Yahoo takes $1.1 billion chance on Tumblr

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Posted: Monday, May 20, 2013 12:00 am

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Yahoo is buying online blogging forum Tumblr for $1.1 billion as CEO Marissa Mayer tries to rejuvenate an Internet icon that had fallen behind the times.

The deal announced Monday is Mayer's boldest move since she left Google 10 months ago to lead Yahoo's latest comeback attempt. It marks Yahoo's most expensive acquisition since the Sunnyvale, Calif., company bought online search engine Overture a decade ago for $1.3 billion in cash and stock.

Yahoo is paying mostly cash for Tumblr, dipping into what remains of a $7.6 billion windfall reaped last year from selling about half of its stake in Chinese Internet company Alibaba Holdings Group. Taking over Tumblr will devour about one-fifth of the $5.4 billion in cash that Yahoo had in its accounts at the end of March.

While hailing Tumblr as a fount of creativity that attracts 300 million visitors each month, Mayer told analysts Monday that she is “making a sincere promise to not screw it up.” David Karp, a high school dropout who started Tumblr six years ago, will remain in control of the service in an effort to retain the same “irreverence, wit and commitment to empower creators,” Yahoo said.

Karp, 26, may now have a managerial mentor in Mayer, 37. Tumblr, which will remain based in New York, has about 175 employees while Yahoo has 11,300 workers.

The deal is expected to close during the second half of this year.

Tumblr will play a pivotal role in Mayer's attempt to reshape Yahoo. To take on the challenge, Mayer ended a highly successful 13-year career at Google, which she helped surpass Yahoo as the Internet's most influential company. Since coming to Yahoo, Mayer has concentrated on improving morale, redesigning services and bringing in more engineering talent through small acquisitions that have collectively cost less than $50 million.

Yahoo will still focus on mostly small deals, Mayer said. She seized the opportunity to buy Tumblr because she believes the service can accelerate her efforts to turn around Yahoo.

“Tumblr is a game changer,” Mayer assured analysts.

As popular as Tumblr has become, the service remains unprofitable. That is likely to raise questions about whether Yahoo paid too much in Mayer's zeal to gain control over a hot service. Facebook Inc. faced similar doubts last year when it bought Instagram, a rapidly growing photo sharing site that also hadn't been trying to make money. Facebook still hasn't proven it will be able to make money off of Instagram.

Mayer's efforts at Yahoo have been well-received on Wall Street so far, although most of the 69 percent surge in Yahoo's stock price under Mayer's leadership has been driven by the rising value of Yahoo's remaining 24 percent in Alibaba.

If this deal pays off the way Mayer envisions, Tumblr could help Yahoo finally get its stock price to $33. That would be a major coup because many investors soured on Yahoo after a previous regime led by co-founder Jerry Yang squandered an opportunity five years ago to sell the entire company to Microsoft for $33 per share. The stock spent more than four years trading below $20 before the recent surge. The shares gained 22 cents to $26.74 in Monday's morning trading.

The deal could backfire if Yahoo's effort to make more money alienate a Tumblr user base that so far has been subjected to hardly any advertising during the service's six-year history.

“Yahoo has to manage this acquisition in a way that keeps Tumblr's user base while trying to add advertising, which historically tends to turn off a lot of people,” said Forrester Research analyst Zachary Reiss-Davis.

Mayer said Yahoo will work with Tumblr to create ads that “are tasteful and seamless.” The company expects Tumblr to increase Yahoo revenue next year.

Mayer is betting that Tumblr will provide Yahoo with a captivating hook to reel in more traffic and advertisers on smartphones and tablet computers. That market is expected to become more important during the next decade as people increasingly consume content on mobile devices.

More than half of Tumblr's users connect through the mobile app, and engage in an average of seven sessions per day.

“I would characterize Tumblr as being ahead of Yahoo in terms of its work on mobile,” Mayer said.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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