Kara Swisher

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Q4 Earnings Call: Mayer Says “Chain Reaction” Needed to Blast Yahoo Into the Future

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Earlier today Yahoo reported fourth-quarter earnings that beat analyst estimates, on still-flattish revenue.

Still, up is up, even if it is not really that much up, so Wall Steet bid up shares of the Silicon Valley Internet giant in after-hours trading.

Now it’s onto the conference call with investors for CEO Marissa Mayer:

2:02 pm: Before the call, you can hear Mayer complaining about the goofy music played during the pre-conference call waiting time.

“We have to get better music,” she says to some minion. “This is not good music.”

Music to my ears! I say we get Beyoncé, lipsyncing or not.

The call starts quickly after that, with the ever-eager Mayer leaping right in with the fourth-quarter news, which is not all that bad.

It’s the first full year of growth in a while — though not the first quarter-to-quarter increase — even if it is only a very modest two percent increase.

That compares to industry-wide gains in revenue of many, many, many times that, but for Yahoo this is cause for a parade. A small parade, with good music, but a parade nonetheless.

“It’s hard to believe this is only my first full quarter here at Yahoo,” says Mayer in an upbeat tone.

She notes that her focus on product excellence and user experience was continuing, with some “early positive trends” in both products and people.

Mayer then list a series of moves, from the free food and better smartphones for employees to the addition of well-regarded entrepreneur Max Levchin to the board to the refreshes of Yahoo Mail and Flickr to the acquisition of some sassy new mobile startups.

Mayer also notes that the company under her purview had removed “385 of highest priority obstacles,” although she did not name any specifics.

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I imagine what No. 332 is: Switching out the iceberg lettuce at the URL cafeteria on Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, Calif. HQ campus with some tasty organic mesclun as they have at Google, from whence Mayer came.

Better roughage means better returns!

2:14 pm: Mayer turns the call over to CFO Ken Goldman, also a newbie. As usual, he runs through the numbers that are already in all the releases already. But I am enjoying his New England accent, hoping he will say the slight increase in revenue was “wicked” good.

Goldman, in fact, calls the revenue increase “modest,” which is true, although it sounds like “mah-dist.”

What’s not mah-dist is how much stock Yahoo has bought back, using its windfall from the recent sale of assets in China. It’s $1.45 billion, with more that that left to use for more share buybacks. That should keep Yahoo’s stock up nicely.

Goldman also talks about increases in the company’s search business, although notes that the Microsoft relationship is still not the most fantastic.

He speaks more effusively of Yahoo’s Asian partners, including Yahoo! Japan and China’s Alibaba Group. It’s deserved, since they have been the company’s treasure trove against its meh core performance in recent years.

Not so tasty is the problem Yahoo has with a big-money contract dispute in Mexico, which Goldman reiterates is “without merit.”

2:28 pm: Goldman moves onto Yahoo’s cash position, which is strong and which he says is going to be used to make the company better.

Mayer is back on board, talking about key focuses over multiple years.

She says Yahoo needs a “chain reaction of growth,” which needs to be fueled by a dozen new products that become a daily habits for consumers to increase usage and other metrics.

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A nuclear bomb explosion is not exactly the best metaphor for a company’s turnaround, but in Yahoo’s case it is probably a pretty good one, given how stubborn its decline has been.

Mayer then switches the metaphor to one she recently used about “returning to the roots” of Yahoo.

Actually, mixing the metaphors, Yahoo has to blast some significant roots that have gotten in the way of its innovation over the years.

“The best is yet to come,” promises Mayer, in what she says will be a multi-year effort.

Now onto questions from the analysts!

2:40 pm: The first question is about commercialization of its products. Mayer answers she is both pro-advertising and anti-ad — meaning they are good when they add to user experience and bad when they do not.

There will be slight margin declines due to this, which is the real point of the query, which Goldman says will not be too impacted.

The next question is on the weaker performance in display ads and whether mobile ads can ramp up quick enough or not.

Yahoo is not breaking out mobile revenue numbers as yet — it’s not impressive as yet, so that’s what’s going on there — although Mayer points to the number of mobile users increasing to 200 million now.

As to the declines in display, Mayer gives a non-answer, but it is likely due to big changes that new Yahoo COO Henrique De Castro has put into place in the way it sells ads and which AllThingsD.com previously reported on. Mayer earlier in the call had confirmed those changes.

The fact of the matter — which is just what the analyst was asking about — is that Mayer simply has to improve display revenue, which is Yahoo’s core business.

Mayer then addresses the issue of not providing usage metrics anymore. Yahoo has withheld a lot of them since she has taken over, and she says it is because they are not indicative of metrics that, well, she thinks you need to know.

Instead, Mayer points to other metrics that she feels are better, such as number of ads sold and price per click on search.

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Speaking of search, the next question is about that. What can Mayer say — and she does — but that Yahoo must also improve in that area. Indeed, it is lucrative low-hanging fruit for the company.

Here comes an interesting observation she makes based on a question of mobile versus desktop, which Mayer says should not be separated as two areas as consumers don’t think that way.

Yahoo is tuning up a dozen products, she says, having started with Yahoo Mail and its Flickr photo-sharing app.

2:54 pm: Mayer is not saying which of this dirty dozen is next to get a makeover.

“We’re investing in small, nimble, excellent teams,” says Mayer, who then tries to reference a famous Margaret Mead quote, but ends up mangling it a bit.

It is, for the record: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This is true, which might make some Yahoo staffers nervous, since Mayer’s recent stack ranking of them means she can start on employee layoffs anytime she likes to separate the wheat from the chaff.

3:01 pm: Whoo-whee, this is going long and I am getting weary. Mayer has to be some kind of digital Energizer Bunny — she just flew in from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and moved right into the prep for the Q4 earnings.

Tomorrow, she is presumably off to Las Vegas, where Yahoo’s global sales conference will start and she will doubtlessly be making an appearance.

I am exhausted simply by walking up and down the stairs at my house.

The next question is about third-party publishers and ad tech on mobile.

“Mobile monetization is new for everyone,” she says correctly, making the point that no one knows what is going to shake out.

She uses — as she has used — the example of when people thought search was not a moneymaker until Google proved otherwise.

The problem is, of course, that Google is Yahoo’s biggest rival in this new mobile ad arena, along with Facebook and many others. And Google, as its recent results showed, does know how to make money compared to Yahoo.

The next question is about mobile monetization eating into desktop revenue.

Mayer notes that Yahoo has hired 120 people with computer science degrees in the quarter to work on that area.

In other words, get ready for a symphony of geeks to return Yahoo to relevance.

Would they can pull it off, as that would be a tune worth listening to.

Speaking of something worth listening to, here is a video of Diana Ross’ song, “Chain Reaction,” to enjoy:


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work