout the conversation, Mayer touted a surprisingly thought-out plan for overhauling Yahoo’s culture, executive suite, and product line-up.
After Mayer left, one of the board directors said to Citrin: “That’s the next CEO of Yahoo.” The committee agreed that Wolf would stay in touch with her.
One of the directors noticed something funny, but decided to keep it to himself. Wolf had served a very expensive bottle of wine, and Mayer hadn’t had a sip. Probably she was just nervous.
Wolf wants to hire Mayer, but everyone else?
After that dinner, Wolf, the chair of Yahoo’s search committee, had decided that Marissa Mayer should be the next CEO of Yahoo.
With her experience running cornerstone Google products like Search, Google Maps, and Gmail, she was exactly the kind of innovative, products-oriented CEO that Silicon Valley wise man Marc Andreessen had told him to hire back in January.
But Wolf, and his pro-Mayer allies on the board, had a problem.
By mid-June, other Yahoo directors had already all but decided that interim CEO Ross Levinsohn should get the full-time job.
Levinsohn ran with the opportunity, and by the end of June — really, just a few weeks — he’d accomplished a lot. He’d signed a deal with Facebook over patents. He was able to quickly recruit impressive executives into Yahoo, including Google advertising executive Michael Barrett. Levinsohn and his top dealmaker, Jim Heckman, were also able to nail down several content partnerships in just a few weeks, including one with on-demand music service Spotify. Levinsohn and Heckman were also busy working on much larger deals with Microsoft, Google, and a fast-growing ad tech company based in New York called AppNexus.
As Levinsohn worked hard to earn the full-time job, Yahoo directors began to come under pressure from the rest of the industry to hand him the job. Levinsohn’s allies across the media, advertising, and entertainment industries wrote Yahoo directors letters recommending him.
After several weeks went by without Yahoo naming a full-time replacement for Thompson, even Marc Andreessen wrote a note to Loeb suggesting that Yahoo should just put Levinsohn in the job permanently and commit to a media strategy, since it seemed unlikely they could get a top-end product CEO, and continued delays would permanently damage the company.
Meanwhile, All Things D reporter
By the beginning of July, several board members were almost completely sold. They wanted Levinsohn to keep the job.
The top secret interviews
These executives were the Yahoo board of directors, and as they boarded that bus, they had no idea where they were going. Their destination was a secret because these people — people who would soon have to come together and decide the fate of Yahoo — did not trust each other.
That day, the board was going to interview, for the last time, four finalist candidates for the Yahoo CEO job.
The search committee had decided that if the entire board knew where the final interviews were taking place, one of the directors would inevitably leak the location to All Things D reporter Kara Swisher. For years, the aviators-wearing, tough-talking Swisher had been reporting Yahoo layoffs, firings, hirings, and acquisitions before they actually happened. The new directors assumed she had a source, or sources, on the old board, and they were determined not to provide her new ones.
Six days before, Swisher had reported, accurately, that the board was considering Hulu CEO Jason Kilar for the job. The report had made things awkward for Kilar with Hulu’s corporate parents, Disney and News Corporation, and he’d pulled himself out of the running — taking a good option away from the board. Some members of the board felt Swisher had meant to nuke Kilar in order to help Levinsohn get the job.
David Kenny was particularly insistent on secrecy. The fall prior, before Scott Thompson was hired, Kenny had interviewed for the CEO job at Yahoo. Word of his meetings in Sunnyvale had gotten out, and Kenny had to resign from Akamai, where he was president. Kenny recovered nicely — he’d become the CEO of
The directors rode in the bus for exactly five miles — south on University, south on 101, off the highway at Oregon Expressway, and continuing onto Page Mill road.
They’d arrived at the offices of Third Point’s law firm, Gibson Dunn. The location was ostensibly picked by headhunter Jim Citrin, who’d also arranged the buses. But some of the directors took it as a signal from the Third Point board members about whose show this really was.
Citrin had also arranged for a car to pick up Levinsohn. He had no idea where he was going, either. He also didn’t know who the other finalists were.
Levinsohn went first. He presented his plan, which the board was familiar with by then. He wanted to get Yahoo out of the “platform” business, where it was competing with Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — and move it into the content business. Levinsohn knew some of the directors were worried that he’d ignore Yahoo’s engineers and product development people, so he talked about how he’d been spending a lot of time with product boss Shashi Seth and his team.
The interview felt strange to Levinsohn. He’d been talking to Loeb a handful of times, every day. He said, “You guys know where I’m at. You know what I'm doing.”
After, Jim Citrin told Levinsohn he’d done well. Levinsohn was told that if the board decided to go in the “media” direction, the job was his.
After enough time had passed to ensure that they wouldn’t spot each other, Mayer arrived by limo.
Anyone remotely familiar with her childhood, studies, and career could have predicted what happened next.
Mayer walked into that room at Gibson Dunn and blew them away.
She described her long familiarity with Yahoo and its products. She described how Yahoo products would evolve over time under her watch. Her presentation included an extraordinary amount of detail on Yahoo’s search business, audience analytics, and data. She talked about fixing Yahoo’s culture with more transparency, perks, and accountability. She named her perceived weaknesses, and explained how she planned to address them — including by hiring people who had the skills she didn’t have.
When Mayer was done, Jim Citrin told her he’d call her with the board’s decision by 8 p.m.
She left. The board still had a tough final decision to make.
A number of the Yahoo directors still opposed hiring Mayer. They argued that she didn’t have enough corporate experience. Some of the directors favored Levinsohn because they felt that the Third Point directors were just trying to install someone they could control. They had not overlooked that the “secret” location of the final interviews had been the offices of Third Point’s lawyers.
They argued that Mayer may present a greater upside — she was more likely to come up with the next Facebook or Google Maps or Twitter — but that Levinsohn was the safer bet, a more guaranteed return.
