Verizon’s AOL/Yahoo Debacle – Think You Can Fix That?

Verizon’s AOL/Yahoo Debacle – Think You Can Fix That?

Do you have any idea how powerful AOL and Yahoo once were, and how much they were once worth? Do you know how much shareholder value has been destroyed in these 2 companies in just 20 years? $221 Billion of destroyed wealth.

AOL pioneered the web as we know it today. Long before wireless, or broadband, there was “dial up service.” For young readers, that meant using a physical modem to connect your computer to a land-line telephone in order to literally dial up a connection to an internet service provider. AOL pioneered using the internet, and was the #1 connection with almost the entire marketplace. The phrase that made AOL famous back then was when you connected to AOL and it gave us the now iconic “You’ve got mail.” After connecting America, in 2000 AOL merged with Time Warner media in a deal valuing AOL at $111B.

Yahoo pioneered giving internet users news. It accumulated news from around the world on Sports, Economy and many other topics, making the news available to readers for free because it sold ads to pay the bills. In 2000 a publicly traded Yahoo was valued at $125B.

So in 2000, amidst a very extended NASDAQ internet hype, AOL and Yahoo were valued at $226B.

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This week Verizon agreed to sell the two companies to a private equity firm for $5B. That’s a loss in value of $221B in 21 years.

How does a loss of this magnitude happen? A lot of focusing on tactics, ignoring market trends and failing to adapt the company strategy to meet changing competitive dynamics. Broadband and wireless eventually made dial-up irrelevant. And despite buying some media company to try and add new content to AOL, it lost all meaning. Time Warner spun it out to the public at a value of $3.5B in 2009.

Then, Verizon thought it could build a proprietary content company to get more Verizon customers so it bought AOL in 2015 for $4.4B. Only, nobody needed another content provider by then. Google served up general content just fine, Facebook gave us content we looked at frequently, and specialized content sites like Finance (Marketwatch) and Sports (ESPN) made it impossible that late in the game to launch a general purpose content accumulator and reposter. It was a strategy for 2005, not 2015. Meanwhile, Yahoo made one tactical decision after another to shore up its old model that didn’t work. Google became vastly better at search, and vastly better at delivering content. Tactical oriented CEOs Carol Bartz and Marissa Mayer had no strategy to meet emerging needs of the 2010 decade and beyond – leading Yahoo into complete irrelevancy.

Undeterred, the Verizon owned AOL bought Yahoo in 2017 for $4.5B. After all, it seemed cheap compared to its once $125B value – right? The idea was to merge the two companies, create “cost synergies” and “scale” in users to sell more advertising. Only, neither platform had enough original content to stop the user bleed to other sites. Netflix and Google’s YouTube took everyone who wanted new content away, and there was nothing left for AOL/Yahoo to deliver. It became the internal combustion engine repair shop in a world full of EVs

Now, after spending $9.9B on the entities plus much more in acquisitions, Verizon is selling both entities to Apollo Global Management private equity for $5B – a loss of $4.4B. And Apollo thinks this is a good deal because “a high tide raises all boats” and it will win merely because the world is increasingly using the internet. Really? More people are using the web, and more often, but they’ve already shown not via AOL nor Yahoo. Facebook, Instagram, Google, Pinterest, Twitter, and a raft of other sites are gaining the traffic. What was once irrelevant remains irrelevant.

It is crucial to understand why these to GIANTS of the internet are now part of history’s dustbin. While they pioneered the market, gaining huge revenues, share and valuation, they did NOT keep their eyes on disruptive innovators who could change the market they pioneered. Broadband killed dial-up, and because AOL moved too late it died. Google overtook search, delivering more content faster and better, and Yahoo simply waited too long to react. Not unlike how Research in Motion (Blackberry) failed to see the “app wave” in mobile coming and lost its enormous lead in mobile phones to Apple and Samsung. All thought their strength in pioneering was enough – and failed to keep their eyes on external trends and new market shifts that would change competition.

