Can Yahoo retain the talent for a turnaround?

Yahoo headquarters management santa claraSavvy as she may be, Marissa Mayer cannot return Yahoo to glory on her own. She will need top talent at every level of her company.

A recent late-night email to employees suggests Mayer knows this, and is doing everything she can to boost morale, from ripping out turnstiles to giving away free food.

There are a lot of good reasons to go work for Yahoo, especially with Mayer as its CEO. But there may be equally good reasons to stay away. Here’s why Yahoo might and might not attract the talent it needs.

Pro: Yahoo has valuable assets

It’s easy to forget, given the Yahoo’s recent history, what a formidable force the company remains. At a glance, Yahoo has:

That’s to say nothing of the dozens of other brands Yahoo maintains. These brands bring Yahoo a massive audience. As many as 700 million people use Yahoo websites each month. This audience hungers for quality products — if only Yahoo’s staff can deliver them.

Con: Yahoo’s assets are boring

Unfortunately, there is a reason the technology press doesn’t talk about Yahoo’s products very much. The products aren’t very interesting, are they?

When is the last time a Yahoo product was featured in these virtual pages? It’s been a while. To get to it you have to wade through many stories about mismanagement and decline.

Look at it another way: would you rather work for Yahoo Sports, or The Bleacher Report? What about Grantland? Would you rather work for Yahoo Games, or Zynga? Wait, let me take it again, “…for Yahoo Games, or for Kixeye?”

Yahoo may be the site where your drinking buddies run their fantasy football league, but it’s likely that you only use your Yahoo email account to catch spam. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for those considering employment there.

Pro: Yahoo has resources

Yahoo’s assets, though they aren’t sexy, still bring the company massive income each year. Yahoo had revenues of nearly $5 billion in 2011 with profits of slightly more than $1 billion. That isn’t exactly pocket change. Further lining Yahoo’s coffers is the reported $7 billion it will net from the sale of its stake in Alibaba.com.

Surely Yahoo’s best and brightest can do something brilliant with that stack of cash?

Con: Yahoo has starved good brands of resources

Even solid ideas die without a nourishing flow of money. Yahoo has an unfortunate history of letting important, techie-loved Web brands wither on the vine.

Flickr has been owned by Yahoo for more than seven years, and seems to have changed little since that acquisition. Most of the recent reporting about Flickr has portrayed the photo site as floundering, and rumors have persisted that Flickr would be shuttered or sold. It seems that Yahoo hasn’t shown Flickr much love. Ironic, considering that Flickr is one of Yahoo’s best-loved brands.

flickr yahoo photo sharing siteIf Yahoo had better supported Flickr, could it have produced something like Instagram? It’s not inconceivable, given Flickr’s earlier lead in the space. (I appropriated this argument from one of the smart people on This Week in Tech. I believe it was Fr. Robert Ballecer. Please excuse my lack of a quote.)

Delicious was treated even more poorly. After years of neglect, news that the service would be “sunset” leaked to the web in late 2010. Delicious would later be purchased by YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen via their company AVOS. No price was reported. Though Delicious still exists today, it is now just another player in the social tagging space. An ignominious decline for a once great web company.

If Yahoo had better supported Delicious, could it have produced something like Pinterest? Again, a long shot, but not impossible considering how far ahead of the game Delicious once was.

Pro: Yahoo’s top-level talent

Marissa Mayer herself may be the best reason to join Yahoo.

Surpassed in fame at Google only by the search giant’s co-founders and long-time CEO, Mayer is celebrated as much for her engineering and product prowess as her charisma and sense of style. Her appointment as CEO increased Yahoo’s relevance and credibility as few other hires could.

melissa mayer yahoo ceoPerhaps realizing her need for talent, Mayer has made morale a focus. There have been rumors of giving employees iPhones, announcements about free food, and even a powwow with Flickr’s engineering staff. Most important, Mayer has raised expectations for Yahoo and its employees.

Under Mayer, Yahoo has become a very different company. Those joining the company today may be doing so based largely on the promise of her leadership.

Con: Yahoo’s talent in the trenches

It is extremely unlikely, though, that any new hire would be working closely with Mayer. Those they will be working alongside … well, they won’t be Marissa Mayer.

During one of his exiles from Digg, Kevin Rose laid blame for the site’s problems on its engineering staff.

We got in a lot of some B and C grade talents. You get some B and C grade developers and they bring their C and D grade friends in and then all of a sudden you have a big challenge….

 As it turned out, Digg had problems beyond its coders. However, if Kevin’s assessment was true for Digg, what does that mean about the engineering staff at Yahoo?

Once again, consider the opportunities available elsewhere. If you were a talented developer, would you rather work at Yahoo or Facebook? What about one of the myriad startups out there? Much of Yahoo’s best engineering staff may have been drawn away by the lure of more exciting products and more lucrative compensation.

Why stay at Yahoo? Perhaps you like the sense of stability. Well, too bad Now is not time for stability at Yahoo It’s time for risk-taking. That’s what it will take to make great new things.

Craving stability leads to too much thought about covering your butt. Making great things means thinking exclusively about kicking butt. Focus on the former makes the latter impossible.

Unfortunately for Mayer and Yahoo, this trend and Yahoo’s many years of decline may mean the company doesn’t have the on-the-ground talent to power the turnaround it needs.

Conclusion

The Mayer Factor and Yahoo’s assets will still draw many enterprising employees to Sunnyvale. But her success and that of her company could hinge on her ability reinvigorate a corporate culture that has been on the wrong track for too long. Time will tell if she’s able to do so.

At least she makes Yahoo more interesting in the meantime.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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