Loeb, who had fought a bloody fight to get onto the board, and whose vote undoubtedly mattered the most, didn’t mind that Mayer was a high-risk, high-reward play. In his view, the sale of Yahoo’s Asian assets and the returning of those proceeds through share buybacks or dividends would provide enough of a “floor” in Yahoo’s value that it was worth betting on the greater upside Mayer brought to the table.
The 8 p.m. deadline came and went. Mayer, at a dinner party on the other side of town, tried to stop checking her phone.
At 9:45 p.m., the board still hadn’t called her. She signaled to her husband, Zachary Bogue, that she wanted to leave the party.
Wolf lobbied his fellow directors in favor of Mayer to the point of annoyance.
Finally, the pro-Mayer directors proposed a solution. What if they made Mayer the CEO and offered Levinsohn a huge amount of money to stay on as her COO? That way she’d be able to pursue her “products” strategy, and he could keep running the sales force and making deals with major media companies.
An informal vote was cast. The pro-Mayer directors were in the majority, with Amoroso and others voting against.
It was over. A formal vote was cast.
This time the board unanimously voted to name Marissa Mayer the new CEO of Yahoo.
Meanwhile, Mayer and Bogue had decided to stay at their dinner party, but it was finally time to go. As they began to say their goodbyes, Mayer’s phone finally rang. It was Jim Citrin. She let it go to voicemail.
When the board reached Mayer to offer her the job, she did not accept it right away. First she had some news to share.
She was five months pregnant. That’s why she hadn’t touched her wine at Michael Wolf’s apartment the month before.
The offer stood. After three days of negotiation with Wolf, she accepted.
The morning after Mayer got the voicemail from Citrin, Levinsohn was unaware that his fate had already been sealed. Once again he presented his plan for Yahoo to the board — this time with his executive team there to fill in the details.
He’d woken up that morning still feeling confident that he was going to get the job. But this was the meeting where, midway through, Loeb left to go to the bathroom and Wolf stood with Wilson to loudly question the deals Heckman had been negotiating with Google, Microsoft, and others.
Levinsohn went into the weekend at Allen & Co.’s mogul conference at Sun Valley sure he’d lost the job, but unsure to whom. By Sunday, Ross Levinsohn had found out that the board had also interviewed Marissa Mayer. When he heard her name, he knew it was over.
On Monday, Levinsohn went to work. Yahoo had to report its second quarter earnings that week, and he worked with CFO Tim Morse’s team to prepare some remarks for the company’s conference call with analysts. Levinsohn kept telling the team, “don’t write this for me, write it for a CEO. It should be generic.”
When that was done, Levinsohn went back to his office to wait for the news. He’d wanted this job. He’d fought for it. He’d done well.
Back in New York and barely off a
Amoroso explained the news.
He said, “We love Ross. We thank Ross. We want him to stay. We weren’t looking for someone like Marissa, but when she showed up, boy were we impressed.”
“Although it was a hard decision, and we think Ross is doing a great job, she brings a different level of perspective and talent to the organization we couldn’t pass up.”
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
On Tuesday, July 17, 2012,
Filo is a quiet, unassuming engineer for Yahoo. He works in a cubicle. He also happens to be a co-founder of the company.
In 2012, Filo still owned 6 percent of Yahoo. He was its largest individual shareholder. According to Forbes, there were only 959 people on the planet with more money than him.
And yet, the reason Filo was waiting near the entrance of Yahoo was so that when Marissa Mayer arrived, he would be able to unfurl a long purple carpet before her feet.
Yahoo’s hero was coming. But huge challenges faced her.
Yahoo’s websites were getting fewer and fewer visitors every year. Meanwhile, Yahoo’s mobile apps were being largely ignored.
For years, Yahoo’s most talented executives and engineers had been quitting the company to join faster-moving rivals like Facebook and Google. Those who stayed at Yahoo tended to show up late and leave early, or log-in from home. Mayer had to fix Yahoo’s culture.
Mayer also walked into the office that day seven months pregnant. Her new colleagues looked to see if she was showing. They wondered how in the world she would manage a baby and the huge job ahead of her.
The excitement was everywhere in the building. One enthusiastic Yahoo employee had made a poster with Mayer’s face on it in the style of Shepard Fairey’s 2008 campaign poster for Barack Obama. Across the lower third, the poster has one word in all-caps: “HOPE.”
When she finally arrived, Mayer’s first job was to meet the one group of Yahoo employees who were not as excited by her arrival — Yahoo’s senior executives, several of whom had risen to their jobs thanks to Ross Levinsohn.
Levinsohn, despite personal pleas from Amoroso and whispers of a generous compensation package, was not staying as Mayer’s chief operating officer. Since he took the interim job in May, he’d warned the board that if he didn’t get the permanent gig, he was going to try to become a CEO somewhere else.
If Levinsohn ever had any notion of reconsidering, that was squashed by his first scheduled meeting with Mayer.
After he’d learned that she was getting the job, he’d flown back home to Los Angeles. When Mayer said she wanted to meet, he agreed to fly back up to Sunnyvale. But when he showed up at their appointed time, Mayer’s assistant told Levinsohn she was running late.
Levinsohn said to the assistant, “My office is three doors down. I'll be in there.”
Suddenly anxious, the assistant said: “You have to wait here.”
She wanted him to wait so that when Mayer was done with whatever she was doing, he would be immediately available.
Levinsohn said, “Not so much.” He walked away.
Soon he walked out of the building for good.
Levinsohn decided that no good would come of him staying. He could see what would happen: Yahoo would devolve into a place where there were his people and there were Mayer’s people. The whole “media” versus “products” battle would rage on, and it would be an ugly fight.
And so, feeling that the rug had just been ripped out from underneath them, Yahoo’s senior executives walked into Mayer’s new office at Yahoo — the one Fred Amoroso had been using days before.
Many of these people were meeting Mayer for the first time, and they expected to sit across from the woman they’d read about in so many fluffy profiles and had seen on TV or on stage at conferences — someone who was charismatic and warm; personal.
