Nicholas Carlson's recent New York Times Magazine piece, What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs, is a fine overview of Yahoo's troubled two-year course correction. Most interesting, though, is how Carlson's understanding of the Yahoo board comes from how he shares its assumptions.
Dynamic and wildly profitable Internet companies like Facebook and Google may get most of the attention, but Silicon Valley is littered with firms that just get by doing roughly the same thing year after year — has-beens like Ask.com, a search engine that no longer innovates but happily takes in $400 million in annual revenue, turning a profit in the process. Mayer, who is 39, was hired to keep Yahoo from suffering this sort of fate. She believed it could again become a top-tier tech firm that enjoyed enormous growth and competed for top talent.
Silicon Valley is "littered" with "has-beens" that "no longer innovate" but are nonetheless "turning a profit in the process". Marissa Mayer was brought on as CEO so Yahoo could keep "from suffering this sort of fate".
Generally speaking, there are only a few ways to make money on the Internet. There are e-commerce companies and marketplaces — think Amazon, eBay and Uber — that profit from transactions occurring on their platforms. Hardware companies, like Apple or Fitbit, profit from gadgets. For everyone else, though, it more or less comes down to advertising. Social-media companies, like Facebook or Twitter, may make cool products that connect their users, but they earn revenue by selling ads against the content those users create. Innovative media companies, like Vox or Hulu, make money in much the same way, except that they’re selling ads against content created by professionals. Google, which has basically devoured the search business, still makes a vast majority of its fortune by selling ads against our queries.
E-commerce and marketplaces. Gadgets. And for everyone else, advertising. These are the three ways people have figured out how to make money on the internet. If you're not making piles of dough off one of the three of these, you're a has-been. You're litter.
Or, it seems, you don't even exist.
Yet, hundreds of companies have figured out how to make money on the Internet by solving everyday business problems. They may not be innovative—they're usually built on advances made by others. They may not be flashy—rather than absorb attention, they disappear into the background so work can get done. They may not be "dynamic and wildly profitable"—they tend towards corporate stability because their customers require steadiness and reliability. But it's more than likely that, were their numbers made public (most such companies are like Populi—privately-held), this part of the internet economy would hold its own against the hotshot innovators whose raison d'être is to sell ads on gadgets you buy from e-commerce sites.