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Sure, they're good for magazine sales, but what else do Marissa Mayer (who recently posed for the cover of Vogue) and Mark Zuckerberg (Time's Man of the Year in 2010) have in common?
Ambition and vision -- which were both evident in their nearly back-to-back interviews at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference earlier this month.
For the most part, the CEOs' interview answers were as polished as their magazine covers. Yet interviewer and TechCrunch founder Micheal Arrington was able to draw out moments of rare candor from the Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) executives, much to the delight of the standing-room-only crowd.
Here, in their own words, is what the head honchos of two prominent Rule Breakers recommendations had to say about their businesses.
What's been going right
At Yahoo!: Reminded that Yahoo!'s stock price has nearly doubled since she became CEO 14 months ago (creating about $14 billion in shareholder value), Mayer began her interview with a nod to her predecessors. Yahoo!'s former management made "some very smart investments," she said, including Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan. But as the conversation turned toward her own achievements, it became clear that Mayer isn't measuring her impact in terms of foreign or domestic market values.
Instead, she's been thinking about talent.
"We've done a lot of acquisitions," she said, referring to the 23 companies Yahoo! has bought under her tenure, "and that's brought a lot of great talent into the company." She said Yahoo! now gets more than 12,000 job applications a week -- up by "a factor of 5 or 6" since before she took over.
Perhaps more striking was her revelation that former Yahoo! employees who had jumped ship are now making their way back. Calling them "boomerangs," she shared that 10% of Yahoo!'s hires in the past 12 months have been former employees.
The underlying implication? Those who know Yahoo! most intimately are once again seeing promise in the company.
At Facebook: Facebook shares have been hovering well above the company's $35 offering price for more than a month now. So Zuckerberg, who seemed aggressive and defensive at last year's Disrupt conference in the wake of Facebook's botched IPO, seemed to be having fun this time.
"I'm the person you'd want to ask last about how to make a smooth IPO," he cracked when he was asked to give advice to companies such as Twitter that are gearing up to go public. "I was too afraid of going public," he said. "Having gone through what most people would characterize as an extremely turbulent first year as a public company," he said, he now feels compelled to let other entrepreneurs know that "it's actually not that bad."
Of course, it's easy to see the bright side when the stock price -- and the business numbers -- are in your favor. With 1.15 billion monthly users, more than 699 million of whom use the service on a daily basis, Facebook now accounts for one out of every seven minutes that global Internet users spend on desktop computing. Switch over to mobile, and you're talking one out of every five minutes. That fact is especially impressive considering that mobile revenue, which contributed nearly nothing to the company's top line last September, currently accounts for roughly 40% of revenue.
Yet as Zuckerberg was quick to point out, the magic doesn't reside entirely in the numbers. "A billion isn't a magical number," he said. "No one wakes up and says, 'I want to get one-seventh of the world to do something.'" Instead, he attributed Facebook's continued success to the same mission-driven attitude that took the company from a dorm room to the Nasdaq: "We've focused on doing what we think are the right things. And we're growing, we're connecting more folks, people are engaging more and sharing more content -- all the stuff that we come in and get excited about every day."
What still needs work
At Yahoo!: Market capitalization aside, Yahoo!'s 2012 revenue rose less than 1% year over year. "All growth starts somewhere," Mayer half-joked, but underneath her smile, her message was clear: Stasis is unacceptable.
Professing a love for both "hard work" and "big challenges," Mayer evinced a refreshingly no-frills understanding of how her company makes money (by collecting advertising revenue based off its traffic figures) and what it needs to do to make more of it (generate more traffic). To do that, she's focusing the company on "people's daily habits" -- whether that's checking your email, looking up stock quotes, or poking around on fantasy football discussion boards, Mayer wants you to use her products multiple times, every day.
That road is an uphill battle, but it's not as steep as you might think. When Mayer asked the audience members whether they had used a Yahoo! product in the past week, more than half of the decidedly young crowd raised its hand. These inroads, and Mayer's strategic clarity in mobile, make it increasingly plausible that Yahoo!'s 1% annual growth will soon become a thing of the past.
And if Mayer's efforts don't bear fruit? Shareholders can at least be assured that she will have given it her all. As she stated bluntly: "My ultimate goal is to get the company growing again."
At Facebook: With business firing on all cylinders, Zuckerberg's biggest problem doesn't have very much to do with the one-seventh of the world that's already using Facebook. In fact, it doesn't even have much to do with people who use the Internet.
Sidestepping praise for having already connected more than 1 billion people worldwide, Zuckerberg said he now wants to connect "the next 5 billion people." That will be difficult, he said, "because a lot of them don't have Internet." He lamented that global Internet penetration has been growing only 10% a year and said that his team will "take on a lot of harder problems" that are centered more on the Internet's growth in general and less on Facebook's growth in particular. Through his work with Internet.org, an initiative for Third World connectivity that he's spearheading with other industry leaders, Zuckerberg is making no bones about extending his plans well beyond monetizing his existing user base.
If that sounds like too much philanthropy and not enough shareholder value creation, fear not. For Facebook, this brand of charity should pay in spades. By leading the charge to wire up the roughly two-thirds of the world that's unconnected, Zuckerberg is ensuring that Facebook will play a role in that transition that is both prominent and profitable.
Some critics have even said that Zuckerberg's projects seem like monopolistic ambition masquerading as humanitarianism. That may be so. But if the Facebook CEO achieves his goal of affordable, ubiquitous connectivity, it would dramatically increase access to information and boost the standard of living for billions of people around the world -- not to mention rewarding shareholders.
Plus, as far as Zuckerberg is concerned, it would go a long way toward scratching one of mankind's biggest itches. "Everyone wants to be connected," he said. "It's a very fundamental thing."
What comes next
The way Mayer tells it, Yahoo! will achieve big success by making good choices on the smallest of scales: at the individual level. She envisions a future in which Yahoo! returns to its former glory because it is offering "the right content" matched with "the right advertising" spread out across a suite of products that has habit-building appeal to just about everyone.
As for Zuckerberg, his plans for Facebook may be simpler by design, but their scope is vast. "We are on this Earth to connect everyone," he said with utter sincerity. "We will do this."
Only time will tell whether those strategies succeed for Mayer and Zuckerberg. But with both leaders finally hitting their stride as stewards of a public company -- and with both enjoying their first sustained taste of the stock market's reward for a job well done -- it seems that betting on these two chief executives is a very Foolish move indeed.
Like what you see?
Conferences like this come with four-figure price tags...but for less than it costs to buy a cup of coffee every day, Rule Breakers members benefit from exclusive industry coverage year round. To receive this caliber of on-the-ground insight -- plus two market-crushing recommendations every 30 days -- you can sign up for Rule Breakers by clicking here.
Lyons George owns shares of Facebook. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook and Yahoo! and owns shares of Facebook. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.