That was not what they got.
As Yahoo executives answered, Mayer took notes on their answers with pen on paper, hardly looking up.
“It kind of felt like you were summoned to the principal’s office,” says one executive who went through one of these introductory meetings with Mayer.
“You would have thought a fair portion of [that meeting] would have been about ‘so what are you going through? How are you feeling? Sorry about Ross. We love him. We’d like to keep him. Realistically, he won’t stay but that doesn’t have any impact on you.’
“There wasn’t any kind of commiseration or any kind of bear hug. There wasn’t even a question of ‘Are you in or are you out?’ It was: ‘I assume you’re in. Let me know otherwise.’
“There was no time for short conversation or human emotions. It was very boom, boom, boom.
“Most people walked away from that meeting saying, ‘Holy shit.’”
One Yahoo executive attended such an introductory meeting between his boss and Mayer. His boss asked Mayer “Would you like to meet the people I brought?”
Mayer looked at them.
The truth is, the person Yahoo’s top executives sat across from in those first meetings was not the Marissa Mayer they thought they knew from the media coverage of her. It was the Marissa Mayer her Stanford classmate Josh Elman remembers from late night study sessions.
Just as during those all-nighters almost 20 years before, Mayer wasn’t at Yahoo to socialize. In one early meeting Mayer said that Yahoo was going to fail — shut down — in the next few years if it did not get things going soon. She told a top product executive that Yahoo lagged in innovation and talent, and that its culture was broken.
She was there to save the company, and that was going to take a lot of work. It was past time to get started.
Some of the executives Mayer met with had a hard time connecting with her. Just as some of her Stanford study mates mistook her shyness for being “stuck up,” some of her new Yahoo colleagues took her all-business attitude as being “demeaning.”
For the people who were making Yahoo’s products at the time, the meetings were even more intense.
A designer or a top product manager would sit down and Mayer would assault them with a series of questions.
“How was that researched?”
“What was the research methodology?”
“How did you back that up?”
One person who went through a Mayer grilling says, “It was scary for a lot of people because of its intensity.”
She had to learn exactly what Heckman had been negotiating with Yahoo’s competitors. She had to decide whether or not to finalize these deals or to unwind them altogether. More broadly, Mayer had to understand the direction Heckman and Levinsohn had been taking Yahoo, and decide whether to keep it going that way or to slam on the brakes.
It is possible that, in the history of business, there has never been a meeting between two people whose personalities, styles, and priorities clash more than Mayer’s and Heckman’s.
Mayer is passionate about the pixels in the picture. She’s shy. She’s careful. She’s bold, but not reckless. She’s idealistic about people. She'll pay $60,000 to meet a designer, but wear his dress modestly.
Jim Heckman breaks glass. He’s squinty-eyed and caffeinated. He makes deals. He uses your first name. He quotes the comedian Tosh.0. He doesn’t care about the headcount; he cares about the bottom line. Once, at a Yahoo party held on a yacht during the Cannes Lions Festival in France, Heckman brought a date who decided to go topless. There was a lot of shouting on the yacht.
Heckman met with Mayer during her first few days at Yahoo. Heckman laid out the plan he and Levinsohn had been working on for the past year. If implemented it would have completely changed the way Yahoo did business.
Yahoo makes its money by selling advertising. Heckman and Levinsohn believed that Yahoo had spent too much money and too much time trying to invent advertising technology that would allow Yahoo to charge higher ad rates. He believed that companies like Google, Microsoft, and AppNexus were far ahead of Yahoo in the world of ad tech, and that Yahoo was better off partnering with one of those companies and getting rid of the people it employed to work on ad tech.
Heckman told Mayer he believed partner ad technology would immediately raise Yahoo’s ad rates.
Moreover, with the money Yahoo would save by getting rid of the people it had working on ad tech, it could go out and buy high quality video content from Hollywood studios. He argued that advertisers would be willing to pay much higher ad rates if Yahoo’s content quality were higher. He said rates could go from under $2 per 1,000 impressions to $20.
In Heckman’s vision, Yahoo.com was more like a cable TV provider with a large, installed audience, than it was a maker of technology products.
Heckman said the same theory could be applied to other second-, third-, or fourth-place Yahoo businesses. He talked about how
He told Mayer that he’d negotiated a deal with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, wherein Yahoo would turn over its entire search business — patents and all — in exchange for Microsoft’s large online media property, MSN.com, and long-term, guaranteed cash payments.
Heckman said his plan would allow Yahoo to run with just 4,000 full-time employees, far fewer than the 15,000 full-timers and thousands more contractors Yahoo employed then. He said Yahoo EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) would increase by 50 percent if Mayer closed his deals.
Mayer heard him out, taking notes the whole time.
Within 24 hours, Mayer let Heckman know that she’d canceled all his deals and that his services were no longer needed by Yahoo.
Heckman flew to Ibiza, Spain for a 30-day vacation.
Mayer began to hire her own people.
Ironically, one of her biggest hires in her first few months at Yahoo was the Google executive Jim Heckman had been negotiating with, Henrique De Castro.
Mayer made De Castro Yahoo’s COO, and agreed to pay him as much as $62 million over four years, not counting annual stock grants.
This hire came as a surprise to Michael Barrett, the Google executive Ross Levinsohn had hired to run Yahoo ad sales. Though Barrett had been hired by Levinsohn, he was trying to make a go of things at Mayer’s Yahoo.
Barrett had heard rumors that Mayer was going to hire someone to replace him, but when he confronted her about them she said she wasn’t going to hire anyone above him, and certainly not Henrique De Castro. She even hinted that Barrett could be Yahoo’s chief operating officer.
But then Barrett read a story on AllThingsD.com saying that De Castro had been hired.
Hurt, but politic, he called Mayer’s office intending to congratulate her on the big hire. He wanted to begin discussing his own exit, as well.
Barrett got Mayer’s assistant.
