Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Liveblogging the Yahoo Fourth-Quarter Earnings Call: Yes, We Can

Oh, a nice tiny surprise from Yahoo, as it reported its fourth-quarter results, which came in at 17 cents a share in adjusted earnings, compared to the 12 to 13 cents Wall Street was expecting.

“Despite the challenging economic environment, Yahoo! delivered adjusted operating cash flow above the midpoint of guidance for the fourth quarter,” said new Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz in the company’s official release. “The company also made important investments while aggressively managing costs, leaving us better positioned to weather the economic downturn and emerge stronger when advertiser spending improves. We have work to do, but I am excited by Yahoo!’s opportunities, and encouraged by the tremendous innovation and momentum I’ve seen since joining the company as CEO.”

But let’s experience Bartz Live and Unplugged at the fourth-quarter earnings conference call, including a Q&A in which–the company’s intro speaker noted at the top of the call–former Yahoo (YHOO) CEO and Co-Founder Jerry Yang might make an unexpected cameo appearance.

(He didn’t.)

2:08 p.m. PST:

It’s Carol’s show obviously, coming on first and foremost, with a little joke, after hearing all the typical caveats that must be uttered by Yahoo’s investor relations folks before the call begins.

“I should have understood all those risks before I took this job,” she chuckled.

Now that’s the understatement of the year!

Noting she has been on the job only eight days, meeting and greeting the folks of Yahoo, Bartz said she was impressed by the energy and “can-do” spirit of the company, noting that the product pipeline was fantastic.

Of course, products have never been the problem at Yahoo, as many have noted (including BoomTown many, many times). Execution has been the devil in the details!

Bartz obviously got this, but was not going to insult former management this time, as she did in her debut public conference with the press and analysts.

Right after she was hired in mid-January, Bartz noted that Yahoo and its assets, “frankly, could use a little management.”

But it is probably not a good idea to say that again with thus-far silent Jerry Yang sitting right next to her.

2:09 p.m. PST

A tiny bit of kissing up to Bartz by CFO Blake Jorgensen, who started to go over the numbers in great detail, putting the best face on a weakish performance overall, especially compared to previous years.

At the end, he said that Yahoo had performed well in 2008, considering the poor economy, and added guidance going forward was not great either, especially compared to a year ago.

Also, he warned Wall Street not to expect too much guidance for 2009, as Microsoft had also said last week in its own depressing earnings call.

2:20 p.m PST:

Back to can-do Carol Bartz, who began by pointing to all the various assets that Yahoo has–including its Build Your Own Search Service (BOSS) product and Yahoo News–all of which are strong products for advertisers, she said.

But Bartz also finally made the point that execution needs to improve, which she said was “addressable.”

Before the Q&A started, she answered some questions about the company she asked herself, before they could be asked by others. Apparently, now that Bartz is an “insider,” she knows better than anyone else!

Did she come to Yahoo to sell it? “No.”

Will she sell search? Bartz does not know yet, but noted “search is a very valuable part of [Yahoo’s] business.”

She added that Yahoo search market share was three times the size of the third player, which Bartz curiously did not name, but which is–of course!–Microsoft–which wants very much to buy Yahoo’s search business.

Uh-oh, Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer might not get his way so quickly!

2:26 p.m. PST:

The first question was about selling the company.

“I did not come to Yahoo to sell the company,” said Bartz again. “It’s too early to say more than that.”

The second question was about reports–in this column too!–about talks with Microsoft and Time Warner (TWX) unit AOL recently.

Bartz said Yahoo does not comment on reports that “come from nowhere.”

Sorry to disagree, but they did come from somewhere and were very well-sourced–just like the absolutely on-target post this column did of Bartz’s pending CEOship at Yahoo, before it was officially announced. But let’s just try to ignore that slight and move on–unless, of course, Bartz keeps up with what has become regular blog-bashing, which means a testy war of words and copious leaked memos to come!

The third question was about the management. Bartz said she plans on getting the lines of communication clearer, which she said she was really good at.

Kissing up to herself was a nice touch.

2:33 p.m. PST:

Next came a question about international business–which is the least of Yahoo’s worries, no matter what its execs say about the great products.

The next question was about guidance. No guidance, folks!

Now, one on the display business, with questions about the pressure on prices and on premium online advertising, which is Yahoo’s top business.

