Yahoo! and Tumblr: owning up to your dragons

There's a dragon lurking in the Yahoo! Tumblr deal - Yahoo! has a lousy record with acquisitions. But this time, there's something different in the approach…

When the news that Yahoo! is buying Tumblr started circling yesterday, those of us of a certain vintage started wincing. If you were part of the Web 2.0 or social web scene back in the mid-2000s, Yahoo! was the company that bought our favourite sites – Flickr, Delicious – and slowly let them decline into irrelevance. We’ve been burnt by the Yahoo! dragon, and aren’t keen to be caught again.

Something happened today that I suspect none of us expected. When the official announcement was made, Yahoo!’s new CEO Marissa Mayer acknowledge the existence of this dragon. And she acknowledged it up front:

I’m delighted to announce that we’ve reached an agreement to acquire Tumblr!

We promise not to screw it up. Tumblr is incredibly special and has a great thing going. We will operate Tumblr independently. David Karp will remain CEO. The product roadmap, their team, their wit and irreverence will all remain the same as will their mission to empower creators to make their best work and get it in front of the audience they deserve. Yahoo! will help Tumblr get even better, faster.

That’s right. The very second thing she said was:

We promise not to screw it up.

That’s quite astonishing. Companies so rarely acknowledge their past mistakes in this way. And there’s a subliminal second part to this. Yahoo! was somewhat infamous for dragging its acquisitions down by making them rewrite themselves to match the company’s technology base. Instead, right now, Yahoo! seems to be remoulding itself to match Tumblr. The main Yahoo! blog has moved to Tumblr already. It’ll be interesting to see if Mayer’s blog continues beyond that and the follow-up which plays on a theme we’ve covered here before.

Reaction hasn’t been entirely positive. Matt Mullenweg of Tumblr competitor Automattic mourns the lost future of Tumblr as an independent entity:

News like this, whether from a friend or a competitor, is always bittersweet: I’m curious to see what the creative folks behind Tumblr do with their new resources, both personal and corporate, but I’m more interested to know what they would have done over the next 5-10 years as an independent company.

He also made reference to an uptick in imports to from Tumblr, but has updated his post to clarify that he doesn’t expect a mass exodus.

Many commentators have spotted advantages. Felix Salmon for Reuters:

Second, there’s the ability to use Tumblr’s data to help optimize the rest of Yahoo’s pages. If I’m logged in to Tumblr, as I normally am, then when I go to Yahoo, I should see the kind of material that Tumblr knows I’m interested in, rather than some one-size-fits-all generic home page.

Good point. Tumblr is one big engine for determining what people are interested in…

Om Malik highlights the impact on the New York start-up community:

A Silicon Alley insider who wished to remain anonymous put it best when he described this deal as sign that finally in New York people who build things are getting rich versus people (Wall Street) who take things. A bit hyperbolic, but the point is well made. I think this exit allows the young New York startup community to look up to David Karp in the same way folks here look up to Kevin Systrom of Instagram.

As ever, time will tell. Management changes in big companies often lead to radical change soon direction, and promised made at the time of acquisition don’t always hold. But at this point, even some of crusty old veterans of the mid-2000s are feeling a little optimistic.