Marissa Mayer and Yahoo’s USP-deficit

My Observer review of Nicholas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo.

[Yahoo] grew rapidly in the late 1990s, riding the crest of the first internet boom and metamorphosing into a “portal” – a gateway to the web. By 1999, Yahoo had 4,000 employees, 250 million users and $590m in annual revenues – much of it from advertising by dotcom firms. In March 2000 its market cap peaked at $128bn.

And then came the crash. The dot-com bubble burst, the laws of economic gravity reasserted themselves and ever since then Yahoo has been struggling to find its raison d’etre. The question that has always bedevilled it is the classic one from children’s books: Mummy, what is that company for? For its competitors, the answer is generally straightforward: Google is for search; Facebook is for social networking; Amazon is for online retail, and possibly world domination; Microsoft is for Office and desktop computers. But nobody really knows what Yahoo is for – what its unique selling proposition is.

This USP-deficit is largely a product of the company’s history. Its co-founders are genial hippie types who weren’t even sure they wanted to found a company…

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