[Editor’s note: Venture capitalist Bart Schachter writes about how the Semel tenure at Yahoo is a lesson for VCs, who tend to want to bring in professional CEOs and jettison passionate founders.]
It is noteworthy that within just months Michael Dell taking back the reins at Dell, Jerry Yang should do the same at Yahoo.
Like Steve Jobs at Apple before them, they have returned to lead the companies they created ten or twenty years before.
Six months ago, I said only an illegal immigrant from Mars wouldn’t notice the growing irrelevance of Yahoo (my article, written for PE Hub, is behind its registration wall).
Yahoo was having a last grandstand of popularity, comparable only to AOL’s final years – AOL being another company whose own fortunes were still extolled in the media long after only one’s elderly grandparents could be found using its dial-up service and genteel walled gardens.
The disconnect for me was mostly CEO Terry Semel, whose face continued to be feted on the covers of national business magazines. The mythology extolled the virtues of an entertainment leader (who else to deliver a live Tom Cruise appearance at CES last year) descended from Mount Hollywood to the Valley of Silicon to transform a classic Web 1.0 business into something grander: an entertainment company.
Meanwhile, Jerry Yang, last seen sleeping under his desk when the company was still small, had mostly disappeared from external visibility.
Somewhat suddenly Yahoo celebrated the dropping of the CEO guillotine upon its celebrated CEO and the return of Jerry Yang to the reins.
Some think the beginning of the end was Mr. Semel’s $230 million 2005 comp package, which led to a shareholder uprising and ultimately his resignation. True, Mr. Semel’s “trued down” to a $1 per year structure in the following years. In fact, it’s the same compensation plan that Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt signed up for.
But the salary savings barely offset “Yahoo South”, the swanky offices I first saw (see flickr photo) a few years ago near Burbank airport to either bring the company closer to Hollywood, or more cynically, its CEO closer to his office. Mr. Semel pocketed $500 million for his four to five years of work for a mere five percent annual stock appreciation.
Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The habit of venture capitalists is to insert professional managers as CEOs of their start-ups. However, the impulse of these professional CEOs is to excise the highest compensation they possibly can (plus a healthy severance package). The alignment may or may not exist, but the passion always rests with the founder. That’s where the story starts, and that’s often where it ends.
The Yahoo story has is a classic Founder Odyssey. Like Ulysees (ok, maybe more like Steve Jobs), Jerry returns to reclaim his home and land. This has the making of a great story, one played out at Apple, Microsoft (how many Presidents paraded through Bellevue in the last 20 years?), and more recently Dell. True, Jerry’s odds are against him. As a college graduate he lacks the college-dropout credentials of other Founder Odysseys. But perhaps he has the passion and alignment needed to bring the company home. Who is next? Vive Le Founder.