Post Founder: Dave Shen and Yahoo

Continuing the Post Founder series where I ask a few questions of early employees at companies which later got big and famous.

Dave Shen and I met via a mutual friend about a year ago. He’s incredibly modest for a guy who worked at Apple, Frog Design and was the 17th employee at Yahoo. Dave’s current pursuits involve angel investing and consulting for select startups. He also used to write very persuasive Yelp reviews.

David Shen, Yahoo

>> how many people were at Yahoo when you started and how did you get connected with the early team?
I was employee number 17 at Yahoo!. I had met Jerry many years prior when he was a sophomore at Stanford and I had just gotten there as a grad student. David I had met a few years later when he arrived at Stanford and both he and Jerry were in the same computer department working on their Ph.Ds. The story is well known that both Jerry and David built Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web which became Yahoo! during their time in the Ph.D program, and late 1994 Jerry called me up to work on their corporate logo for them, which made its official debut in spring of 1995 at Internet World.

>> what was your initial role at Yahoo and how’d this change over time?
I was their first user interface designer, working on all aspects of the GUI from graphics to interaction. In later years, one person became two, and grew to over 120 people in all disciplines of design, ranging from visual design, interaction design, user research, ad design and ad research, as well as the Yahoo! front page ad team. I ran this team as the VP of User Experience and Design until 2003 when I left to briefly be the VP of International Products, and was responsible for the propagation of product development processes and technology worldwide.

>> at what point did you realize Yahoo had legs to be a very serious business?
I think my first realization was when we went IPO, and a huge infusion of cash came into the company which allowed us to grow our team and spread our development into a wide swath of internet products and services. Couple that with the fact that partners and marketers all wanted to be on our system and there seemed to be no end to flow of deals coming in and you realize that it seemed that we could make a lot of money. Once momentum was achieved, we were a brand name, we had loyal users who returned day after day and found our services trusted and useful, and we could monetize that steadily growing amount of traffic.

>> what was your most meaningful contribution(s) to Yahoo’s success?
If you talk to Jerry and David, they would say that they have always been user focused from the beginning. This resulted in key decisions like keeping the pages fast and light to load, which resulted in users coming to us for information simply because we minimized the frustration of waiting for pages to load in a modem driven world. My contribution to user experience was to create a process and a discipline around the already present user driven principle, and to bring traditional methods of user centered design into the company so that we could continue to exploit designing to what users want and need. Back then, user centered design had barely hit any of the big companies out there and this was a competitive advantage for Yahoo!, having one of the largest and most talented set of designers all in one place. Building that team and introducing and instilling those concepts into the company was what I would consider my first important contribution.

My second major contribution began in 2001 when the company and the market were down as far as they could be. We needed to revitalize the company and bring in revenue, which seemed to have dried up. I, along with a few others, led the transformation of the ad business at Yahoo! at a time when the 468×60 banner was dying and new formats and initiatives needed to be introduced. I led the implementation of new and more attractive ad units, helped repair relationships with agencies which had been strained through the years prior to 2001, helped the agencies get their ad programs off the ground from a technical standpoint, performed ad research to show the company and the outside world what was annoying and what was not, and worked with industry groups to standardize display ads within and outside Yahoo!. Also, I helped evangelize creativity in advertising and helped marketers and agencies realize that there was great work being done out there, and that they could do the same. In helping with all these initiatives, I am proud to say that for many years, marketers rated Yahoo! as the number one company to work with and helped Yahoo! regain its leadership as a marketing platform of choice, and enabled its revenue to grow during a time when the entire Internet market was in a state of non-growth.

>> did you have any traditions or rituals that helped define the company’s culture?
I think it was the no-bozos rule that manifested itself in not only hiring good people, but people like ourselves. We could argue that was a good or bad thing, but certainly it caused the persistence of the culture for many years when everyone you hired could be your best buddy as well.

>> when you look at the Yahoo site(s) today, what do you feel is most similar to the early days, what is most different?
Speaking from a GUI standpoint, I think structurally the pages are still the same. It’s either the 2 or 3 column layout, and the old red Yahoo! logo is still up there despite the appearance of the sometimes purple iconic Yahoo! logo. Blue text for links is still there, although people seem to be using less underlines than before. Definitely the richness of the visuals has gone up. Yahoo! used to be a very graphic-less place (due to the need-for-speed during the modem era) but I’m glad to see that Yahoo! has increased its visual impact, now that networks are much faster.