I wrote a raft of columns about the mistakes made by these company CEOs from 2009 through 2017 – constantly telling readers not to buy the stocks (just search the blogs my website for AOL or Yahoo.) It is extremely rare for a corporation locked into its business model and cost cutting to adjust to a rapidly shifting market. When a company does so – like Jobs turned around Apple and Nadella at Microsoft – it is the exception to be well applauded. But that is very, very rare.

And this is NOT what PE companies do. They aren’t visionary investors who put in lots of money to change companies. They cut costs, streamline operations, and add debt to get their investment back. Apollo is no different. It has no vision of the internet future that will slow Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Alphabet/Google or even Amazon. It has purchased two irrelevant brands with outdated business models, no new technology, no new market approaches and no new insight to future unmet needs. There is no doubt Apollo will not turn these around. Apollo will unload this newest Yahoo! over-leveraged to a public debt market dominated by pension funds and it will soon enough file bankruptcy, finishing the coffin.

Do you think you could turn these around? First, are you ready to turn around your own business? Are you focused on how market shifts, happening today, will change your market? Are you seeing trends, and changing your business model and technology to adjust? Are you building a business around future scenarios you’ve created to compete in 2025 and beyond with different competitors offering different solutions? Or are you relying on past strengths to carry you through the future? If you’re planning with your eyes firmly in the rear view mirror I highly recommend you learn the lesson from AOL and Yahoo – that approach will not work.

Do you know your Value Proposition? Can you clearly state that Value Proposition without any linkage to your Value Delivery System? If not, you better get on that pretty fast. Otherwise, you’re very likely to end up like encyclopedias and newspaper companies. Or you’ll develop a neat technology that’s the next Segway. It’s always know your customer and their needs first, then create the solution. Don’t be a solution looking for an application. Hopefully Uber and Aurora will both now start heading in the right directions.

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A salute to immigrants, America’s unsung national treasure

A salute to immigrants, America’s unsung national treasure

I’m amazed about Americans’ debate regarding immigration. And all the rhetoric from candidate Trump about the need to close America’s borders.

I was raised in Oklahoma, which prior to statehood was called The Indian Territory. I was raised around the only real Native Americans. All the rest of us are immigrants. Some voluntarily, some as slaves. But the fact that people want to debate whether we allow people to become Americans seems to me somewhat ridiculous, since 98% of Americans are immigrants. The majority within two generations.

immigrationThroughout America’s history, being an immigrant has been tough. The first ones had to deal with bad weather, difficult farming techniques, hostile terrain, wild animals – it was very difficult. As time passed immigrants continued to face these issues, expanding westward. But they also faced horrible living conditions in major cities, poor food, bad pay, minimal medical care and often abuse by the people already that previously immigrated.

And almost since the beginning, immigrants have been not only abused but scammed. Those who have resources frequently took advantage of the newcomers that did not. And this persists. Immigrants that lack a social security card are unable to obtain a driver’s license, unable to open bank accounts, unable to apply for credit cards, unable to even sign up for phone service. Thus they remain at the will of others to help them, which creates the opportunity for scamming.

Take for example an immigrant trying to make a phone call to his relatives back home. For most immigrants this means using a calling card. Only these cards are often a maze of fees, charges and complex rules that result in much of the card’s value being lost. A 10-minute call to Ghana can range from $2.86 to $8.19 depending on which card you use. This problem is so bad that the FCC has fined six of the largest card companies for misleading consumers about calling cards. They continue to advise consumers about fraud. And even Congress has held hearings on the problem.

One outcome of immigrants’ difficulties has been the ingenuity and innovativeness of Americans. To this day around the world people marvel at how clever Americans are, and how often America leads the world in developing new things. As a young country, and due to the combination of resources and immigrants’ tough situation, America frequently is first at developing new solutions to solve problems – many of which are problems that clearly affect the immigrant population.

