Yahoo co-founder Filo muses on the early days

A handful of the portal's top executives, including David Filo, make a rare appearance to lend insight about how Yahoo built a trusted, known-the-world-over brand during the past nine years.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Hiring the right people is paramount to building a successful Internet business, according to Yahoo co-founder David Filo.

Filo, along with a handful of Yahoo top executives, made a rare public appearance Tuesday night to muse on the early days of the Web portal and lend insight to a group of about 40 marketers about how Yahoo built a trusted, known-the-world-over brand during the past nine years. The event was held at Yahoo's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters.

"We were interested in finding people with a similar passion for the Internet," said Filo, referring to the early years when he and Jerry Yang founded the company.

That idea resonates at Yahoo today, lending to an atmosphere of devoted employees building Yahoo's brand from the "inside out," meaning they try to create products people can become passionate about themselves. That was the core message from Filo, known as the company's "chief Yahoo," and a panel of Yahoo executives, including Cammie Dunaway, Yahoo's chief marketing officer; Geoff Ralston, its chief of products; and Libby Sartain, Yahoo's "chief people officer."

Their outreach to marketing professionals came as part of a gathering of the CMO Council, a Silicon Valley networking group founded about a year ago.

The event gave Yahoo a chance to try to rack up goodwill points among potential advertising customers. It also reflected the company's ongoing efforts to refashion its image with marketers.

Two-and-a-half years ago, during the Net boom, Yahoo was perceived by some as unfriendly to marketers because of sometimes poor relations with many interactive-media directors and agencies. Since then, Yahoo has been the center of many networking and ad events to help change that reputation.

The event was geared toward imparting what Yahoo executives know about developing a quality brand. Though Filo conceded that Yahoo started merely as a hobby (for Filo and Jerry Yang to navigate the Web) and their primary means to procrastinate on a doctoral degree at Stanford University, it turned out pretty well. The Web portal draws 245 million visitors monthly, it survived the dot-com bust, and it's been profitable for the past six consecutive quarters. Maybe more importantly to this group, its name is widely recognizable in cities around the world.

That proved a useful draw to attendees.

"It's rare to get the insiders' point of view on how Yahoo made it," said John Drewry, vice president of wireless start-up Orative.

Yahoo's Sartain, head of human resources and former HR executive at Southwest Airlines, talked about how the company's brand resonates at its headquarters, as well as throughout the Web. For example, the company's signature colors, yellow and purple (which were Filo's high school colors), cover everything from the sprinkler heads to the dumpsters at its corporate campus. Amenties at the company--including free coffee, foosball tables and services like dental cleanings and massage--help create a desirable environment, too, she said.

Yahoo's Dunaway, a former marketing executive at Frito Lay, said the company has succeeded at creating buzz with ease and aplomb, and in some cases, with relatively little expense. For example, it hosted a worldwide yodeling contest this year to play on its marquee Yahoo yodeler, with thousands of attendees and much press. It also used its headquarters as the site of a successful effort to beat the Guinness Book of World Records' mark for a group yodeling event.

Dunaway also promoted Yahoo's "buzz marketing" team, which works with advertisers to create specialized campaigns to tout products and services via e-mail, banners or paid search.

But ultimately, it all comes back to providing consumers with useful products, such as e-mail, personals, search, news, financial information and small-business Web page hosting, Yahoo's Ralston said. In the last year and a half, Yahoo has also started providing broadband Internet access in partnership with SBC Communications, and it's built a search-advertising network through its acquisition of Overture Services. Yahoo has also closed some business units, including its enterprise software division.

One attendee asked if Yahoo risks diluting its brand if it grows too big.

"It's gone broader than we thought," Filo said, adding that Yahoo has tried some things that didn't work out. "But it's a question we ask ourselves all the time. It's a question of choice: Where can we have the biggest impact?"

Dunaway added that Yahoo evaluates all prospective new products on a measure CEO Terry Semel defined, which is to gauge whether the product is essential to users' lives. "We put everything through that filter," she said.