Kara Swisher

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Loose Lips: Yahoo M&A Head Told Employees Company Looking at Two “Significant” and a Half-Dozen Small Buys


Lost in the sauce of the national work-from-home debate of last week that engulfed all things Yahoo, was a fascinating tidbit that several employees passed on to me from a recent Friday FYI meeting at its Silicon Valley HQ.

At the gathering, CEO Marissa Mayer talked briefly about the new telecommuting arrangements for some staffers, including the controversial new work-from-home memo that HR head Jackie Reses had issued that day.

But when Reses — who also wears another corporate hat as head of M&A at Yahoo — spoke she mentioned to the crowd that Yahoo was working on two “significant” acquisitions and about six smaller talent “acqhires.”

“It was kind of odd to telegraph it in such a big forum,” said one employee of Reses’ comments at the meeting in late February.

The revelation was unusual, to be sure, but perhaps not a surprise, given the recent run-up in Yahoo stock, its healthy cash position and, most of all, its need to add meaningful growth to the current efforts at turnaround.

And while some of its recent buys have been interesting and focused on improving its moribund mobile efforts, they have also been very small. And, as one high-ranking exec there told me, they “don’t move the needle in the way we need to in bringing in senior talent or loads of users or serious revenue.”

Indeed, while Yahoo shares have benefited greatly from the impressive performance by Alibaba Group in China, which is clearly on a roll, many think that showing actual improvement in its core business will be critical in the months ahead.

While making changes to Yahoo’s homepage and email, as well as cutting products, has been done, it is not yet clear what the impact is; the changes are aimed more at holding on to consumers rather than exciting them with new offerings.

Yahoo could also create its own new products to wow the masses, but that has been harder for it over the years. (Remember Livestand? Yeah, not so much.) In any case, an innovation infusion of such a large magnitude will take some time, given Mayer has to get the right people into place to do so.

Thus, a big purchase of an exciting new company with prominent leadership seems more likely than not and sooner than later. While Mayer has not articulated her vision for the new Yahoo in anything more than general ways, what she buys will say a lot.

Thus, sources said that Yahoo has been looking at a range of such acquisitions, in a number of categories such as advertising tech, mobile monetization and, of course, consumer “daily delight,” which is a phrase Mayer has used a lot.

It would be bold if Mayer went all out and made a mega-buy that would shake up the competitive landscape. My first choice for that is Pinterest, the scrapbooking phenom that was just valued at $2.5 billion in a new funding round. Mayer has also shown a lot of interest in blogging superstar Tumblr, while at both Google and Yahoo, as well as Foursquare, the well-known location app. Of course, there is also the troubled gaming giant, Zynga.

All are very pricey and would face rival interest, but such a move would be akin to Facebook’s billion-dollar blockbuster purchase of Instagram. Many now think that was prescient and cheap, given how important mobile photos are to the current digital ecosystem.

The list of possible big deals goes on: Hulu (which needs a tasty content element to make sense) as a video play; Millennial Media or Jumptap for mobile advertising; Quora for social answers; Flipboard for social media consumption; Rubicon or PubMatic, for ad targeting; and many more.

But all of those begin at the billion-dollar or more range and I have checked with a number of these and come up peanuts. Still, there are a whole lot of choices for Mayer and Yahoo in the $200 million to $500 million price range.

Here, Yahoo has the financial strength to make at least two of these significant purchases that Reses mentioned, as well as developing a much better reputation for Yahoo to keep real talent interested.

As one prominent startup exec, who had told me he never would consider selling to Yahoo in the past, said recently: “They are no longer complete losers, although Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon are still cooler.”

Hey, it’s a compliment, even if it’s a back-handed one, so it will be interesting to see who finds Yahoo cool enough.

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo