Seen too many teams without a collaborative process for defining their vision and the direction fail.
With our Compass AE process, the Yahoo team would have a collaborative criteria that they can use to determine their priorities and the processes and how it relates to the grand goal.
By seeing the "grand picture", efficiency improves while unnecesary meeting time and redundancy are eliminated.
A team without a vision and direction is like a car without a steering wheel.
My question is ... "Does Yahoo have the Tangible Vision and the drive to take it to the next level?"
Creating a new Yahoo
Verne Kopytoff, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007
A cavalcade of Yahoo Inc. employees showcased Internet products they had built over the previous 48 hours to hundreds of colleagues crammed into a meeting room during this year's "Hack Day," hoping that their ideas would someday make the big time.
Some gave polished presentations, others were barely intelligible and a couple of the products didn't even work.
Bradley Horowitz, a Yahoo vice president, paid close attention, nodding, clapping and quietly critiquing while sipping a beer. After the event wound down, he walked up to the team that won the "best of" award for an idea related to search and offered to introduce them to a senior executive to "get him enthused and excited."
The internal Yahoo event, where employees whip up products literally overnight, is part of a broader effort by Horowitz to nurture innovation at the Sunnyvale Web portal. After falling behind rival Google Inc. in developing products that win users' hearts and minds, Yahoo is trying to make a comeback based partly on becoming more of an innovator and risk-taker.
Horowitz, 42, who was recently appointed vice president of advanced development, is a prominent part of that effort. Part muse, evangelist and matchmaker, he spends his days trying to help grease the wheels of innovation at the company, which even top executives acknowledge has become too bureaucratic.
Yahoo has suffered a series of disappointing quarters, eliciting Wall Street's ire, a management shakeup and second guessing about the company's direction. Many critics lay the blame on Yahoo's failure to develop a new generation of products so it could more easily chip away at Google and the rising social networking superstars, MySpace and Facebook.
"When you think of innovation and technology companies, Yahoo doesn't necessarily come to mind," said Denise Garcia, an analyst for A.G. Edwards.
For the past few years, Yahoo's new product pipeline has depended largely on buying hot startups, the most prominent of which was Flickr, a photo-sharing Web site. It has blossomed under Yahoo's umbrella by offering users the ability to easily share and comment on photos to the point that executives shuttered the company's internally built photo service earlier this year.
A number of other acquisitions soon followed Flickr: bookmark sharing service, Del.icio.us; event listings service, Upcoming; contest site, Bix; and video editor, Jumpcut.
The obvious question was why couldn't Yahoo have built some of these new technologies in-house? Had the leading Web portal lost its cool quotient?
/* Generating profit is more cooler. */
That's where Horowitz fits in. He sports a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow and black-framed hipster glasses. His management style could be described as subversive, harkening to his days as a guitarist in a punk rock band and promoting punk gigs.
Phrases like "taking power from the man" roll off his tongue with abandon. Music is one of his frequent topics, especially when talking about Hack Day and its ethos of fun.
"It's the difference between practicing piano after school in a regimented way versus smoking pot and jamming with your friends in a garage," Horowitz said.
A longtime devotee of meditation, Horowitz once spent a year in India seeking his inner calm and chopping vegetables. Colleagues say he is relentlessly positive without seeming slick.
"Bradley is a person who is unbounded with his enthusiasm and energy from what he does every day," said Andrew Braccia, a former Yahoo search executive who is now a venture capitalist with Accel Partners. "People feed off of that."
Horowitz grew up in Detroit, where he started using computers in grade school during an era it was for the supernerdy. He later went on to University of Michigan, where he spent time in the artificial intelligence lab, before going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for graduate school, where he focused on multimedia.
He abandoned his doctoral studies to co-found Virage, an online video company that went though an initial public offering, got sucked into the dot-com downdraft and was acquired by Autonomy in 2003. He joined Yahoo in 2004, thinking that he needed to get a year of corporate experience under his belt before vaulting to another startup.
Those thoughts of leaving quickly evaporated.