So, back to that phone call. Some immigrants can use Microsoft Skype to talk with their relatives, using the Internet rather than a phone. But this requires the people back home have a PC and an internet connection. Both of which could be dicey. Another option would be to use something like Facebook’s WhatsApp, but this requires the person back home have either a PC or mobile device, and either a wireless connection or mobile coverage. And, again, this is problematic.

But once again, ingenuity prevails. A Romanian immigrant named Daniel Popa saw this problem, and set out to make communications better for immigrants and their families back home. In 2014 he founded to allow users to make a call over wireless technology, but which can then interface with the old-fashioned wired (or wireless) telecom systems around the world. No easy task, since telephone systems are a complex environment of different international, national and state players that use a raft of different technologies and have an even greater set of complicated charging systems.

But this new virtual phone network, which links the internet to the traditional telecom system, is a blessing for any immigrant who needs to contact someone in a rural, or poor, location that still depends on phone service. If the person on the other end can access a WiFi system, then the calls are free. If the connection is to a phone system then the WiFi interface on the American end makes the call much cheaper – and performs far, far better than any other technology. QuickCall has built the carrier relationships around the world to make the connections far more seamless, and the quality far higher.

But like all disruptive innovations, the initial market (immigrants) is just the early adopter with a huge need. Being able to lace together an internet call to a phone system is pretty powerful for a lot of other users. Travelers heading to a remote location, like Micronesia, Africa or much of South America — and even Eastern Europe – can lower the cost of planning their trip and connect with locals by using And for most Americans traveling in non-European locations their cell phone service from Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or another carrier simply does not work well (if at all) and is very expensive when they arrive. solves that problem for these travelers.

Small businesspeople who have suppliers, or customers, in these locations can use to connect with their business partners at far lower cost. Businesses can even have their local partners obtain a local phone number via and they can drive the cost down further (potentially to zero). This makes it affordable to expand the offshore business, possibly even establishing small scale customer support centers at the local supplier, or distributor, location.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma Clayton Christensen makes the case that disruptive innovations develop by targeting a customer with an unmet need. Usually the innovation isn’t as good as the current “standard,” and is also more costly. Today, making an international call through the phone system is the standard, and it is fairly cheap. But this solution is often unavailable to immigrants, and thus fills their unmet need, and at a cost substantially lower than the infamous calling cards, and with higher quality than a pure WiFi option.

But now that it is established, and expanding to more countries – including developed markets like the U.K. – the technology behind is becoming more mainstream. And its uses are expanding. And it is reducing the need for people to have international calling service on their wired or wireless phone because the available market is expanding, the quality is going up, and the cost is going down. Exactly the way all disruptive innovations grow, and thus threaten the entrenched competition.

The end-game may be some form of Facebook in-app solution. But that depends on Facebook or one of its competitors seizing this opportunity quickly, and learning all already knows about the technology and customers, and building out that network of carrier relationships. Notice that Skype was founded in 2003, and acquired by Microsoft in 2011, and it still doesn’t have a major presence as a telecom replacement. Will a social media company choose to make the investment and undertake developing this new solution?

As small as is – and even though you may have never heard of it – it is an example of a disruptive innovation that has been successfully launched, and is successfully expanding. It may seem like an impossibility that this company, founded by an immigrant to solve an unmet need of immigrants, could actually change the way everyone makes international calls. But, then again, few of us thought the iPhone and its apps would cause us to give up Blackberries and quit carrying our PCs around.

America is known for its ingenuity and innovations. We can thank our heritage as immigrants for this, as well as the immigrant marketplace that spurs new innovation. America’s immigrants have the need to succeed, and the unmet needs that create new markets for launching new solutions. For all those conservatives who fear “European socialism,” they would be wise to realize the tremendous benefits we receive from our immigrant population. Perhaps these naysayers should use to connect with a few more immigrants and understand the benefits they bring to America.