She said, “Marissa is unavailable. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you. Could I have her call you back?”
Barrett said fine.
Mayer called him back while he was out to dinner in San Francisco.
As he picked up the phone, he expected her to begin the conversation with an apology for blindsiding him.
But all Mayer said was, “You called?”
Stunned that Mayer would either pretend to not know why he called or actually didn’t know why, Barrett said, “Yeah, I just wanted to say congrats on Henrique. He sounds like a really great hire.”
Mayer said, “I wasn’t able to tell anyone I was hiring him. I don’t think you should feel bad.”
“I don’t really feel bad at all,” he said.
The two never talked again, and Barrett left Yahoo with a severance package worth many millions of dollars.
Mayer’s next most important and controversial hire was a long-time private equity investor named Jacqueline Reses.
Though Reses had no experience in human resources, Mayer put her in charge of it at Yahoo. Mayer hired Reses because Mayer’s plan to improve the talent level at Yahoo was to buy lots of failed startups for small amounts of money.
Mayer believed that Reses would be expert at nailing down those kinds of transactions. She has been. In Mayer’s first year, Yahoo bought more than 20 startups.
Steven Henry, Getty Images
Mayer replaced Levinsohn’s chief marketing officer, Mollie Spillman, in August — while Spillman was on vacation. The new CMO was Kathy Savitt, a “bubbly” and “charismatic” executive who’d founded a startup in 2009 after running marketing for teen retail giant
After completing the sale of some Alibaba stock back to Alibaba and netting Yahoo almost $8 billion in cash, CFO Tim Morse left the company at the end of September 2012. Mayer hired the plain-spoken Ken Goldman to replace him.
Mayer kept some of Levinsohn’s people in place during her first year. Media boss Mickie Rosen would last until July 2013.
In the middle of all this, a baby
On Sept. 30, 2012 Mayer gave birth to a baby boy. For weeks, Mayer and Bogue called their child only “BBBB” for “Big Baby Boy Bogue.” They would eventually name him Macallister.
Mayer’s pregnancy had been a fascination of the media, women around the world, and plenty of her Yahoo coworkers. Everyone wondered how she would handle having a newborn while trying to turn around a multi-billion-dollar public company.
Mayer made the baby-raising part look easy.
She took just a two-week maternity leave. Then, two months after giving birth, Mayer told the audience at a conference on women in business: “The baby’s been way easier than everyone made it out to be.”
What Mayer didn’t say was that, thanks to her incredible wealth and power at Yahoo, she had a lot of help with Macallister. At home, she had a full-time staff. At Yahoo, she knocked down a wall in her office and set up a nursery so that Macallister — and his nanny — could come to the office with her every day.
The comments upset a lot of women. Lisa Belkin of The
Many of the same women would also take issue with Mayer in the spring of 2013, when she banned employees from working from home. Working from home was a convenient way for many of them to continue their careers after giving birth. Why was Mayer taking such a stance against it?
Mayer hadn’t intended to make a statement. She’d only wanted more people in the office at Yahoo. As for fighting for the working conditions of women, Mayer says that she is not a “feminist.” She says she is “blind to gender.”
Mayer goes missing
By the middle of the fall of 2012, a camaraderie developed between all of Mayer’s direct reports, and enthusiasm in the Yahoo workforce was swelling.
This was in part due to a series of cultural reforms Mayer brought to Yahoo almost immediately upon her arrival.
She made the food free and started taking her own lunches in the employee cafeteria. She took down cubicle walls. She joined in on email chains with lower-level employees. She banned BlackBerrys and gave top-of-the-line company smartphones to every employee. She created a forum where employees could complain about issues and suggest solutions. Parking lots that had been empty until 10 a.m. and again after 4 p.m. were suddenly full from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
On Fridays, Mayer would host a weekly meeting she called “FYI.” All Yahoo employees were invited. She’d go over her plans for the company, that week’s “wins” for Yahoo, and answer questions from the crowd.
Mayer dazzled. She was in her element. It was like she was back at Stanford, teaching fellow undergraduates the material she’d just learned the year before.
“If you go to the Friday meetings, it’s like a
“We would take the stage after she would open, so we were standing off the stage, watching the audience. You should have sees the
“She is deified. The first 50 rows are packed with the engineering team and they’re cheering her on. There is no question that there’s a palpable level of energy and renewed enthusiasm and renewed pride.”
Just a few weeks in, Yahoo employee morale and productivity hit a high not seen in a decade.
There was only one serious complaint from Mayer’s top executives: She never seemed to be around when they needed her. What was she working on all the time?
Mayer demanded all of her staff across the world join the call, so executives from New York, where it was 6 p.m., and Europe, where it was as late as midnight would dial-in too.
Inevitably, Mayer herself would show up at least 45 minutes late. Some calls started so late that Yahoo’s executives in Europe didn’t hang up till 3 a.m. their time.
One of Mayer’s former Google colleagues says the lateness habit is something Mayer picked up during her 13 years at Google.
“Eric, Larry, and Sergey were always late and causing everybody in the organization to be late. They would hold you over, and then you would be late. And then the next meeting would start late and then run late. And then all of the staff in that meeting would be late. It would just trickle down through the organization. Is Marissa Mayer always late? Well, yeah. But it was endemic to the organization.”
Mayer’s lateness was a pain, sure. But by the early fall of 2012, Mayer’s staff had grown used to it. In fact, they were actually glad when she’d show up late to a meeting, because that meant at least she hadn’t blown it off entirely.
Mayer had approximately 25 people reporting directly to her during her first year at Yahoo. In theory, she was keeping up with each of them in a regularly scheduled weekly meeting. In practice, she would go weeks without talking to people because she was so busy.
For a while, each of those 25 people thought that Mayer was just picking on them, individually. The people who had been at Yahoo before Mayer joined assumed that this meant she was going to fire them soon. The people Mayer had just hired into the company, including Reses and Savitt, were even more puzzled. Why had they been hired only to be ignored?
