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Earth to Yahoo: Hire Crazed Megalomaniac, Now!
By Andrew Goodman, June 20, 2001

Depressed dot commers have stopped wondering when it's going to stop hitting the fan. For many companies in the sector, the only viable solution is exit.

But what kind of exit? For the technically adept, such as AltaVista, the answer has been to hunker down into serious work for serious enterprises; to leverage and build on their past technological successes, and to jettison bubble-inspired flights of fancy.

But this hasn't been the most common pattern for the major B2C portal companies. Instead of mucking around with the hard cold reality of information technology, companies like AOL knew all along that their strengths were more intangible and ephemeral - and focused on the consumer. So via a historic merger with Time Warner, they exited "upwards" into the feel-good land of Big Media. AOL's Netscape division, formerly a browser technology pioneer, now proclaims itself a "media company."

Which is precisely the crossroads that Yahoo has been stalled at for the past year or two. Its founders were adamant that Yahoo remain independent from big media suitors, because "we're Yahoo." It was probably a mistake, but it isn't too late to rectify it.

Yahoo is currently going through the motions of responsibly implementing a more diversified fee-based revenue base. That means it's trying to demonstrate to the world that it "knows how to run a business." But which business?

Yahoo can't credibly exit the dot com world by hunkering down as an IT provider. As one industry CEO commented to me, a foray into the enterprise space will be difficult because Yahoo doesn't understand, as companies like Microsoft do, how to build Cost of Switching into their products. As my correspondent wrote, "this gives Yahoo the staying power of the latest summer blockbuster."

So where is the "out" for Yahoo? Instead of torturing itself with a low-risk, low-reward process of buckling down, Yahoo will probably try to escape "upwards" (as AOL did) through a portal to potential greatness in the high-stakes game of Big Media.

Being careful has certainly never gotten anyone anywhere in that world. While plenty of careful, technically adept people are needed to operate any large enterprise, today's big media empires have often been built by obsessed, hallucinating visionaries.

Who wouldn't have questioned the sanity of a Ted Turner, boasting of his goal to build a cable news empire (an industry that simply didn't exist at the time), one that would be the "New York Times of television news" to boot?

Who didn't heap scorn on Rupert Murdoch and his schlocky fourth television network, FOX, in its early years?

A recent Boston Globe article about Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone talked of his humble beginnings. But humble he is not - nor ready to ride off in the sunset. His personal net worth is estimated at $14 billion. He checks the stock ticker "about every 20 seconds."

People like this make big bets on what seem to many careful businesspersons like symbolic, intangible pieces of imaginary universes. They tend to have an irrational confidence that huge sums of money can be found to keep things building.

On a more modest scale of high-stakes frivolity, wasn't it little more than vanity that caused Edgar Bronfman, heir to the Seagram fortune and still an important shareholder in Vivendi Universal, to orchestrate an exit from a diversified liquor-and-consumer-goods empire into the rubbing-shoulders-with-the-talent lifestyle of the Big Hollywood Studio Owner?

One always marvels at the vanity. Canada's Ted Rogers always leveraged his cable company so perilously that bond raters always gave this large cable empire junk bond status. Some lucky breaks with the rising value of cable assets pulled Rogers' assets out of the fire, and the company today is a diversified holder of not only cable and new media assets, but wireless phone service, a chain of video stores, and major broadcast media outlets to boot. Recently, Rogers also bought the Toronto Blue Jays. The end product in an empire like this may not be particularly sophisticated. But the control over consumers' leisure time habits and a nation's communications infrastructure is mindboggling.

So what of Yahoo? So far they haven't been run by the kinds of people that want to own everything and abuse their positions as owners to have a chance to meet Winona Ryder or play golf with Michael Jordan. Exiting Excite@Home CEO George Bell carefully stated that the company would have to "do less" if it were to survive. But surely this cannot be Yahoo's path. For one thing, Yahoo doesn't have a subscriber-based Internet access business to fall back on. It must go big into Big Media, or go home.

The hiring of CEO Terry Semel, a seasoned Warner Brothers executive who has overseen a breakneck pace of growth at a major media company, and who is accustomed to the excesses and lavish spending common to that world, should turn out to be a good first move. The move will prove sound should Semel manage to track down the needed obsessed billionaire to make a play for Yahoo.

Obsessed people like Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch tend to be passionate in their belief that they can create what isn't there yet. The idea that "my company's programming will be in every living room in America" type of thing. So what kinds of futuristic-but-fun services could a unique company like Yahoo push out to the general population if it were combined with a company with major broadcast assets? What about a customized news digest service that makes a push into hotel rooms and business flights? How about using television sports broadcasts to get the world hooked on Yahoo Fantasy Football, Baseball, etc.? It's a short jump from there to substantial revenues as a reseller of online sports betting. Where permitted by law, of course.

Yahoo has done well. It's got a lot of us hooked through sheer product quality. But it can't pull off these newer, converged online services on its own. So now potential buyers need to be convinced that Yahoo is their best bet to get in on some of these futuristic-but-fun programming concepts.

At the top of every page of "Job Openings at Yahoo" posted online, there should be a prominent advertisement for the leader who will take Yahoo to the next level:

"Wanted: crazed hallucinating visionary who controls large media empire. Must be obsessed with the idea of building an even larger empire full of futuristic-but-fun stuff that gets rammed down consumers' throats through diabolical, monopolistic distribution channels. Should be motivated by a goal of total planetary mind control. Must possess uncanny ability to talk bankers into billion-dollar loans. Recent marriage to trophy wife forty years his junior would be a definite plus." [Note to critics: I'm not making that last bit up. Seventy-year-old Murdoch recently married a 31-year-old news anchor.]

Rupert Murdoch owns something called News Corp and something called Fox Entertainment. According to his bio, he also owns publishers HarperCollins, the huge European satellite network BSkyB, Twentieth Century Fox, 22 US television stations, 25 magazines, most notably TV Guide, and the LA Dodgers baseball team.

To think that Yahoo ever thought that they could stay independent from all this.

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