RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Marissa Mayer will go down in history as the last CEO of Yahoo now that Verizon is acquiring that great Internet pioneer. When Mayer came on board four years back, Yahoo was in a critical make-or-break moment. It needed a decisive leader. But in interviews with Mayer and people who worked with her, NPR's Aarti Shahani discovered that the CEO treated Yahoo more like a think tank than a sinking ship.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Consider the context. Yahoo had just been through four CEOs in as many years. The board was impatient. And as Marissa Mayer tells it, she spent her first six months really listening, much to the surprise of her staff.
MARISSA MAYER: When I first showed up at the company, my first day, everyone said, OK, so we're going to get you ready for your all hands tomorrow.
SHAHANI: All hands being the meeting where she'd address Yahoo's 14,000 employees.
MAYER: So you can come in and you can do the big dog and pony show, unveil your strategy.
SHAHANI: She pushed back.
MAYER: I said, you know, with all due respect, I'm not going to do a strategy presentation tomorrow. I have some broad brushstrokes of strategy around things like mobile being very important. But I really want to listen.
SHAHANI: When Mayer joined Yahoo, posters of her adorned the walls in the iconic hope style a la President Obama. In the cafeteria, she remembers this one employee walked up to her, tray in hand, and said...
MAYER: Is it go time? Is it time to go?
SHAHANI: Her eyes shot open. So many people had left by the time she got there.
MAYER: I said, oh, no, please don't go. I've only been here for three days. Give me a chance. Like, we're going to try and work out something interesting here. And he said, no, no, no, you misunderstand.
SHAHANI: What he meant was go get to work. He had ideas. He was tired of waiting for management to figure themselves out. This was music to Mayer's ears. To this day, she reads the resume of every person Yahoo considers hiring. That can be 50 a week. And she has to OK each and every one. She says her job is to pick strong players and then remove obstacles so they can do their thing.
She told the cafeteria guy...
MAYER: Look, I'm going to try and knock things down. But, yes, by all means, go, run. Like, you know, do your ideas.
SHAHANI: And Mayer loved ideas - collecting them, scrutinizing them. Years ago, San Francisco Magazine reported that to make cupcakes, she bought several cookbooks, put the ingredients in a spreadsheet and tested recipes before ultimately writing her own. It sounded like she did a version of that with Yahoo, too - the CEO challenge, her call-out to employees to submit innovative ideas.
MAYER: And I thought that maybe we would get, like, 40 ideas. We got 700.
SHAHANI: But quantity doesn't equal quality. Asked if any one could turn into a billion-dollar business, she says...
MAYER: No, but that wasn't really what the CEO challenge was about.
SHAHANI: Mayer didn't mention the winner. Turns out, it was a lawyer on Yahoo's patent team who proposed they make money by selling patents, which is what they already do. And his prize, a Tesla, the luxury car. His co-workers were baffled. What exactly is Mayer rewarding? Some are fond of saying Yahoo's death or auctioning off was inevitable.
It was not, according to former employees.
SHASHI SETH: Yeah, in 2012, I think things were much more salvageable.
SHAHANI: Shashi Seth supervised several hundred people at Yahoo, reported directly to Mayer and worked with her back at Google. We spoke on Skype. It was a huge deal for struggling Yahoo to land Mayer, Google's 20th employee. Seth was excited and aching to upgrade two products, mail and the homepage. They made a lot of money yet...
SETH: These were the two most ignored products across the company.
SHAHANI: While Seth left six months into Mayer's tenure, his take is consistent with people who stayed far longer. Yahoo Mail was so bad, it would ask a question that no modern user should have had to answer.
SETH: Do you have a large file or a small file, right? Nobody else asked you that question.
SHAHANI: Seth says Mayer didn't come in with a plan to make mail number one or anything number one. Other senior employees say she didn't woo the big advertisers on Madison Avenue, convince them, hey, our data is awesome, we know who Yahoo users are, what they read. We can target ads better than Google or Facebook can.
Her former employees say Mayer got caught up in micro-managing small stuff like the weather app.
SETH: Yahoo Weather was never going to save the company, right? I don't care how great you made Yahoo Weather, it wasn't going to save the company.
SHAHANI: Seth has a thesis. If Mayer focused on one or two communication tools, say email or a messaging app like WhatsApp, Yahoo could have made a comeback. Instead, he says, the CEO threw time she didn't have into the part of the business that's fun but will never turn a profit, media content. Media is glitzy, glamorous.
Under Mayer, Yahoo announced the hiring of beloved TV host Katie Couric. And Yahoo landed an exclusive deal with "Saturday Night Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KENAN THOMPSON: Thank you Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yoo-hoo for having me.
SHAHANI: Comedian Kenan Thompson playing the Reverend Al Sharpton on stage with Mayer at a big tech event.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THOMPSON: Who would have thought that a small chocolate milk company like Yoo-hoo could turn into one of the world's biggest tech giants. It's amazing.
SHAHANI: "SNL" was never going to save Yahoo, either. In response to these criticisms, Mayer says she did update the homepage. She built a mobile team Yahoo never had before. And users want good media content. It's unusual in Silicon Valley for people to criticize a leader publicly. Of the former employees NPR interviewed, Shashi Seth, who was not the most critical, was the only one who agreed to go on air.
Asked why, he says about Yahoo...
SETH: It's one of those companies that is iconic. And defiance - Silicon Valley defies the Internet. And it's a shame because a lot of people put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it and other than relationships with some great people, didn't get much for it.
SHAHANI: Mayer will get a lot for it. She has not said if she's joining Verizon. I ask her if she'll get paid her severance either way.
MAYER: I'll be honest, I've never really looked at it. So I'm happier to point to the actual filings.
SHAHANI: The CEO who reads the resume of every hire, who read hundreds of CEO challenge proposals, she says she doesn't know. The answer is she does not have to join to get the money, $54.8 million. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Sunnyvale Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.