But then, during one of those long waiting periods after 3 p.m. on a Monday, a conversation unfurled that revealed all.
Making small talk, one executive said to another: “Did she cancel one of your one-on-ones again?”
A third jumped in: “Oh my god, she does that to you too?”
It turned out that everyone in the room and on the call had been canceled on by Mayer, frequently.
“Everyone assumed that they were the only one being canceled on. But then they realized that they weren’t,” says one person who was in those meetings.
The problem with Mayer canceling her scheduled meetings with everyone is that it was otherwise impossible to see her.
“That was your only point of contact with her. There wasn’t a lot of serendipity of bumping into her or having her pop her head into a meeting. Getting onto her calendar was nothing short of impossible.”
One person who kept getting blown off by Mayer remembers thinking: “I may not be you, but I'm running a huge part of your business. I've got thousands of people reporting to me. The chance that I would miss a meeting with my directs without an explanation is none.
“First of all, I don’t miss those meetings. Maybe it happens once in a year because of something. But then I'm going to pick up the phone and I'm going to call them and I'm going to apologize and I'm going to say I'm sorry, I'll make it up to you, let’s schedule some other time. I'm not going to make them wait for more than five minutes because I know they have incredibly important things to do. And they are human beings.”
During those staff meetings, Mayer made little time for certain topics early on — especially those having to do with revenue, advertising technology, or distribution.
Mayer would only entertain three deals per week, and it was quickly obvious the ones she would always prefer to talk about: anything to do with product. If Reses wanted to talk about an aqui-hire that would bring a talented product manager into Yahoo, Mayer would prioritize the conversation. If there was talk of a partnership with Apple on a new Weather app, that would definitely be discussed.
There was a reason for Mayer’s lateness, for the skipped meetings, and for the priority of product discussions during those meetings, though.
Prior to joining Yahoo, Mayer had decided the company’s many problems boiled down to one: everything going out the front door from PR to marketing to products was flawed. In her first months at the company, Mayer’s plan was to immediately stop that from happening ever again.
It would take an incredible amount of time and effort. Picture a dam sprouting leaks, and Mayer trying to plug them with all her fingers and toes.
“Who is this woman and what is she actually saying?”
A week after Mayer joined Yahoo, a Yahoo employee took a photo of one of the purple-on-purple Marissa Mayer HOPE posters taped to the walls of Yahoo and sent it to a Google employee named Hunter Walk.
Walk tweeted it, and soon the poster was a news story.
One of Mayer’s former subordinates from Google, Katie Jacobs Stanton, by then a vice president at Twitter, saw the tweet, and replied to Walk in her own public tweet. She wrote: “I hope that went through UI review :)”
The joke is a reference to the user-interface reviews that Mayer famously insisted on conducting for every consumer-facing Web product Google launched from 2005 to 2010 before she was removed from the top of the search products organization.
Stanton was suggesting that the Mayer she knew, the one she once reported to, would soon have strict control over all of Yahoo, and especially anything Yahoo made for the public’s consumption.
Stanton was spot on.
This applied to all areas of Yahoo, including public relations. Throughout the fall, every week, all the Yahoo PR people had to complete a big spreadsheet with the names of every reporter they wanted to talk to and what the business objective was. This spreadsheet was then submitted to the head of Yahoo PR, Anne Espiritu. Espiritu would then submit the form to Mayer. Mayer, in turn, would approve or reject every call or email and then pass the form back down the line.
If Yahoo’s public relations staff had any complaints about these tactics, they could bring them to Espiritu during her weekly office hours.
No group had a shorter leash than Yahoo’s largest, most important team: the hundreds of people in charge of creating, developing, designing, and updating Yahoo products.
On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, Marissa Mayer wrote a blog post announcing a new version of Yahoo Mail for the Web,
It was a huge moment for the new Yahoo. No Yahoo product, perhaps other than the Yahoo homepage, is as important to Yahoo as Yahoo Mail. It’s the biggest reason any of Yahoo’s 700 million users ever bother to go to Yahoo.com in the first place. And over the previous few years, it had slowly been losing users.
“Email is the ultimate daily habit,” Mayer says in the post. “It’s often the first thing we check in the morning and the last thing before going to bed.”
Three months before those words hit the Web, Mayer and 30 designers, product managers, and engineers sat around a huge table in one of Yahoo’s large, traditional conference rooms.
Mayer was talking. Fast. As she spoke, two of the people seated near her typed away like crazy, trying to take verbatim notes in Google Docs. They were struggling to keep up.
This group of people had been meeting three times a week for a month, and they’d turned the conference room into a space that now looked more like a design studio. Windows ran down one side of the room. On the other side, projectors hung from the ceiling, rendering screens on the wall. Between the projections stood 20 or 30 huge pieces of foam core pinned up with a collection of ideas about what a new Yahoo homepage and a new Yahoo email could look like.
For the 30 people sitting around the table, their first meetings with Mayer over the past month had been terrifying.
For years, Yahoo had been a place where the CEO was a distant figure who would meet with various members of his or her executive leadership team to lay out broad strategies for each function: design, technology, product, etc.
Mayer skipped all that.
“She was like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah. We'll get to that. Let’s first get some stuff out the door that actually works,’” says a witness to those early days.
It was a level of energized scrutiny none of them were used to.
Mayer came at them with “a voracious flood of possibilities” about what the new products could look like. Her ideas were both big and small — minute even. Mayer displayed such a “profound capacity for detail,” that the leadership in the room finally set up the two transcribers so that later they could “share and dissect” all of Mayer’s ideas and decisions.
One of them remembers thinking: “Who is this woman and what is she actually saying?”
But soon, as the weeks wore on, the 30 people in that room began to learn how to respond to what Mayer was saying.
Some of the people in the room were growing frustrated with the pace, but others began contributing. Among those who contributed, Mayer learned who to trust. Those trusted people began to grow in confidence and they started to contribute even more.
