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August 2010When I went to work for Yahoo after they bought our startup in 1998, it felt like the center of the world. It was supposed to be what Google turned out to be. The problems that hosed Yahoo go back a long time, practically to the beginning of the company.
One obvious result of this practice was that when Yahoo built things, they often weren't very good. The worst problem was that they hired bad programmers.
Microsoft (back in the day), Google, and Facebook have all been obsessed with hiring the best programmers. They preferred good programmers to bad ones, but they didn't have the kind of single-minded, almost obnoxiously elitist focus on hiring the smartest people that the big winners have had.
But there was another source even more dangerous: other Internet startups. " I said "Oh, ok." Because I didn't realize either how much search traffic was worth. If they had, Google presumably wouldn't have expended any effort on enterprise search.
By 1998, Yahoo was the beneficiary of a de facto Ponzi scheme. One reason they were excited was Yahoo's revenue growth. The startups then used the money to buy ads on Yahoo to get traffic. If circumstances had been different, the people running Yahoo might have realized sooner how important search was.
They'd been thrown off balance from the start by their ambivalence about being a technology company.
One of the weirdest things about Yahoo when I went to work there was the way they insisted on calling themselves a "media company." If you walked around their offices, it seemed like a software company.
He thought we were meeting so he could check us out in person before buying us.
I thought we were meeting so we could show him our new technology, Revenue Loop. Merchants bid a percentage of sales for traffic, but the results were sorted not by the bid but by the bid times the average amount a user would buy.
The cubicles were full of programmers writing code, product managers thinking about feature lists and ship dates, support people (yes, there were actually support people) telling users to restart their browsers, and so on, just like a software company. One reason was the way they made money: by selling ads. If anyone at Yahoo considered the idea that they should be a technology company, the next thought would have been that Microsoft would crush them.
In 1995 it was hard to imagine a technology company making money that way. It's hard for anyone much younger than me to understand the fear Microsoft still inspired in 1995.