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Is Yang's Yahoo exit too late?

morgueFile user jdurham

COMMENTARY It's official: Yahoo board director Jerry Yang resigned his position Tuesday from the company he co-founded. And according to Kara Swisher at All Things D, four more directors may be heading out the door ... possibly including chairman Roy Bostock.

What was investor reaction? A resounding "About time!" as shares jumped. Unfortunately, all the company is likely to achieve at this late date is triage -- and reflection about what could have been if only Yang, Bostock and others had possessed the humility to admit their own limitations. Because they haven't, Yahoo has little chance of attaining its former glory and will need complete restructuring, selling off divisions as new CEO Scott Thompson vows to get "back to innovation."

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Give Yang his due

My colleague Charles Cooper at CNET wrote that many people will slam Yang for having been instrumental in turning down the Microsoft acquisition deal that would have been worth tens of billions. He and the rest of the board thought Yahoo could do better on its own.

Walking away from that kind of money took either nerve or hubris, with history suggesting the latter. But Cooper is right. You can't ignore Yang's role in recognizing that people wanted uncomplicated access to information. Yahoo also added services like email that became colossally popular.

But when rates of change hit supersonic speeds, forecasting the future is a damned tough act. You practically have to luck out; pick a direction that coincides where the world will bring you; and then have the preparation, talent, and drive to make it work. That's what Yang did years ago. Many people made a lot of money because Yang and David Filo started a directory service as a personal interest and then rode it into a multi-billion dollar business.

The unforgivable sin is standing still

But -- you knew that was coming -- the biggest mistake Yang made was not failing to foresee how technology would move forward. It was assuming that the future in such a fast-paced sector could double down on what the company had done before. That's the same as saying that tomorrow will be like today, only more so. It's the perception that has killed more high-tech companies that you could comfortably count. 

That's why Yang had to go -- and why other long-term members like Bostock also need to leave. Yahoo's board has been one of the worst in high tech, ironically afraid of the future and clinging to ego, fear and the past. After all, if a different direction had proved successful, that only would have made the board look bad. What its actions said time and again is that it most valued being right, even when evidence showed that the shareholders were getting the short end. 

Although the real story may not become public, if others follow Yang, it's likely a board turnover was the price of rescuing the company. According to Reuters, Wall Street sees Yang's departure as "smoothing the way for a major infusion of cash from private equity," or for a sale of Asian interests that would bring short-term money to satisfy angry investors.

There's also that "unusually high" pay package for Thompson. When a new CEO pulls down that kind of deal, he or she has leverage because the board perceives the person as critical to success. When the cards are stacked that way, figure that the CEO will set other conditions, like turning over a board that has proven itself feckless.

Can Thompson succeed?

The question is whether Thompson can pull Yahoo out of its persistent morass. Talking about innovation is fine, but it must build on the proper foundation. Consumers and advertisers have shown that they like Yahoo, but not enough to spend money on what they find there. Otherwise, the ad dollars would have flowed, and there wouldn't be a problem.

What Yahoo needs is an insight into what consumers need online that they're not getting now. It's not another social network or another place to get information that people expect to have for free. If there is an answer for Yahoo, it will be something that no one is likely to predict, and capturing lighting in a bottle is rare. 

The only sure thing is that Yahoo as it was is officially over.