Soon, these once-terrifying meetings became friendly, fun. Jokes started to fly around.
“It warmed up,” says someone who was in those meetings. “Once we learned how to operate on that level of intensity with her, she softened and it became more of an interaction.”
“You’d look at her and she’s smiling!”
This was Mayer in her ultimate element.
She was pushing the pace as she had those late nights working on problems for Philosophy 160A. She was teaching, as she had 3,000 Stanford undergraduates. She was creating, as she had those pompom routines 25 years before. She was using data to empathize with hundreds of millions of people all at once, as she had learned to do at Google.
“I've never seen anybody like [her],” says someone from those meetings. Mayer, he says, was “somebody who could see a whole collection of possibilities and could just talk about her experiences and principles.”
“In that way she would start to not only share how she was thinking, but also help us learn a lens to look through to be able to connect where she was coming from and what we were about.”
Mayer’s intensity was contagious. By November, the Yahoo Mail team was working nights and weekends, racing to finish by an insane early December deadline. This was a credit to Mayer and the leader of the Mail team, Shashi Seth, a product leader Mayer inherited.
Finally, the Mail team finished their work at the end of November. They were proud of their work, and they deserved to be. Never had Yahoo built and launched a version of Mail so quickly. The last time Yahoo had done it, it took 18 months to build the product and another six months to roll it out.
But then Yahoo learned another lesson about what making products would be like with Marissa Mayer as CEO.
One day before the new Yahoo Mail was set to launch, Mayer called a meeting with CMO Kathy Savitt, Shashi Seth, and the entire product and engineering leadership team — about 10 people in total. They met in Phish Food, the conference room where months before, Ross Levinsohn had pitched an alternate reality for Yahoo to a board that wasn’t really listening.
Everyone settled in; Mayer dropped a bombshell. For months, it had been decided that the new Yahoo Mail’s colors would be blue and gray. The thought was that users were going to be looking at Yahoo Mail on their phones all day long, and so it was best to choose the most subtly contrasting colors possible.
Mayer wanted to change the colors entirely — from blue and gray to purple and yellow.
Seth’s body language shifted immediately. He looked deflated. He was going to have to tell his people the news.
Changing the color of a product like Yahoo Mail sounds easy, but it’s not. Mayer’s decision meant that some unlucky group of people were going to have to manually go and change the color in literally thousands of places — all while working under a deadline.
Seth’s team got the changes done, but there was fallout from Mayer’s decision. The lead Yahoo Mail designer quit and went to Google. The Yahoo Mail product manager went to Disney. The lead engineer left and founded a startup. Seth himself left Yahoo in January 2013, a month after Mail launched.
One person, frustrated by the incident, says he’d hoped the Yahoo Mail launch would make people “incredibly proud of what they've accomplished” and that they would be inspired to “stick around for years to come.”
“It was the exact opposite,” he says.
But others have a different perspective.
Their view is that Mayer refused to launch a product that she didn’t think was finished. A product’s color may seem superficial, but Mayer is obsessed with data that shows it is not. At Yahoo’s scale, if you can change a color a little bit and effect the performance by some factor of .01 percent, that translates into millions of dollars.
In this view, when Mayer forced already burnt-out people to work even harder at the very last minute to make sure a product went out as good as it could be, she set a marker for the new era of Yahoo.
“The precedent made the next project easier to deal with,” says one person who helped launch Yahoo Mail. “We’d gotten comfortable with what Yahoo-ness was about.”
Yahoo's mobile problem
When Mayer came to Yahoo in 2012, Yahoo’s mobile traffic was still tiny compared to other big tech companies like Google and Facebook. Yahoo’s mobile apps weren’t very popular either.
So when Mayer joined Yahoo, she knew that a top priority had to be developing mobile apps that consumers would make a part of their daily lives.
To try to figure out what those apps should be, Mayer conducted a survey.
The results made her laugh.
She learned that after activities like calling people, texting, and maps, the main things people do on their phones everyday are: check email, check weather, get news, get stock quotes, check
What made Mayer laugh was that those are all things people go to Yahoo for on the Web. Yahoo’s biggest products are Yahoo Mail, Yahoo News, Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Sports, and so on.
At a speech in New York in May 2013, Mayer said: “Yahoo has had the functionality and content people want on their phones. Now we need to get it into apps and the mobile web in a way people can really consume it on their phones.”
In her first year at Yahoo, Mayer made two big moves to expand mobile reach and usage.
The first move was to put a Yahoo executive named Adam Cahan in charge of a new group called “Mobile and Emerging Products.” Cahan came to Yahoo when it acquired his mobile startup, IntoNow, for $20 million in 2011.
Yahoo lacked the mobile talent to staff such a group, so Mayer spent $200 million at the end of 2012 and through August of 2013 acquiring more than 20 mobile startups. In almost every case, Yahoo would shut down the startup’s product, sign its engineering and product development people to two- and four-year contracts, and integrate them into Cahan’s team.
Mayer’s second big move to improve Yahoo’s standing in mobile would turn out to be the biggest transaction of her entire career. It would cost Yahoo $1.1 billion.
Could Mayer close the deal?
On the evening of Thursday, May 16, 2013, 26-year-old David Karp looked at his iPhone and saw he had a voicemail from the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg.
He listened to her message. All Sandberg said was that she’d like Karp to call her back.
But she had said enough.
Karp, the founder of a blog network called Tumblr, told his investment banker Jonathan Turner at Qatalyst Partners about the voicemail.
They decided they had to call Yahoo and let them know Sandberg had called.
That day, All Things D reporter Kara Swisher and her colleague Peter Kafka had reported that Yahoo was in serious talks to buy Tumblr.
Karp, his board, and his bankers believed Sandberg was calling to see if the report was true, and if Facebook could possibly join the bidding for Tumblr.
On the one hand, a bidding war between Facebook and Yahoo would be great news for Tumblr, its bankers, and its investors.
