Sifry out, layoffs galore at Technorati

It has looked for awhile as though Technorati was having difficulties — and not just technical difficulties but in the executive suite as well, with founder and CEO Dave Sifry writing on his blog earlier this year that the blog-search company was looking for someone to replace him — but now the wheels really appear to have come off. Sifry is leaving the company completely, without a CEO to fill his shoes, and eight people are being laid off.

In his farewall post, Sifry says the company will be run in the interim by a committee of the board (trust me when I say this is rarely a good sign), and that the search for a CEO continues. The Technorati founder says he will continue to be “engaged strategically from the point of view of a director on the board.” According to his post, he will be chairman. As for the layoffs, Sifry says:

“Because we’ll be focusing our efforts more precisely moving forward, it became clear we needed to adjust our expense structure to be more appropriately aligned with our priorities moving forward. So, we had to make the difficult decision to part ways with eight of our staff members.”

I’ll say this much for Dave — he certainly seems to have gotten the hang of the cold-blooded CEO dismissal message. Om notes that one of Technorati’s biggest issues (apart from uptime problems) is that Google is eating the company’s lunch. Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher has some added perspective on the difficulties of the startup game here.

Semel out as CEO, investors cheer

snipshot_e4iniuupqat.jpgWell, well, well. After six years — and the last couple of those facing mounting criticism of his efforts in the corner suite — Hollywood transplant Terry Semel is out as chief executive officer of Yahoo. To add insult to injury (although he remains non-executive chairman, which means he’s hardly hitting the bread lines) the share price of the Internet portal jumped by more than five per cent in after-hours trading after the company announced the news. Yahoo is going back to the future for a CEO: co-founder and Chief Yahoo Jerry Yang becomes the new chief executive. Yang has a blog post about it here. He says that Semel:

“Refocused the company on key strategic priorities, and in so doing, helped Yahoo! increase our revenues nearly nine-fold from $717 million in 2001 to $6.4 billion in 2006; boost our operating income from a loss in 2001 to nearly $1 billion last year; and create more than $30 billion in shareholder value during his tenure.

He helped grow our audience from 170 million to more than 500 million users globally, and he oversaw the expansion of our base of talented employees from 3,500 to nearly 12,000.”

This has to make Eric Jackson feel pretty good — he put together a Web-based protest group (mentioned by the Times UK and Wired, among other places) that got a significant amount of support from disgruntled shareholders, and took its criticisms to the Yahoo shareholders meeting. My friend Paul Kedrosky, who has been predicting this move would come, live-blogged the conference call.

I guess the pressure is on Jerry Yang now — although I’m sure his $2.2-billion net worth should be a comfort either way. Valleywag has a comprehensive “corporate obituary” on Semel and his reign here — and also points out that Jerry Yang is no Steve Jobs. Ouch. Painful but true, I suspect. Mike Arrington has a different take on the news at TechCrunch: why so sudden? Yahoo could have announced his retirement, etc. and taken its time. Instead, he is just gone and Yahoo turns to an old standby. That is a little odd.

Jonathan Schwartz, up close and personal

I have to say right off the top that I haven’t really acquired the taste for Robert Scoble’s video-blogging or podcasting (or whatever we’re calling it now) over at Podtech.net. I liked reading his blog from time to time — in some cases for the comments — but I just haven’t gotten into the video stuff for whatever reason. But I watched his recent interview with Sun Microsystems’ CEO Jonathan Schwartz and I thought it was pretty good.

In part, it was good because Schwartz seemed comfortable talking with Scoble, and that’s a huge part of a successful interview (unless you’re doing an ambush, of course). What makes that happen? Obviously it helps if interviewer and subject know each other, but it also helps to be the kind of person that puts others at ease, which Scoble (love him or hate him) genuinely seems to be. And that’s when you get the good stuff.

schwartz.jpg

So after all the questions about Sun’s business, and the iPhone chat and some talk about other things, around 35 minutes in Scoble asks about Schwartz’s comment on his blog that a train accident in 1987 changed his life. And that’s when you start to see the human side of Jonathan Schwartz. Not that he wasn’t human before, but he was still pushing a corporate message. The stuff about almost dying was a lot more human than that, and therefore to me more interesting.

I also think it says a lot that Schwartz — a CEO, who could easily get someone to call Matt Mullenweg, or send him an email and get his problem with Sun’s Startup Essentials program sorted out — publicly admits that that company screwed up and offers to make it right. A PR gesture? Sure. But a great response nevertheless, and something that is likely to get a whole lot more attention than just fixing things behind the scenes.

Why CEOs should blog

I’m going to do something I don’t usually do, and that’s disagree with my friend and fellow meshconference.com organizer Rob Hyndman on the subject of whether CEOs should blog or not — sparked by the New York Times article on the subject. Rob says that he doesn’t see how a CEO could possibly have the time to blog, since most of them are fanatically busy, and that he “doesn’t get” claims that CEOs or political candidates should blog.

I can totally see the point that many CEOs are extremely busy trying to run their companies or put out fires of various kinds, or simply trying to understand the various forces acting on their businesses from day to day — and Mark Evans, in a comment on Rob’s post, also makes a good point when he says that CEOs have to be aware of Sarbanes-Oxley and other legislation that ties their hands when it comes to disclosure. All that said, however, I still believe that there is a place for a blogging CEO.

Obviously, not every CEO is going to be Mark Cuban, nor is every one going to be Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz or Edelman head Richard Edelman. And I don’t think anyone would expect a busy CEO, or political candidate for that matter, to blog religiously or obsessively. But I think the direct conduit that a blog — even a sporadically updated one — offers between a CEO and his customers or clients, or even his own employees, is a very valuable thing. Surely a few minutes here or there could be found by just about any CEO to try and keep that conduit alive.

Nortel throws investors another curveball

The marketing tagline for the 1970’s shark-attack movie Jaws 2 was “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” If you replaced the word “water” with the name “Nortel,” you’d probably have a fitting tagline for what’s going on at Canada’s favourite love-it-or-hate-it networking-equipment company, Nortel Networks (or “No-tell” Networks, as one wag dubbed it). Except, of course, that for Nortel the latest financial restatement isn’t just the sequel to its previous financial troubles — it’s the third in a series of such restatements, each of which affected several years worth of results.

In case you need a refresher course in how not to run a giant telecom supplier, Nortel has spent the better part of the past three years restating its results, changing chief executive officers and otherwise reorganizing itself. Not long after John Roth left the company and was replaced by former chief financial officer Frank Dunn, the company announced that its results were not reliable. That produced the first restatement, which altered revenues and profits for several years, and led to an internal review that eventually produced a second restatement to correct errors in the first one, which delayed the company’s official filings for more than a year. As a result of the review, Mr. Dunn and half a dozen other executives were fired.

Former U.S. Navy officer Bill Owens came on board to straighten things up and get customers back on board, but after an acquisition that didn’t get many cheers and a failed succession plan that got a lot of boos, he left and was replaced by former Motorola executive Mike Zafirovski. And a new CEO seems to require yet another restatement, this time for various contracts that were signed in 2003, 2004 and part of 2005. Why? Mike Z says it’s because the company is now applying more stringent rules to how it accounts for contracts. And guess what? He said he can’t say for sure that there won’t be more restatements or “adjustments” as they go through the rest of the deals from last year.

To continue with the horror-movie analogy — one that some Nortel investors might see as appropriate — let’s hope the company isn’t trying to create a 10-movie legacy like the Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. Investors have suffered enough already.