Mission Impossible? MBA Students Pitch Greg Coleman, Terry Semel On Yahoo Turnaround Plans

Execs From Yahoo's Last Heyday Listen to Plans For Its Future

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"They were pulling dead bodies from under the desk."

That's how Greg Coleman, former head of sales at Yahoo, described the environment he walked into at post-dotcom-crash Yahoo in 2001. Mr. Coleman teaches a digital marketing class at the NYU Stern School of Business, where Yahoo war stories are par for the course. But earlier this week, Mr. Coleman had some very special guests join his normal cadre of MBA candidates and aspiring executives and entrepreneurs.

Greg Coleman
Greg Coleman Credit: Greg Coleman

There was Terry Semel, the longtime Warner Bros. veteran who served as Yahoo's CEO from 2001 through mid-2007 in a tenure marked by both the regeneration of Yahoo's stock price post-bubble, but also the inability to slow the growth of Google. And there sat Dan Rosensweig, who served as chief operating officer under Mr. Semel and who has gone on to become CEO of the online textbook rental company Chegg.

Messrs. Semel and Rosensweig had traveled to New York from Massachusetts and California, respectively, to tell their stories, offer advice, and -- most compelling of all to this reporter -- listen to pitches from groups of students charged with outlining a new plan for the future of Yahoo.

Terry Semel
Terry Semel

The night's events attracted other familiar faces from boardrooms of years past: former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker, sitting alongside his teenage son, and Eric Hippeau, former CEO of The Huffington Post and longtime Yahoo board member. (Their appearances, along with a class speaker list that includes Eric Hadley of Bing, the sales chiefs of Groupon and LivingSocial, and Foursquare's Dennis Crowley, is something rare and to be appreciated, Mr. Coleman made sure to remind his students.)

When Mr. Semel and Mr. Rosensweig's stories were over, the first student volunteered to give a pitch. His group's idea was to expand the recent social integrations of Yahoo sites and to highlight them even more prominently in an effort to increase reader engagement.

"Yahoo has tremendous content," the group leader said. "But people come to those sites, snack on them a little bit, and then go on with their day… you need to make the sites more sticky."

It soon became clear how the good cop/bad cop duties were going to be divided among the judges.

"I think it's a really good idea," Mr. Semel said, not sounding entirely convinced.

Mr. Rosensweig, for his part, was unimpressed. First, he shed doubt on the premise that engagement is an issue among Yahoo properties. Then, he made it clear that he was looking for transformational ideas, not iterative improvements.

"What problem are you solving for and how do you define success?" he asked, though it was clear he didn't expect an answer. "As CEO, you have to grow shareholder value. So what are the three things or one thing that you think will change the position of the company so you can re-accelerate growth?"

The next student idea, Mr. Rosensweig would later acknowledge, was the one that he felt held the most promise.

"This idea starts with the reason Google+ exists," said Juston Payne, a MBA candidate from Los Angeles. "Because Google needs people to log in to serve more targeted ads." The student went on to articulate what he felt was a competitive advantage Yahoo needs to pounce on: an enormous number of active users who log in to Yahoo properties, and the subsequent data that could be gleaned from those users' movements.

"Our pitch here is to become the leading big data company on the internet," the group's spokesman said. He said he also wanted to invest more in Yahoo properties that require log in as a way to feed the data beast even more.

"Better ads, better data," the student said, reversing the order.

"Very, very good," is what came out of Mr. Semel's mouth when the pitch had concluded.

Mr. Rosensweig seemed mildly pleased, but wanted to know how online privacy concerns would be addressed.

"I think there's ways of messaging that won't freak people out," was the response.

The other ideas ranged from becoming a strictly mobile company, to innovating through acquiring ("I thought the 'innovation by buying start ups' [idea] was the most interesting but hardest to manage," Mr. Coleman wrote in a follow-up email), to the creation of an internal team charged with -- cover your ears, journalists -- "innogration."

"All of these are good ideas to expect a general manager running a unit to think through," Mr. Rosensweig said. "But are these big enough to matter?"

There was one other idea that , above all others, would make Yahoo's major shareholders shudder.

"My solution is to wait," said one student, very matter-of -factly. "I think Yahoo can survive in the [next] two years, so they should wait until the market is better and then sell."

Mr. Rosensweig was stunned.

"Your solution is to…do nothing, wait until the market gets better and then sell?"

"Yes," the student said.

For once, Mr. Rosensweig was speechless.

And that was that .

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