Saving Yahoo may be a long shot, but it's still worth trying
Forget that Google's revenue is growing by 20 percent a year. Or that Facebook's revenue is growing by 55 percent a year, with the bulk of that coming from mobile ads. Yahoo managed for once to eke out 1 percent revenue growth, and that is actually something for the company to celebrate.
As good financial news goes in the Internet sector, this was thin gruel. But it was just nourishing enough to allow Marissa Mayer to make the case that she had to make on this earnings call: Yahoo deserves to remain independent, and Meyer deserves more time to try complete her turnaround, before activist investors are left to slice up the company or force a merger with another stagnant online business, namely AOL. And right now, I think she's absolutely right.
Many of Mayer comments, as well as those from CFO Ken Goldman, were directed at such activist investors - in particular Starboard Value, which sent a letter to Mayer last month urging her to sell off its Alibaba and Yahoo Japan stakes, lay off a good chunk of staff and, merge with AOL. Today, Mayer addressed none of these as serious possibilities. And when the question came up concerning a possible dividend, Goldman simply said, “We never say never.”
Instead, the turnaround plan Mayer outlined in the earnings call was an awful lot like the one she’s been following for the past two years: grow the company by pushing into mobile and making acquisitions. Yahoo has spent $1.6 billion on acquisitions - with 80 percent on Tumblr and Flurry alone - and has another $12 billion in cash, much of which could go toward more deals.
In short, Yahoo used its earnings call to make an earnest and clear rejection of Starboard’s requests. “Halting Yahoo's aggressive acquisition strategy” was another item Starboard had on the to-do list it drew up for Yahoo. So rather than layoffs and an AOL merger, Mayer is doubling down on a plan that had shown little signs of working for the past two years.
This is a fairly gutsy approach to take. Mayer had been given a grace period as long as Alibaba remained private, since many investors had seen Yahoo as a proxy for the Chinese ecommerce giant. With Alibaba public, Yahoo's turnaround clock is ticking. And so it fell to Mayer to explain why shareholders should grant her more time to see it through.
As it happened, the third quarter at Yahoo showed signs that the long winter – during which revenue declined for eight of the previous nine quarters – was starting to thaw. It wasn't just the 1 percent growth in total revenue. Net income of income of 52 cents a share far exceeded Wall Street's consensus estimate of 32 cents a share. How long has it been since anyone used the word “blowout” to describe Yahoo's earnings?
Importantly, Mayer was more forthcoming with metrics to back up her argument that the turnaround is taking root. Tumblr, once feared as unmonetizable, is on track to see $100 million in revenue next year. Mobile ads generated more than $200 million in revenue last quarter, or 17 percent of total sales, and could exceed $1.2 billion this year. Analysts are looking for $4.3 billion in revenue this year, so mobile could rise to 27% of total revenue soon.
Again, this is small potatoes compared to what Facebook and Google are seeing. Any online ad company that is still seeing more than 70 percent of its revenue coming from desktops can be said to be lagging the great mobile migration. But it's progress for Yahoo, and the kind of progress that many skeptics didn't expect to see.
I've been among those skeptics, arguing that Yahoo can't be saved no matter who is CEO, that it's fated to a long, slow if profitable period of decline and would in fact benefit from a merger with AOL. But I also know that the tech industry, more than any other, can surprise you. Nobody expected a Priceline comeback ten years ago, and it came back anyway – and it did it through shrewd acquisitions.
I remain among the skeptics about Yahoo's prospects, but I also feel Mayer has enough evidence to buy her more time to try and turn Yahoo around. It remains an uphill battle – if not one all but impossible to win – but that doesn't mean the company should throw in the towel right now. The web industry would benefit having a thriving and creative Yahoo in its midst again. And besides, persevering against the odds is part of what Silicon Valley has always been about.