Why you should care

Because this could make for an amazing comeback tale. 

At Yahoo’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, everything is purple. Purple chairs in the conference rooms, purple tinges on the tables and purple shirt on Senior Vice President Enrique Muñoz Torres. There’s a sense here, on this campus that’s more old-school corporate than new-school techie playground (read: Google), of positively violaceous, and much-needed, cheerleading. The Yahoo story, for the past three years, has needed retweaking, and here I am to witness one face of the retweak.

Okay, it’s a little bit more than a retweak. With the company’s perky but struggling CEO, Marissa Mayer, still hoping for a gigantic corporate comeback, Yahoo is now going for the impossible — seeking to steal the search crown from Google. And yes, skepticism is warranted: An estimated two billion people use Google products to find the answers to just about everything, a sphere of the universe in which Yahoo, believe it or not, used to hold some sway. Now, in this sea of purple, I’m standing before this soft-spoken computer scientist who has quietly put together a SWAT team of enormous size (the PR folks seem to enjoy the mystique of obfuscating on numbers but say Muñoz’s is one of the largest groups within the company) to, as Muñoz puts it, “figure out what search ought to mean.”

Does the effort have a name, I inquire? “Of course there’s a code name,” he says. “But no way am I telling you.”

Now three months into the thing, Muñoz won’t share too many (okay, zero) details about the plan. But experts in the field think he may actually have found an opening here, an Achilles’ heel in Google’s crazy dominance — and it’s in the mobile, rather than desktop, space. So far, Yahoo spokespeople say they’ve got 600 million–plus mobile users, and growing. “It’s an uphill battle,” in general, says Anindya Ghose, professor at NYU Stern School of Business, but that’s because no one’s cornered mobile yet, not even Google. (Obviously, Google’s not blind to this: CEO Sundar Pichai reportedly said on the company’s Q3 earnings call that there are now more Google mobile searches than desktop searches; Google’s press team did not reply to requests for comment.) Ghose adds that whoever wins at mobile search could win the revenue game too: Mobile advertising has a long way to go, but when companies nail it — which he figures will come in the form of hyperlocal ads that offer you coupons based on where you are — they might nail the industry.

Enrique Muñoz

Muñoz holds a replica of a monitor-less Atari computer. He learned how to code with one when he was five years old.

Source Alex Washburn / OZY

Muñoz would have seemed an unlikely part of Marissa Mayer’s big plan to nail the industry when she arrived at the flailing tech giant three years ago. The then-star CEO set on an ambitious plan of acquiring tens of companies in the first 18 months. (Yahoo won’t confirm the numbers.) To do that, she pulled top Googlers, who followed her because of her longtime record at the Mountain View giant, says Krishna Palepu, professor at Harvard Business School. Or because, as Muñoz puts it, there was something “romantic” about turning around a dying company. But few analysts would have called her efforts romantic. Yahoo had problems that were “neglected for 10 years,” Palepu says. “In Silicon Valley, 10 years is a lifetime.” In Muñoz, Mayer is betting on someone young to pull off a huge coup. Perhaps because she needs fresh blood.

In the case of Muñoz, he’d been at Google eight and a half years, in advertising, Google News and, fortuitously, search itself. With Pepsi in hand, sans eye contact, he tells the tale of one of his first projects with Mayer, which appeared on his calendar out of nowhere one day and was dubbed “Moneyball Launch.” Mayer called the crew in, saying she needed to monetize Yahoo’s homepage, stat. They would have 45 days. “We were told, ‘You have the rest of the day to transition your work to someone else, or no one.’” The team was given green Oakland A’s hats, which they could wear anywhere in the company — if someone with a green beret, er, hat, approached an employee, he or she was to prioritize anything the wearer asked.

“I only used it once,” he says. “Against Marissa.” She was prepping for a board meeting and the product still didn’t have a name. He walked into a prep meeting and said, “We need a name, now.” They came up with Yahoo Stream Ads. Oh, and they finished in 43 days.

I ask what one must do to be allowed to speak to Marissa Mayer that way. He shrugs and blinks his long-lashed, boyish eyes, says the green hat held its own mystical power. But of course it’s also because Muñoz has known Mayer since his first year in the workforce, when he arrived at Google fresh out of MIT. The Chilean-born 23-year-old was clueless, and he says the inexperience showed in his early days: “It might have been better for my career” to not jump around between projects so much — some product managers follow the route of picking a single product, getting great at it and building their careers on that specialization. Muñoz, in contrast, grabbed at what he found cool, shiny and educational, never quite leaning into one area.

Enrique Muñoz

Enrique Muñoz at the Yahoo campus.

Source Alex Washburn / OZY

“He’s tough, but very fair,” says colleague Jose Singer, who first worked for Muñoz on Moneyball. Singer says he spent a chunk of Moneyball a bit afraid that Muñoz was displeased, only to pull him aside and realize the seriousness was just his way. “I’m not good at sugarcoating,” says Muñoz, blaming in part his English skills.

The sweetness and awkwardness mingle when I ask if he’s married. Without a word, leaving me a little slighted or at least confused, he stands up and walks next door to the conference room he turned into his office. He returns with a photo collage with bubbly text in the center reading I LOVE DAD. (The answer is yes: to a wife he met while a freshman at MIT, with whom he debated politics furiously and with whom he now has two kids.) Next door in that same office, which is a bit like a poorly decorated corporate bachelor pad, is a replica of the first computer Muñoz ever owned — a monitor-less Atari, which doesn’t work. He shows me the instruction manual; he got it as a toy at age 5 and just “followed the book,” which taught how to code it.

We step back into the conference room, Muñoz with the Pepsi he has held on to for dear life this whole time. He’s telling me about growing up in Santiago, how lucky he was to attend a private school instead of one of Chile’s government schools. He is warm and grateful. I am distracted, though. I have just noticed two things: Every conference room I’ve seen is equipped with a sign on the outside that says it is “Hangout-equipped,” referring to the Google video service. And inside the conference room all draped with purple, the two screens flash Google conferencing services, ready and waiting to be used.

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