What exactly is investor and Forbes columnist Eric Jackson up to with his now month-old blog attack on Yahoo and, most pointedly, its CEO, Marissa Mayer?
According to Jackson, who had until recently been pretty much a gushing fanboy of the high-profile exec, he’s trying to get an activist investor to take aim at the Silicon Valley Internet giant and also get a buyer — specifically China’s Alibaba Group and Japan’s SoftBank — interested in making a bid for the company.
In an email to me, Jackson, who is long on Yahoo shares, explained it thus:
I am committed to remaining a pest on this issue. I am not going to go away. I just want to lay out the facts of her mistakes in the past two years and hope that it strikes a chord with investors. I’ve already spoken to about a dozen of them. I’m also hopeful a large activist investor might see an opportunity to get involved here with the underperformance of the core and the potential for tax savings. Personally, I think it’s a compelling opportunity for any serious activist investor: Seek an optimal outcome with either Alibaba or SoftBank, while presenting the failings of current management over the past two years in making investors believe there’s any value in the core.
To get that going, he has unleashed a string of criticism in Forbes, calling into question Mayer’s leadership abilities, her poor hiring choices (Hello, Henrique! Goodbye, Henrique!), her confusing patchwork of acquisitions and, most of all, her inability to get the core business moving in a positive direction since the former Google exec took over at Yahoo two years ago. Frankly, Jackson is making me — someone who has reported on all this over the last two years — look like a cuddly kitten in comparison.
Consider some of Jackson’s hits — and I do mean hits:
“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Marissa?”: “The bottom line here is that Yahoo investors are — and should be — worried about what Mayer will do with the Alibaba cash when it arrives following the September IPO.”
“Marc Andreessen’s Ignored Advice to Marissa Mayer: Fire 10,000+ People Now”: “I think most knew from her hiring that Mayer had no background in sales and sales is obviously a critical part of Yahoo’s business. I assumed that the board would ensure that she covered off this weakness with people who were strong in sales. Unfortunately, Mayer was given the latitude to judge who would be an appropriate person with a sales background to complement her and she picked Henrique De Castro, who she fired 15 months later.”
“Why Is Yahoo Sports Hiding Its Best Asset in Woj?”: “Mayer seems to have taken a triage approach to fixing Yahoo overall by focusing on the under-performing sprawl of after-thought properties (and countries) first and, by and large, leaving Sports and Finance as is. If they ain’t broke, don’t fix ‘em, seems to have been her approach. As a result, Sports has remained a snooze.”
Today, he kept it up in this post, “Yahoo Should’ve Bought BuzzFeed, Not Tumblr and the Seven Dwarfs Of Acqui-Hires”: “It’s about content and distribution — with communications as well. Yahoo has all the pieces to do this. But they have no strategy, which stems from a lack of leadership. What is the Yahoo strategy? Daily habits? That’s a buzzword — not a strategy. Buying BuzzFeed or Vice could have helped transform Yahoo, if Yahoo’s management had been willing to step aside and give full control of all of Yahoo’s core business to the competent management of either of those companies. But they didn’t.”
That one I gotta agree on, although I am not sure Mayer would have been able to purchase either content property.
In any case, Jackson’s attacks have had little impact on Yahoo shares over the last month — the stock is down only slightly.
There also does not seem to be an imminent bid or activist attack as yet. Sources close to the situation told me that Alibaba has no intention of trying to buy Yahoo and, even with the recent arrival of former Google exec Nikesh Arora at SoftBank, such an acquisition would come further along, if at all. Last of all, one obvious buyer — Microsoft — seems entirely uninterested at this moment, too.
In addition, given that Yahoo’s lucrative remaining shares in Alibaba are locked up for a year after the IPO, several prominent activist investors I spoke to said that any big upside would be much farther into the future.
That said, one large Yahoo investor noted to me that everyone will be watching carefully what Mayer does with the Alibaba windfall she will get in September, noting that big shareholders have told her outright that they want most of the money back via stock buybacks or a dividend. Yahoo has already publicly committed to giving back at least half the proceeds.
“Given how her acquisitions have not yet moved the ball, investors are not likely to give her a lot of room to buy more,” said one prominent shareholder. “If she does something big, she might be in a fight for her life.”
To push that along, Jackson said he will soldier on.
“As you can see, I’m not holding back in my criticism of her. I think she needs to go and I’m trying to lay all the facts out about her lack of results so that investors are aware of them and can potentially act before she makes any more acquisitions after she gets the Alibaba cash,” he wrote in an email to me. “But we will see what happens. She’s clearly handpicked this board to support her so she can clearly fight anything. I don’t think she’s used to public sustained criticism so I’m not sure how she’ll handle it — fight or flight.”