The more Jerry Yang caught the limelight, the more his partner David Filo seemed to melt into the shadows. By February of 1996 Filo had even relinquished his rightful seat on the board of directors for better to get his hands on the site's levers without the distraction of ceremonial duties. While Yang met Al Gore, Filo checked loadtimes. Both the cheerleader plenipotent and ubergeek roles were essential to Yahoo. Somehow the partners -- who had enough in common to be buddies -- adjusted themselves to the full gamut of the demands of turning a hot startup into a digital bluechip.
"There may be a textbook on how to found a company," Yang said of the chemistry that made Yahoo work, "but we didn't read it. For David and me, it was as if we instinctively knew where to go and what to do, at least as far as developing the product was concerned."
Yang is forthright enough to own up to the self-interest and sense of entitlement that only founders' can have in a company's continued growth. "Just because Dave and I didn't want to be Yahoo's CEO doesn't mean we lack the traditional founders' pushiness. We've gone through waves of immaturity where we told our people what they've done really sucks, and learned that that's not the best way to motivate people. Now we're more likely to suggest how to make things better and ask what we can do to help. We've all grown through that."
In five years the duo parented Yahoo's growth from two to 2,000 employees. For any fast-growing organization the peril most difficult to avoid is losing the unique appeal that gave it life. Yahoo's success in preserving its exuberant image and attitude while multiplying its offerings Yang credits to the strong marriage in which each partner could count on the other to cover the alpha to his omega.
"When you boil it all down, we're in the growth business," said Yang. "We knew right from the beginning that we had to build an organization that could scale up and do it fast, because the internet itself was exploding. Even though David and I are both perfectionists, we're not necessarily control freaks either. Our people have really responded to that, and it's a big reason why we've been able to scale up with a minimum of disruption and turnover. To me, building an organization that scales smoothly is the true test of an entrepreneur. Often what it comes down to is how well the founders continue to scale themselves."
Yang and Filo scaled up the company by training their respective foci toward opposite poles while holding themselves together at the company's emotional core.
For Jerry Yang the other sanity check has been his determined preservation of the common touch. Yang has succeeded in not letting his company's success scale up his sense of self. Even in those vertiginous days when Yahoo was shooting up to its peak valuation, Yang was living in a relatively modest $2 million Los Altos home. He was flying coach. Eating out meant lunches at Taco Bell and pho noodle shops. He stayed married to his college sweetheart. He had Sunday dinners at his mom's. And in the ultimate act of digital humility, he kept surfing the web with a 28.8k modem to understand the perspective of the average internet user. These are all critical aspects what he sees as his job as Chief Yahoo -- translating the needs and wants of ordinary netizens into directives to be satisfied by his growing media empire.
"As the rate of Internet use keeps growing," he told reporters in March 2004, "it is becoming a daily necessity for the younger generations, rather than something new as it is to people my age. This will entail a fundamental change of theinternet environment derived from higher expectations. Therefore, we need to come up with more products and services to meet users' needs."
Jerry Yang is driven by his vivid memory of the consequences of failing in his job: being mauled by Bill Gates & Empire.