On the other, Turner was terrified that the leak would spoil their deal. Mayer was from Google, and Google was infamous for pulling the plug on deals if it felt like the other side was trying to gin up interest in the press. Throughout every stage of the slow courtship between the companies, Turner had been paranoid about the press.
Still, Yahoo had to be told about the voicemail. The companies had signed an “exclusivity” agreement, which meant that Tumblr had to notify Yahoo of any other approaches.
Turner had nothing to worry about.
When Mayer found out about Sandberg’s voicemail, she only became more eager to get the deal done.
She went to her M&A team, led by “gruff” New Yorker Jackie Reses, and told them to hurry up and wrap things up; she didn’t want to lose out on Tumblr — not after all those months of work and so many meetings with Karp.
Talks between the two companies had begun in November 2012, when Karp went to Sunnyvale and met with Mayer.
By then, Tumblr, founded in 2007, had grown to an astounding 200 million worldwide users a month, but Karp still hadn’t figured out how the blog network could make a lot of money off all those users.
He was taking meetings on the West Coast to see if Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or Yahoo wanted to make a strategic investment. He thought one of those companies might want to sell ads on Tumblr.com and split the revenues.
That first meeting between Karp and Mayer left both parties cold. Mayer mostly talked about what she was trying to do at Yahoo, and a potential deal between the two companies didn’t really come up.
After the meeting, Karp told his board and his bankers that the new CEO of Yahoo was very nice, but that he didn’t see a deal happening.
At investment bank Qatalyst, Turner passed the news onto his boss, legendary tech banker Frank Quattrone.
Quattrone had gotten rich and powerful during the dot com bubble. He also got in some hot water with the law, though he eventually extricated himself. He’s brash. He’s got a mustache. He looks like the cartoon version of a deal-making, back-slapping, investment banker. And yet, he’s probably the best deal-maker in the business.
Quattrone thought he would be able to get Mayer more interested in Tumblr. So, in early 2013, he met with her, and pointed out that one of Tumblr’s great strengths was how popular it was on mobile devices. He accurately noted the incredible amount of time young people were spending on Tumblr.
Quattrone had said the magic word: “mobile.”
Mayer said she’d take a second look.
When Marissa Mayer studies a topic, she doesn’t do it superficially. After her meeting with Quattrone, she spent an entire weekend using Tumblr, poking around the site, and studying metrics.
Mayer decided to get back in touch with Karp. Only, she didn’t want to do an advertising deal or make a strategic investment. She wanted to buy his company.
If that was going to happen, it was going to take some doing. Karp didn’t want to sell his company. Facebook and Google had started trying to talk him into it, but he refused, even though a sale would net him more than $100 million after taxes. He wanted to keep control over his company.
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mayer realized she needed to put on a full-court press.
Mayer flew to New York in February and had dinner with Karp and Jackie Reses on a Saturday night. Mayer was able to win Karp over that night. She said that Tumblr was an excellent product — an amazing tool for self-expression. She noted that it was beating Facebook with younger consumers.
That Saturday night, Mayer told Karp that she had a board meeting coming up soon, and that she’d like to bring up the possibility of buying Tumblr.
Would he be able to meet again that Sunday?
Karp agreed to meet again. That Sunday night over dinner, Mayer talked about how the new paradigm for tech acquisitions was for the acquiring company to allow the acquired company to continue operating independently, as a subsidiary with its own brand. She said that’s what Google had done with YouTube, what Facebook had done with Instagram, and it’s what Yahoo would do with Tumblr.
They stayed out till 2 a.m. Karp told Mayer to bring up the idea at her board meeting.
During her first-quarter board meeting, Mayer said she’d like to buy Tumblr. She said Tumblr would, in a snap, improve Yahoo’s position in mobile and make its overall audience much younger. The board gave her full support to pursue the deal.
Everything went fine from there. The All Things D report and Sandberg’s voicemail only hurried the process along.
Finally, over the next weekend, Karp and his board accepted Yahoo’s offer.
It was a
For years, Yahoo had tried to acquire hot startups that would help it become more popular with users, and eventually begin growing its revenues again. But time and again, the entrepreneurial ambitious types running hot startups would refuse to sell to Yahoo, preferring to sell to Google or Facebook.
For Mayer, the deal showed how far she’d come as an executive. Her penchant for teacherly mentoring allowed her to cultivate a relationship with Karp and close a deal that had seemed impossible.
One source close to Tumblr’s now defunct board said he was blown away by how much effort Mayer put into the deal.
“Where I give her high marks is that you don’t typically get CEOs that engaged.”
“She really took ownership of this, really persuaded David that she would let Tumblr stay independent.
“She turned David around. He was very reluctant. He’s not motivated by money in the same way as the rest of us. He’s really passionate about the product. His concern about selling to Yahoo was that it would get subsumed.
“Marissa convinced David that this wasn’t the old Yahoo and that she’s going to run it differently.”
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
Illustration by Mike Nudelman
Now into her second year as Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer from Wausau, Wisc., says “I’m having the time of my life.”
A natural teacher, she has, in her 20s and 30s, turned that skill into the ability to inspire thousands of people to make technology products that millions of people use.
The challenge she’ll face in her 40s is: Can she become the rare, complete technology CEO who can create magical products and deliver financial results?
By one measure, Mayer did incredibly well during her first year. Since David Filo unrolled the purple carpet for Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s stock has gone from $15.74 per share to hovering around $28 in August 2013.
But, while investor confidence in Mayer’s vision and performance so far certainly plays some role in the stock’s magnificent surge, a much greater factor has been Alibaba, the Chinese Internet company in which Yahoo is a part-owner.
Yahoo has benefitted from Alibaba in two ways.
In the months before Mayer joined Yahoo, CEO Scott Thompson and CFO Tim Morse hammered out a deal in which Alibaba bought back a small portion of Yahoo’s stake for $7.6 billion. When he was still CEO, Thompson signaled that he would use that money to buy back Yahoo shares, driving up their price. When she took over, Mayer went along with this plan.