Jorgensen said Yahoo is trying to help advertisers, but that there has been and will continue to be a slowdown in advertising, due to the recession.

More on outlook, cost-cutting, etc. Jorgensen: More caution. Hey, analysts, we’re in a recession and I am not so sure how many ways he can say that.

So far, no Jerry Yang, which was starting to seem odd, since that Yahoo minion said he might be chatting away too.

But, as I said, it seems to be Carol’s show, which has been highly entertaining so far in her tenure, although she’d probably scowl at me sternly for saying that and pull out that cheap trick of insulting the press again.

Next up was a question to about various foreign assets and investments. Bartz will look into it! Jorgensen got in a good joke about her priority not being foreign tax issues.

The following question was about product innovation aimed at a younger demographic.

Bartz was on top of that too, pointing out that she has kids in their 20s.

First, she noted children do grow up, and that they will start to use Yahoo products like its finance offerings, as they move into the workforce and have less time to post dopey pictures on Facebook and throw digital sheep.

Also, young people are finicky, she added. They jumped from MySpace to Facebook, after all!

“Who knows what’s going to come next?,” she said, sounding like a typically exasperated parent. In other words, Yahoo will grab them when they grow up and prefer to be more dull!

2:43 p.m. PST:

The next question was about the timing of changes to come, which prompted Bartz to make another joke about buying the New York Times tomorrow! She was kidding, because the analyst asking the question suggested the troubled Yahoo buy the troubled media company in a recent report.

But, seriously folks, Bartz reiterated: “Gimme some time.”

Next, someone asked about the advertising sales force at Yahoo, which is a good question. Bartz is headed to a sales force meeting in a few weeks, she said, wherein she plans to have a beer with them and find out (once they are drunk and presumably easy to get blabbing).

Still, no Jerry Yang! Sigh. I suddenly desperately miss him and his lower-case ways.

The next question was on shareholder value, which has not been very valuable of late. Bartz noted that everything is on the table related to Yahoo’s businesses, but underscored how valuable the property is as a whole.

“This is not a company that needs to be pulled apart and left for the chickens,” said Bartz.

Apparently, this folksy little saying is from her Wisconsin upbringing. Scary poultry metaphor alert!

Bartz is asked about top assets at Yahoo.

She once again noted that Yahoo’s great products will save the day, from customization to integration of assets. “If we have strong products, we will attract the audience that just beats everything,” said Bartz.

A question about search and display being together, which is a sneaky way to ask about Microsoft, since that’s the great debate within Yahoo over whether to do a deal to outsource it or not.

Bartz made a confusing house metaphor, with search being the house, but it is completely lost on me. Is search the house or a living room or what?

“Whether we keep it or sell it, it’s an important asset,” Bartz then said, which was a clever way of saying exactly nothing.

2:55 p.m. PST:

A question on Yahoo brand, which Bartz basically said is about being the place people come every day. But she admitted there was too much complexity to that brand, although products are strong!

Next, someone asked a question about relevancy of Yahoo. “Our users don’t need constant change,” noted Bartz, who has a decent point about the jumpy nature of Web 2.0’s change-for-change’s-sake mantra.

Still–let’s be honest–Yahoo’s missed a key trend or two in recent years.

Next up was a question about ad prices and another on cost cuts. Jorgensen said that it’ll be more about efficiencies and perhaps some more outsourcing.

Bartz thanked the group for not being “too pushy” in their questions, which was an odd end note, since pushy should be the main job of analysts.

In fact, after listening to the call, I hope that Wall Street keeps up the pushy factor, as investors deserve a lot more answers from Bartz and Yahoo going forward.

It is not, as Bartz insisted in the conference call, a case of inside and outside perceptions being different. Yahoo does have strong products, but it still has gotten itself into its current mess all by itself, much of which has little to do with the weak economy.

That’s why I plan on being very pushy, asking about everything from what structural changes Bartz plans to make to how she envisions Yahoo’s business going forward to improving morale on a sustained basis to what she thinks she can do to make Yahoo the strongest it can be when the economy comes out of the recession.

And, not to get pushy or anything, but what happened to some words from the promised Jerry Yang?

Perhaps he fell victim to the vicious chickens of Wisconsin.

[Dear Yahoos: To get on board the Can-Do Carol Bartz Express, you can buy the “Yes We Can” t-shirt at Zazzle.com for just $23.40!]

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik