Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer has been snapping up companies so quickly that it’s almost hard to keep track of them all: in just the past week alone, deals have been announced for three companies — Qwiki, something called BigNoggin and Xobni — with a total cost estimated at more than $100 million.
Xobni, an email inbox-management service that has been around since 2006, was Mayer’s most recent purchase, with an estimated price tag somewhere between $30 million and $60 million. But beneath the shopping spree, is there a strategy that ties these acquisitions together?
One obvious answer is mobile, something Mayer said early on would be a major focus for the company as it tried to revitalize its faded business: of the 17 acquisitions that Yahoo has announced since she took over the chief executive job, many have something to do with mobile. Qwiki, for example — which the company bought for an estimated $50 million earlier this week — is a service that allows users to create videos on their phones
Trying to play catch up
Other purchases, however — such as the $1-billion acquisition of Tumblr, and even the acquisition of Xobni itself — aren’t as obviously about mobile. The Tumblr deal seemed to be designed at least in part to restore some luster to Yahoo’s reputation as a cool web company, and to try and generate more traffic for its advertising properties.
Xobni is clearly meant to help Yahoo’s mail product improve, and yet the company has also been languishing on the sidelines of the tech sector for some time now (as has Qwiki). To some extent, that deal seems to be about trying to catch up with Microsoft and Google on features.
That’s one of the problems with many of Yahoo’s acquisitions: they seem to be attempts by Mayer to get Yahoo caught up to other major players, and that’s a strategy that rarely comes with a big payoff. Is the addition of Xobni going to cause dramatically large numbers of people to switch to Yahoo Mail, or to remain with Yahoo Mail instead of switching to Google or some other service?
At worst, this kind of approach could easily create a sort of “Franken-Yahoo” with disparate parts that fit together but don’t work very well.
Adding services like Qwiki, meanwhile, could generate some more heat and light for Yahoo’s mobile efforts, and so could acquisitions like the news-summarization app Summly, which Yahoo paid an estimated $30 million for — despite a complete lack of any revenue, let alone any profits. But at the same time, the frenzy of deals seems to be more like a scattershot “buy anything that says mobile in its feature set” approach than one that is guided by an overall vision of what Yahoo wants to be on phones and tablets.
Can acquisitions change Yahoo’s DNA?
As Om pointed out recently, Mayer has the luxury of a deep pocketbook with which to finance her spending spree: Alibaba, the Chinese portal that Yahoo owns a 23-percent stake in, has continued to increase in value to the point where it could be worth as much as $100 billion, and that — plus some hopes for improved performance based on Mayer’s arrival — has helped Yahoo’s stock price improve over the past six months. So the acquisition binge could well continue for the foreseeable future.
Yahoo has suggested that many of its acquisitions have been about acqui-hiring smart developers and entrepreneurs that it can add to its staff, presumably as a way of injecting some fresh blood into the company and its businesses.
However, Om has also argued in the past that even Mayer and her acquisitions will likely prove to be incapable of changing Yahoo’s core DNA, a cultural miasma that has stymied the efforts of several CEOs before her and made the company a synonym for snatching failure from the jaws of victory. Can the former Googler stitch together the startups she has acquired into something approaching a winning strategy? That remains a rather large question mark.
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