The Innovation Lessons Marissa Mayer Will Take to Yahoo [Video]

7/17/12Follow @wroush

Timothy Koogle, Terry Semel, Jerry Yang, Carol Bartz, Tim Morse, Scott Thompson, Ross Levinsohn, Marissa Mayer.

One of these names is not like the others.

When you list the eight people who have led Yahoo since 1995, counting the interim leaders Morse and Levinsohn, the obvious anomaly is Mayer. At 37, she’s the youngest person ever to take the reins at the company—Yang was 39 when he became CEO in 2007—and only the second with an actual computer science degree (Bartz was the first. Yang’s degree is in electrical engineering; Thompson’s degree turned out to be in accounting).

But more importantly, she’s from Google, the company that probably did more than any other to decimate Yahoo’s core search and advertising businesses. (Today Google owns 66.8 percent of the U.S. search market, while Bing and Yahoo fight over the dregs.)

That’s partly just a reflection of Google’s maturation. At 14 years old, it’s Silicon Valley’s new equivalent of IBM, Hewlett-Packard, or Microsoft: the training ground sending executives off to run places like Facebook (Sheryl Sandberg), AOL (Tim Armstrong), and Twitter (Dick Costolo). But for Yahoo’s board to offer the top spot to Mayer could also be seen as an admission that Google is one of the only big companies in the valley these days that’s solidly profitable and capably run—its only real rival being Apple.

So, what is it that makes Google so successful? (The company’s first-quarter net revenues were $8.1 billion, about eight times those of Yahoo.) And how might Mayer bring a little bit of the Google magic to Yahoo?

To find out, I went back to a video I captured of a talk Mayer gave at Stanford University in April 2011. She was speaking to a group of college-age entrepreneurs from around the country who had assembled for an “Entrepreneurship Bootcamp” organized by the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES). It’s an unusual piece of Mayerana because it’s not about some new Google search product, but about her own thinking on how to choose a career, how to build products, how to scale up a company, and how to keep employees happy.

Below, I’ve edited the 42-minute talk down to about 10 minutes. It’s a useful resource for anyone wondering what kind of CEO Mayer might be. As the leader of large chunks of Google’s workforce—at various times she’s overseen search products, Gmail, Google News, Google Images, and location services—she’s clearly thought a lot about how a technology company can scale up and get big projects done without burning out its key engineers.

Whether she’ll be able to apply any of these lessons at Yahoo–and help the company and its beleaguered employees start innovating again—is now the biggest open question in Silicon Valley.

Here’s the video (which I recorded on my iPad, so forgive the amateur cinematography). Right below are some of the money quotes.

Marissa Mayer on choosing the right job: 

Work with the smartest people you can find … They elevate you. They make you think in a new and different way … Do something you’re not ready to do … I realized I would probably learn more failing at Google than I would succeeding somewhere else.

On Google’s philosophy of product design:

You can try to vault your way to [the product consumers want]. I call this castle-building … If you get it right and you land on something people want, you get a world wide `wow.’ The problem is, if you miss, you have a really awful dud, and a dud that it took a couple of years to build. At Google we have a different philosophy. We have a philosophy that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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