Let the naysaying begin.
Now that Jerry Yang has severed his remaining ties with the company that he co-founded, the news cycle is not going to be especially kind recalling his legacy at Yahoo. Invariably, Yang is going to get called out for having blown a chance to sell Yahoo to Microsoft for more than $47 billion. For all his considerable talents, the critics will say, he was emotionally unable to let go even though every indicator was flashing a "sell" signal at the time, and he thus flubbed one of the biggest business opportunities in recent history.
All true, of course, and with the benefit of hindsight we know how the story subsequently unfolded. But it is also too smug and too unfair. The absence of nuance also makes for a misleading assessment of the man as well as his contributions. Did Yang hang around too long for his own good? It's a subjective question but to be fair, only a handful of entrepreneurs made their marks in the technology business and then got out while their companies were still riding high. It's a very short list with Microsoft's Bill Gates at the top of the roster. The other big name is Michael Dell, who revolutionized how personal computers get sold (though he has since returned for a second run as chief executive.) I'd also include Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus who handed over the reins to Jim Manzi after revolutionizing how the business world did spreadsheet calculations with Lotus 1-2-3.
Give Yang credit for not being a short-timer. In an age where the aspiration is to flip half-baked companies to suckers too dumb to figure out they're getting hosed, Yang was there for the long haul. We're not kind to our fallen heroes but this is a great American success story and we should consider a track record of accomplishment dating back to 1995. If Yang's legacy includes blowing the Microsoft deal, then let's also include his myriad contributions in laboring to build one of the biggest Internet properties in the world. For whatever warts you want to pick at, Yahoo remains a company that weathered the dot com bust, the post-9/11 slump, and the Great Recession. How many other can make the same claim? It wasn't always smooth but Yahoo also managed to survive a drastically different technology landscape where the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter were the new Internet stars.
Yang once numbered among the few people whose names were invariably preceded by the words "Internet pioneer." And justly so. In its day, Yahoo's way of searching the Internet for information constituted a major advance over competing search engines, like Alta Vista. That was the start. Yang and co-founder David Filo exploited that advantage as a launching pad to fill out the young company with a sundry offerings (an example that Sergey Brin and Larry Page would emulate a decade later at Google.)
Yahoo may not be beloved these days by the hip crowd but let's not forget that it continues to put up serious numbers. In the U.S., for example, it still accounted for 3.3 billion searches in December, only trailing No. 1 Google, according to Comscore. Around 700 million people visit its various websites each month and it has a major presence in finance, sports, news, and email, among other areas.
Unfortunately, Yahoo's legacy businesses remain in need of a fillip, one that Yang was unable to provide either as a "chief Yahoo" or as its CEO. That same Comscore ranking found another sign of decline: Microsoft's Bing crept ahead of Yahoo for the first time (15.1% compared with 14.5%) in search queries. Yahoo is not the only old-line technology company finding it hard to find its place in a fast-moving world of Web-based apps and mobile devices. But it is one of the most vulnerable, and has proved to be too much of a challenge for several high-powered execs who tried and failed as CEO - Yang among them.
Even during the rocky 18 months leading up to his resignation as CEO, I never heard anyone inside Yahoo say a derogatory thing about Yang personally. Big investors - they had a less charitable view. For Wall Street, Yang's nice guy demeanor became a target of contempt and he was vilified for rejecting Microsoft's offer to pay a 50% premium for the company in February 2008. At the time, Yang - and Yahoo - thought that the future was theirs for the taking. Of course, that was well before the world as we knew it came to an abrupt end with the blowup on Wall Street, the ensuing recession and unexpected pressure from new rivals including Twitter and Facebook.
No way around it - that's all part of his legacy. Yet it's only part of his legacy. History seems so clear with the benefit of hindsight. Faulting Yang for failing to see over the same horizon that blinded most of the rest of us is the easy, uncharitable call. Let's credit a legendary tech pioneer for a record of accomplishment that deserves commendation.