Taking the floor to answer questions after a 20 minute presentation titled the “Yahoo Experience”, it was clear that the audience, comprising mostly corporate individuals, local tech entrepreneurs and startups was not going to give Dr Ariffin Yahya, former chief architect at Yahoo Inc, an easy pass.
Yahoo, after all, went from being a USD125 billion behemoth at its height in early 2000s, to being acquired by Verizon Communications for USD4.8 billion in 2017.
What went wrong with Yahoo? The question came.
The brand was doing great, but it lacked focus
Dr. Ariffin Yahaya, the only Malaysian who has ever held the position in the Sunnyvale-headquartered company, put it down to a distinct lack of focus.
Yahoo had a vast array of properties - mail, search, news, finance, maps, messenger - it tried to do everything. This was at a time when Yahoo’s main competitor, Google doubled down investments in search and then mastered the art of monetisation through advertising.
“The hard part in this is that Yahoo does all of these things well,” said Dr Ariffin. "That was the main problem,” he deduced.
“The brand was doing great, but it lacked focus.” He was speaking at an event organised by BFM-Edge B School and Petronas.
Dr Ariffin was at Yahoo for about a decade. He served as chief architect for the firm’s Search and Mail Contacts and Extraction unit, his last stint at Yahoo before the Verizon acquisition. Prior to that, he led global technical direction for Yahoo Search, Local, Small Business, Maps, and Shopping.
He returned to Malaysia last year and founded technology consulting firm Acquro Sdn. Bhd.
“A lot of people are thinking about digital but my perception is that they are thinking digital separately,” says Dr Ariffin, emphasising the lack of holistic digital frameworks among companies, where they are often implemented in silos.
“Structure, procedures and process and digital foundation,” he tries to drive his point home. “It may be very difficult but if you don't do that, you’ll always gonna chase your tail.”
Questions about former Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer leadership was, as expected, a key focal point. Mayer, was deemed by market observers to have tanked the job. She was hired in mid-2012 following a revolving door of CEOs that have come and gone at the beleaguered web giant. But web traffic and ad revenues kept falling. She failed to turnaround Yahoo.
Dr Ariffin, nonetheless, had nothing but positive comments about his ex-boss.
“When Marissa came in, it was like Wild Wild West - basically everyone were doing anything they want,” says Ariffin. He started at Yahoo in 2008.
“Its quite hard to change the company when you are not using the same thing, not doing things the same way. There’s no unification.”
“So the hardest part is to understand what Yahoo is about, to understand what are the things we need in the system and build it up from there. And once you understand that, you then need to overcome the human factor, which is can you or can you not convince everybody to come and follow you,” he adds.
“The technical parts are easy but it is the human part - to convince people a project is worth doing, that’s difficult.