Forbes interview with Ross Levinsohn

It is a good read and you see some of the inside info that people don’t talk much about.

I think he could have gotten into a lot more detail but these are professionals – they are not going to tell you everything.

EJ: Tell me your views of Carol because the impressions of her changed a lot over her tenure. Was it adult supervision or did she lack consumer Internet background? What was your inside view of her and what has been missed in her portrayal?

RL: She was a good operator. Jerry was the soul of the company , and Carol was an experienced global CEO. She came in and got a really good group of managers around her to run a global business. I think she doesn’t get the credit for the type of people she brought it. Many of them are now CEO’s or leaders of substantial businesses. She helped stabilize the company in her first couple of years. Then the market got tougher on her. You get built up and then you get torn down in these high profile jobs.

She did a good job when she was there. I found her to be a great boss. She was hands on enough and there when I needed here, but let her executives do their jobs. She supported us. She was always available to me.

I also agree for the most part. I had issues with Carol but I actually think she did well given the hand she was dealt. And as Ross mentions in another spot – it is not like any one person can fix everything. It is a HUGE organization.

EJ: Marissa Mayer has come under criticism recently and one of the things she’s said in response to that criticism was that, before she showed up, very few people at Yahoo were even aware that mobile existed. That doesn’t seem to fit with my recollection of Blake Irving building out digital magazines. You were cutting media partner deals such as ABC News and CNBC. When you were there, what were you doing about mobile?

RL: That characterization is flawed and it doesn’t acknowledge a great deal of work that many Yahoo’s did long before she arrived. I remember my first executive staff meeting with Carol (in 2010) and there was a 45 minute discussion about the impact of mobile on our mail products and how we could fix that. A lot of our resources in 2010 were focused on Mail/Messenger because that was such a significant driver of our business back then. It probably still is. We didn’t have enough people focused on mobile then, but to characterize it that we had no one focused on mobile is inaccurate.

We had launched Livestand which Blake had championed, that brought content to mobile devices and platforms in a beautiful esthetic.

Agree on the shift to mobile. It was happening but takes time – Marissa in my opinion continued and accelerated the work but it was happening.

Livestand was a dog due to trying to use bleeding edge tech – it should have been a native app (not html 5 wrapped in a native container) and it might of worked. The core Yahoo audience, like my mom. loved it.

EJ: You were doing a lot of these media deals even before becoming interim CEO. It seems like Marissa’s carried on that strategy. What did you see when you were head of Americas to know that you needed to do deals with ABC News, NBC Sports, and CNBC?

RL: Our thesis starting in late 2010 was that Video was going to be the most important driver for our business, but we had to differentiate from YouTube. We believed there was “white space” around premium content, and that our technology could help personalize the experiences across our verticals. We had the #1, 2, or 3 ranked sites in every important vertical (news, sports, finance etc), and we had data and massive inventory.. The plan was to add premium content partners, and create more original content and “branded” experiences. We started investing in original programming including our own writers and video starting in early 2011. We felt video was going to be the most important element in the premium space so we invested a significant amount of money in original slates. When you looked at the numbers, we had 9 of the top 10 video series on the internet. I don’t know if that’s still the case.

Ross was going to buy Hulu as soon as he was made permanent CEO. A deal team was already looking into it.

EJ: Part of your plan was to cut costs. Why is it so hard to cut costs at Yahoo?

RL: What makes it hard for any company is that you don’t want to get rid of people. Yahoo is 20 years old now. Like most 20 year old businesses, it likely has to go through changes.

Yahoo really is a family, as much as everyone bitches and moans about things, you feel a sense of pride working at Yahoo. A lot of credit for that goes to Jerry [Yang] and David [Filo] and the environment they created. It’s hard to let your friends go.

During Carol’s time, we went through a variety of smaller resizing structures. Scott Thompson put through a more aggressive plan in place that we never did. I looked at it and thought that we had an opportunity to restart the company in a way. We looked seriously at repositioning the workforce. I thought there was an opportunity to get out of certain things we were doing and get out of certain countries we were in. When you looked at the math, it just wasn’t paying off. With a fresh start, you get a free year or two to reposition the company. Marissa obviously has tried to do that as well.

The way I viewed it, our strategy would have downsized in places and re-invested. It’s a bit like big government. There were a lot of ”corporate” employees and contractors. I thought we could reduce those areas, reduce non-growth businesses and countries where we not seeing any significant traction or impact to our business and redeploy people and capital to the growth areas. We needed more people in mobile, content, sales and engineering. We needed to beef up our platform and personalization technology. But the overall headcount would have reduced by a significant number.

Ross was going to layoff at least 5000 people – maybe more. It was the right thing to do. Yahoo is way bigger than it needs to be.

Good read but wish he had said even more.

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