"Because I had a bit of a devil-may-care attitude - I didn't come here to climb the corporate ladder - I started in a cavalier way doing what I thought was right for the company," Horowitz said.
In his current role, which he assumed earlier this year, Horowitz oversees dozens of employees in three teams, the most prominent of which is called Brickhouse, which opened for business four months ago. It is based in a renovated warehouse in San Francisco, intentionally distant enough from headquarters in Sunnyvale to feel like a startup.
The facility is intended to be a sort of incubator where products bubble up from the rank and file. Employees submit ideas for projects. A board made up of several Yahoo executives - including Horowitz - screens the proposals. Employees who make the final cut are detailed temporarily to the office until the project is complete.
Horowitz explained that the facility may create 10 products in its first year, some of which may look radically different from Yahoo's traditional mass-market fare. But given the risky nature of innovation, perhaps only two of the ideas will ever premiere publicly, he said.
Yahoo Pipes, a service for techies that helps them use data from different sources, was the first project to be shoved out the door. Although it received rave reviews, it hardly has the killer app that is going to close the gap with Google.
"We would love to have the next big hit," Horowitz said before explaining that some of what Brickhouse creates may be invisible to the average user, such as making Web pages load faster.
Creating the next Flickr
Horowitz played a big role in buying Flickr and several of the other startups over the past few years. Though smaller acquisitions will continue to play an important role at Yahoo, Horowitz emphasized, he wants to spawn more products within Yahoo, in part to save money and to make them easier to integrate throughout the Web portal.
"How can we grow the next Flickr internally?" is the question that he constantly asks himself.
/* You got to have a Tangible Vision */
Analysts want to know, too. Getting the product pipeline on track could help revive Yahoo's stalled growth, largely attributed to a lagging advertising business and the juggernaut that is Google.
"I am keen to see this company rise to the reputation it deserves and I certainly feel like we have a lot of work to do to change the headlines," Horowitz said. "The onus is on us."
As a Web behemoth, Yahoo has been criticized over the years for being conservative, and that it is part of the reason the company is struggling today. Big companies tend to defend the businesses they're in rather than jumping into new ones.
"Innovation involves risk, and that's not in the DNA of a big business that is generating a lot of revenue," said Dan Cohen, a former Yahoo executive who is now chief executive of Pageflakes, a San Francisco company that offers personalized home pages.
Horowitz agreed to a point, saying: "It's not like we were an insurance company. But I think (we) will be open to taking bigger risks."
To catalog all the products presented at Hack Days over the years, Yahoo keeps what is unofficially called a "hack tracker." More than 1,200 ideas, some in the works, others that never got off the ground, are organized by theme and are annotated with comments about their prospects and priority in the product pipeline.
Science fair for adults
Given the number of ideas, saying "no" is a big part of his job. Treading lightly is important.
"If you say no in a way that is shutting people down, it is incredibly damaging," Horowitz said.
For Yahoo's Hack Day last month, employees submitted 120 ideas that they showed off in a black tent set up on the lawn at Yahoo's headquarters. The preliminaries had the air of a science fair, with individual teams made up of everyone from Yahoo attorneys to product managers, touting their ideas and asking that fellow colleagues vote for them so that they would make it to the finals.
/* Ideas are exchanged. Ideas are modified and stolen. */
Because some of the products could ultimately be put into development, Yahoo asked that no specifics about them be publicized. Although some seemed pretty far-flung, or would have only niche appeal, several seemed to have potential, according to Horowitz and several of the day's judges, who included Yahoo co-founder David Filo.
During the finals, held in a vast meeting room, with a 90-second timer ticking down on a whiteboard, one presenter gave an impassioned appeal to elevate his idea to the big time, saying, "If you let me push this tonight, we'd be beating Google tomorrow morning."
/* Does that sound like an impassioned appeal!? Sound like a desperate peal for attention. */
However, nothing is that easy at a big company. Anything released must first be thoroughly vetted for privacy, security, patents, licensing and adequate infrastructure, even when innovation is a priority.
E-mail Verne Kopytoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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