Because of Alibaba, Yahoo has been able to spend billions of dollars buying its own stock. With the supply of shares shrinking, and a few billion dollars-worth of demand in the market, the shares have naturally risen.
The other way Alibaba has helped Yahoo shares grow in value is by growing in value itself.
Alibaba has yet to go public. Because Yahoo still owns a large stake in Alibaba, it is actually one of the few ways investors are able to place bets on it. Those bets even have a pay-off date. As a part of the deal Thompson and Morse negotiated, Yahoo will sell even more stock when Alibaba does finally IPO. Some analysts think Yahoo will get another $7 billion in cash out of that deal.
Another reason to be skeptical of Mayer’s performance is that the person more responsible than anyone else for her being the CEO of Yahoo, Third Point’s Dan Loeb, sold off most of his holdings in the company in July 2013. That month, he, Michael Wolf, and
Third Point remains a major Yahoo shareholder, but Loeb’s liquidation is still a strong signal that he thinks the upside from where Yahoo is now is more limited than it was in 2012.
All that said, there is no question that Mayer has drastically improved Yahoo in her short time there so far.
You can see it in the metrics. Yahoo claims that after Mayer’s redesigns, traffic to apps for Yahoo Mail is up 120 percent; Yahoo Weather, 150 percent; and Yahoo News, 55 percent. In her first year, Mayer was able to keep traffic to Yahoo Mail on the Web flat, and even slightly grow Yahoo.com. In an age where big websites usually shrink because people check their email and news on their phones, that’s remarkable. In the middle of August 2013, ComScore reported that Yahoo Web properties had passed Google properties as the most popular in the United States.
Beyond the metrics though, Mayer has revolutionized the culture at Yahoo.
One Yahoo executive told me that before Mayer arrived, “what was missing was leadership from the very top, which was able to cut to the chase and get some tough decisions made, get focused in the right places, get the sense of urgency, and also somebody who could really be the chief quality control leader of the company.”
And indeed, the quality of Yahoo products has gone up since Mayer arrived. The Yahoo Weather app that launched for iPhone in 2013 is stunning. Mayer’s redesign of
Yes, some people don’t get along with her because of her direct, all-business style.
Sometimes her brusque manner comes off as rude, “demeaning,” or “stuck up.” It can insult people.
But even some of those people say Yahoo has become a far more vibrant place under her leadership.
One person Mayer frequently clashed with at Yahoo told me, “You have to give Marissa a lot of credit. Just because I don’t like what she’s done to me and I don’t like what she’s done to many other people, doesn’t mean I'm going to shy away from giving her credit. She brought life back to Yahoo. There’s no question about it.
“The Friday before she came on, the parking lots would be empty till 10 a.m. and would be empty again after 4 p.m. That happened day after day after day for seven months in a row. Marissa comes, the next week, the parking lots are full at 8 a.m. and people are still there at 6:30.
“The changes that she brought — making food free, focusing on quality, shutting some things down, being open and honest during the Friday FYI meetings — all brought belief back for a lot of people.”
“If she hadn’t come in, all the smart people would have left.
“And that would have been the end of Yahoo.”
A Note on Sources
This story is based primarily on first-hand reporting consisting of dozens of interviews.
This story would not exist if not for the cooperation of many people who did speak with me, including those who grew up with Mayer, taught her, or worked with her at Google and Yahoo. Some of these people are or were employed at Yahoo and spoke to me at the risk of their careers. Many of these people spoke on a not-for-attribution basis. Some spoke on the record. I have not identified many on-the-record sources because I did not want to allow for the process of elimination to identify others.
This story, being told in a narrative fashion, does not identify the sources of information for particular facts, including thoughts. I would caution readers against assuming that because I have reported a person’s thoughts, that person is a direct source. A person will often share thoughts about pivotal moments in their lives with a large group of people.
As a part of the narrative, my story includes dialogue.
I am grateful to James B. Stewart’s “note on sources” at the end of his book, “DisneyWar.” That note helped me think about how to describe my own sourcing. In his note, Stewart describes how he sources dialogue. It’s a perfect explanation, and I’d like to quote it and use it as my own explanation.
“As part of the narrative, I have included passages of dialogue. Dialogue— what words were said— is a fact like any other. It is not necessarily a quotation from an interview with me and I would discourage readers from inferring that one or both of the speakers is a direct source. Especially in today’s world of instant communication, it is sometimes amazing how many people turn out to be privy to what others may assume is a private conversation. Many of the conversations reported in this book either took place before an audience or became known to a wide circle of people, often within minutes of their taking place. … In a few cases other people were listening in on speakerphones, extensions, or overheard conversations without one or both of the speakers’ knowledge. Readers should bear in mind that, given the vagaries of human memory, remembered dialogue is rarely the same as actual recordings and transcripts. At the same time, it is no more nor less accurate than many other recollections.”
I'm grateful to Jay Yarow and Alyson Shontell for reading this story and suggesting edits. Jill Klausen and Liz Wilke saved me with wonderful copy edits. Mike Nudelman contributed excellent illustrations that bring the story to life. I'm grateful to people in California, Wisconsin, and around the world who took my calls and agreed to talk.
- Life and times of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala — the man behind the trader
- A 29-year-old woman found a mark on her head and was diagnosed with a fungal infection. It turned out to be invasive skin cancer.
- JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon told wealthy clients there's a chance the US is heading into 'something worse' than a recession, report says
- Workplace recognition, and not salary, is top criteria for job seekers in India: report
- Sports goods, furniture and shoes lead India’s retail growth this festive season: RAI
- ACCA and IMA: economy survey reveals the biggest ever drop in economic confidence
- India moves up one spot in global rankings for median mobile speeds: Report
- Exponent Energy raises $13 million to scale up its rapid charging points across the country