Journalist Nicholas Carlson ’05 talks about his book, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!, a chronicle of the latest chapter in the Silicon Valley giant’s bid for survival under the direction of the youngest woman ever to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Why Marissa Mayer, why Yahoo?
I’ve always been interested in Yahoo, but I didn’t think that most of the world would want to pay attention; but when I realized how much people cared about Marissa Mayer, I decided that it was time to write a book. I actually came to that realization at a wedding when a Davidson alumna and I were talking about Mayer—it was the moment when I realized that this was a subject that people beyond the tech industry would care about.
How did you write the book without Marissa Mayer’s cooperation?
It’s true that she did not participate or cooperate in any way. What I like to say is that I had plenty of access to the story, just none of it official. I was able to speak to people who were inside the company, and I protected their anonymity. All of my sources in the book are anonymous. In the end, the reason I did that was not so much to protect the people who wanted to say negative things about Marissa Mayer. Yes, she interfered and told people not to speak with me—she’s a very polarizing figure. I knew that I had to go out and find people who had positive things to say about her, so that meant going to her friends. Some of them did want to talk to me, but they also did not want to be put in the position of going against a friend of theirs publicly. The decision to use anonymous sources was actually to get friends of Mayer to speak to me.
How do you suss out bias and agendas?
People will first talk to you and give you their analysis and opinion of what she’s done wrong and right. So then what I have to say to them as a reporter is ‘Okay, so what did she do to give you that impression? Tell me about the moment, and describe the thing that was said or done to give you that impression.’ Then, you have to make sure the thing actually happened. You go and find another source or another document that corroborates the story. There’s a scene in the book where an employee is being evaluated, and the system is set up so that evaluations can be done in this ruthless way that people found to be sort of dispiriting. That was a really important scene. So I thought, wow, this one person told me this. I need to make sure this actually happened according to other people.
With a subject like Mayer—a powerful, young woman—there is a lot of sexism out there. I was 100 percent aware of that and sensitive to it, even to the point where I would be interviewing someone and if they used certain kinds of language, I considered their perspective untrustworthy, to say the least. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, talks about how powerful women are resented by men and women, and I definitely find that to be the case with Marissa Mayer. At the same time, she does have critics with legitimate concerns. It was a challenge to understand where people were coming from.
Why did Mayer take the job at Yahoo?
It is really interesting. She goes to Google at 22 and has this amazing career, and I think there are a lot of lessons in there for people. There’s also a lot of luck involved. At the end of her time at Google, her last couple of years, she really was sidelined. I get into how that happened—she was demoted, pushed sideways, removed from the group of people that reported directly to the CEO. So, she started looking for the next big challenge. She was in charge of Google’s search group, and she was vying to be the sole person in charge of the group when she lost that competition to an engineer, so she looked at Yahoo as an opportunity to prove them wrong. She saw it as an opportunity to turn around an iconic internet brand that was at one time bigger than Google. They also paid her $200 million-plus, it’s a very high-profile job, and she likes the spotlight. The company also has a wide reach—as many as 1 billion people use it.
One of the things she says is that she always makes the scariest career choice. I think pretty clearly you have to give her a lot of credit. When she was just out of college she went from Stanford to Google. She could have been a professor at Carnegie Mellon, or a consultant; instead, she went to work for this funny sounding company founded by two guys running around in roller blades on Stanford’s campus. She did that because she interviewed there and she felt that the people who interviewed her were way more intelligent than her. She felt challenged and intimidated by the environment. I think similarly she got to the Yahoo situation and saw an overwhelming challenge and thought, ‘well, that’s never lead me astray before,’ so she went for it.
How/when did Yahoo go from top of the tech heap to totally uncool?
Briefly, at one point in the late 1990s-early 2000s, Yahoo was the Internet. It was the user-friendly interface for the web. Before Yahoo came around, the Internet was a scary, confusing place. People wanted to try out the web, and here was a company with this almost Disney-like brand showing them what was on the web and what you could do with it. Yahoo did everything—email, file sharing, calendars. They had about 300 different products. Companies like eBay and Google started doing just one of the things that Yahoo did and putting all of their investment money behind that, and doing it much better. Sources I talked to described Yahoo as a mile wide and an inch deep. There was a moment where Yahoo really could have competed well with Google. In fact, for about two quarters, in 2004-05, Yahoo had as much search share as Google. I write in the book about how they went out and acquired all of these search engines and cobbled them together to make them as good as Google. The problem was that Google put its ads on the page in a better way and got more revenue per search than Yahoo, and they used that revenue to buy distribution. Google became the search engine for AOL and Firefox, and they paid a lot more money than Yahoo ever could to get that market share.
My favorite story is how Yahoo had a $1 billion acquisition of Facebook completely done. Then Terry Semel, the CEO of Yahoo at the time, had Mark Zuckerberg come into his office and said, ‘By the way Mark, I know we had this deal for $1 billion, but we’ve had a bad quarter and we’re not going to be able to give you $1 billion—we’re going to give you $850 million,’ and Semel was sitting there thinking obviously he’s going to take it, he’s just out of college, of course he’ll say yes. Semel didn’t know that Zuckerberg had not wanted at all to sell Facebook and had only agreed to do it because he’d gone to his board at one point, which had really been pressuring him to sell, and said, ‘fine, if somebody offers me $1 billion dollars, I’ll take it.’ Ultimately, Zuckerberg got out of a deal he didn’t want to do, and now Facebook is a $200 billion company.
It’s like a corporate Game of Thrones.
Do you agree with the Times reviewer’s assessment of your approach as informal?
I learned to revise and to be clear in Cynthia Lewis’s writing non-fiction prose class, and it’s a lesson I’ve carried with me. For all time, critics have attacked people who go for simplicity because it doesn’t sound erudite enough. But my concern is clarity, being readable and telling a story that people want to read, and I get great satisfaction in knowing that if you go on Amazon and look at the reviews, readers say things like, ‘I read this in a single sitting—I couldn’t get up.’ That’s what matters to me, rather than anything else.
How did your time at Davidson prepare you for life as a journalist?
If you go to my acknowledgements I thank my teachers and professors—I thank my 7th grade teacher, who taught me the 5 paragraph essay, Cynthia Lewis for teaching me how to revise, and I also thank Douglas Glover who was a visiting professor—he’s a novelist and short story writer. He taught a class when I was a senior, and in that class I realized that narrative is actually a physical thing. You can link sentences, set up drama, tell a story and think about structure in a way that I had never before. I have not stopped since. I told Douglas in an email recently that his is one of those classes where it perpetually feels like I took the class last semester, like I’m remembering what I was taught weeks ago. Davidson helped me in numerous other ways, but those are two easy examples.
You’ve had a learning curve, from English major to business and technology writer.
I’m kind of a big outsider to the industry and not coming from the business world in terms of my studies. I think not coming from Silicon Valley and not initially being of the business world have been two advantages because, if you’re curious, you can describe what you’re learning, and you can go to people and ask dumb questions, you get nice, simple answers that secretly, deep down, even the people who are in the business world have been wanting to ask but are too afraid to ask. It’s always been an advantage to be curious and admit that I’m curious.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking to write another book, not sure when or about what. I really enjoy the process. For now, I’m chief correspondent at Business Insider, and that means I get to work on really interesting, fun stories that we feel will make an impact. I’m working on a story about Apple history, and another one about Google, and we’ll see if they develop into anything long and interesting.