In Adam Lashinsky's excellent new book, Inside Apple: How America's Most Admired - and Secretive - Company Really Works, he, for better or worse, makes it difficult for the reader to do anything but walk away with a new-found (at least for me) dislike for former Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs. That's too bad, for obvious reasons, but also because my frank disgust with Jobs coincides with even deeper admiration.
When my daughter grows up, the last place I want her to work at is any company run by anyone like Jobs. That said, if she picks up even a hint of his visionary abilities and sharp intellect, I'll shamelessly take complete credit.
Lashinsky writes about a time in 2007 when Jobs did former Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Jerry Yang a favor and spoke to his troops in a hotel near SFO:
Jobs ... treated Yang and his executives to some Apple-style honesty. "Yahoo seems interesting," he said. "Yahoo can be anything you want. Seriously. You have talented people and more money than you could possibly need," he continued. "I can't figure out, though, if you're a content company or a technology company. Just pick one. I know which I'd pick."
Apple geeks will say they remember this. Many ultimate fan boys will claim they were in the room. Some will even brag that they knew what Jobs was wearing that day (that's a joke). I'm not that proud. Lashinsky's account is the first I heard of this pretty incredible moment. I searched a bit online and can find nothing on it.
That Jobs was nice enough to talk to the people at Yahoo is not the point. It's all about what he said. I'm not sure about you, but five years ago I did not hear many people talking about this conundrum with regard to Yahoo. Is it a content company or a tech company? Which one should it be? I'm also not too proud to admit that I do not know which one Jobs would have picked. I have an idea. And I know which I'd pick.
It's an incredibly tough racket to be a content company, particularly on the Internet or when you do not own, as the creator or originator, the content you purvey.
Content is expensive. Just ask Netflix (NFLX). Have a look at what Mel Karmazin is doing over at Sirius XM (SIRI). He's running it like terrestrial radio. Howard Stern gets the big money and most others run the risk of placement on the chopping block. Ask Bubba the Love Sponge. Ask Chris "Mad Dog" Russo. Ask the people who voice-track many of Sirius XM's music stations. It costs a lot of dough to pay for the non-exclusive rights to professional sports games and such. You end up counting beans as opposed to caring about (or, more aptly, being able to do anything about) quality. It's the same old story.
It's clear today that Yahoo made the choice, after a whole bunch of nothing, to become a content company. I don't necessarily disagree with that decision. However, what type of tech company could we expect Yahoo to become. Somebody else dominates search and sophisticated web advertising platforms. And it would have been - and still is - misguided to buy a hardware company or any major software firm.
So, Yahoo ultimately decided to focus on its strength - content. And it is the company's strength. Aside from my brokerage platforms and a service or two that I pay for, I use Yahoo Finance, along with Seeking Alpha and the Wall Street Journal, for the majority of my market news. Save the message boards, it's excellent. And there's no better resource for hockey than Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. You probably have something - even if it's "just" the homepage -that draws you to Yahoo more than other websites. But, being good at something doesn't necessarily mean you can make it work as a business.
Because the company brings in so much money, it feels weird saying this, but Yahoo has never gained any true forward motion in the ad space. Historically, its mobile efforts have been weak at best. They've always played second, and sometimes third or fourth, fiddle to somebody else in almost everything they do, no matter how well (or not so well) they do it.
The second or third thing I think of when Pandora comes to mind is content. That's not to say content does not matter at Pandora. It does (that's ultimately what listeners come for and Pandora pays handsomely to secure it), but, interestingly, that's not the focus. When you think of Pandora, you think of the interactive experience, both from a user and, increasingly, an advertiser standpoint. Technology fuels those experiences. Pandora is a tech company. It walks like one. It talks like one. It acts like one. It spends like one because it grows like one. It grows like one, partially, because it spends like one. It's entrenched in that tech cycle. When "media" companies are really tech companies, I get excited (and bullish).
There's no question Demand Media, a Yahoo competitor, is a content company. A big difference exists, however, between what they're trying to pull off at Demand versus Yahoo. While Yahoo hacks away at its jack of all trades approach, Demand has the focus of a start-up. From eHow to sites like TypeF, it tends to cater to people looking to do something themselves with a particular anchor set to areas such as money and finance, home improvement, food and fashion. It's still an uphill climb for Demand, but I actually like that company's long-term trajectory, as it stands, a bit more than Yahoo's.
The first thing Yang should have done after Jobs drove his Honda Civic away from Hotel Sofitel (my first San Francisco roommate was head chef there for a time; maybe she made Jobs's meal?) is figure out the answer to the question Jobs set forth. And then forge a gameplan to execute. Maybe he tried, but, obviously, not hard (or well) enough, evidenced by the circus that Yahoo became over the last several years.
Additional disclosure: I am long NFLX June $40 put options.