Thursday, June 16, 2016

How Yahoo Derailed Tumblr

Marissa Mayer was running late. This time, it wasn’t for a dinner with skeptical advertisers nor a conference call with her inner circle of Yahoo executives. She was late for a rare meeting with much of the team at Tumblr, nearly two years after acquiring the startup for $1.1 billion.

The biggest acquisition of Mayer’s tenure as Yahoo CEO, Tumblr was supposed to revive Yahoo by broadening its audience and bolstering its long declining advertising business. In a Tumblr post announcing the deal (complete with a flashing GIF urging people to “keep calm”), Mayer famously promised “not to screw it up” for users. She tried to make good on that pledge by staying mostly hands off for the first year. By early 2015, however, Tumblr was at risk of being dragged down by Mayer and Yahoo.

That January, Mayer broke the clear barrier between the companies by merging Tumblr’s ad sales team with Yahoo’s and putting them under a new executive who insiders say had little experience with Tumblr and even less rapport with its core employees. Soon after, Tumblr’s ad sales department was on the verge of a mass exodus.

The sales turmoil came at the worst possible time. Tumblr was fighting to hit a $100 million sales goal set very publicly by Mayer -- a lofty target that surprised members of the media almost as much as it surprised employees at Tumblr. "WTF is that based on?" an employee remembers thinking when it became public. “That was Marissa just picking a number,” says a former Yahoo executive. (Yahoo declined to comment about revenue matters on the record, but a source close to the company disputed this claim.)

The pressure and frustration bled into other departments leading up to Mayer's big meeting with the team, via video conference. One Yahoo source played it off as a routine meet-and-greet to kick off the new year. Numerous Tumblr employees characterized it as a much-needed pep talk from the distant executive shaking up their company. “The troops were restless,” says one former Tumblr employee who was in attendance that day.

David Karp, the 20-something wunderkind who founded Tumblr and got rich selling it to Mayer, sat waiting for his boss to appear on a big screen behind him for a Q&A. Karp, smart and eternally optimistic, but with little experience to prepare him for working at a large corporation, looked “out of his element,” according to another employee there. On a different screen, Karp pulled up a video of a yule log to accompany the “fireside chat.”

When Mayer showed up 20-30 minutes late, Karp and the audience listened as she talked about her time at Google, the thinking behind the ad sales transition and her intention to help Tumblr grow. Concerns went mostly unaired. One engineer made a GIF of Karp fiddling with his phone while Mayer talked on the screen overhead. He was Photoshopped to be eating while she talked.

“It really fell pretty flat,” one employee said of Mayer’s appearance. “It was too little, too late and off base,” says another.

Trouble dot Tumblr dot com

Tumblr launched in 2007 to make it easier for people to write, share and discover blogs about anything. Literally anything. You want to post pictures of hungover owls, or judge people for taking selfies at funerals, or get all existential looking at Garfield comics without Garfield present? Knock yourself out.

Tumblr built strong communities, launched Internet memes, led to countless book deals and helped shape the culture, online and offline. It remains an incredibly vibrant network with hundreds of millions of accounts spanning the full breadth of human interests, from powerful cultural commentary on women in Hollywood to raw teen shoplifting stories to discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement.

There was also that thing about the color of The Dress.

But the team behind Tumblr was derailed for a year by mass staff departures, internal politics with its parent company, Mayer's questionable executive appointments and a flawed attempt to integrate Tumblr's ad sales team with Yahoo’s, according to interviews with a dozen current and former employees from Tumblr and Yahoo as well as conversations with media buyers, analysts and peers in the industry, many of whom requested anonymity citing sensitive personal relationships with the company.

Some on the Yahoo side argue Mayer gave Tumblr and Karp too much freedom for too long after the acquisition considering the social network’s poor track record making money, and then ultimately put the wrong people in charge of the team and pushed too hard. Those on the Tumblr side, unsurprisingly, mostly agree on the latter points.

Top Yahoo executives clashed with Tumblr, or just flat out confused employees. On one occasion, an executive overseeing Karp and his division perplexed employees by saying he thought Tumblr had the potential to "create the next generation PDF," according to multiple sources. At other times, a top Yahoo sales exec spoke down to Tumblr’s advertising team and pushed aside a beloved leader, according to multiple employees. Tumblr staffers fled by the dozens, cutting into the company’s momentum and morale.

Yahoo tried to make things right a year later by separating the ad teams again, but the damage was done.

by Seth Fiegerman, Mashable | Read more:
Image: Christopher Mineses