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For Yahoo, Tumblr’s startup culture is a bargain at $1.1-billion

New besties: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Tumblr Chief Executive David Karp (look, he’s even wearing a hoodie!)

Frank Franklin II/AP

A few weeks ago, when VMware announced its Pivotal Initiative, my eyes were distracted by a deliberate display of eye candy.

Well behind the executives with their PowerPoints stood a line of desks, extending into the middle distance. Behind the desks were programmers, pounding on keyboards, going back and forth to the water cooler, or standing to talk with one another.

It was an illustration of cloud development. The unspoken message was that Pivotal would be developed using a bunch of young programmers, working tightly together, at all hours, and in close collaboration.

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In the era of cloud this has become the paradigm. Forget the offices, forget the cubicles. We sit together around a digital campfire and we code together. Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie so he can get into the mayhem and code like a team member.

Google works this way. Facebook works this way. Yahoo! doesn't work this way. (Cloud development is not a telecommuting lifestyle.)

But CEO Marissa Mayer knows Yahoo! must work this way if it's to compete with the Facebooks, with the Googles, and with all the start-ups born of the cloud era. This intense team style of programming is necessary to make big ideas come to life, and projects scale instantly.

But Yahoo!, as a media company, had no orchestra. Media companies have chains of command and scheduled meetings. Even if there's a "bullpen" at the centre of the office, there are still offices, where men and women in nice clothes plot strategy and stare meaningfully at the surrounding skyline.

Which brings us to Tumblr.

Tumblr was born in the Facebook era of cloud development. Tumblr has a talented staff of young programmers who know how to work together, in close collaboration.

Tumblr has something else Mayer needs, offices at the top of a nondescript New York office building on 21st Street, between Madison Square and Union Square. It's close to big advertising, media and financial offices and is a quick subway ride away for programmers who commute from Brooklyn or Queens.

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Mayer now has a team that works the way she wants to work, the way she knows Yahoo! has to work. And she can demonstrate that work style to the men and women who will decide whether Yahoo!'s media ambitions, and its advertising ambitions, have traction.

As Tumblr becomes Yahoo! East, Mayer can turn her head toward Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce supermarket that still needs a U.S. home, with renewed confidence. Yahoo! still owns 20 per cent of Alibaba. If the Tumblr style can get into the marrow of Yahoo programmers, Mayer may be able to build the bridge to crack the retail market on Chinese goods wide open.

I know. "Having just the vision's no solution, Everything depends on execution." (Stephen Sondheim, a New Yorker.) But, with Tumblr, no other tech company has as many of the moving parts needed to build an immense cloud-based product-and-services ecosystem as Yahoo!. Google lacks the product connection, Facebook lacks the New York base, and Amazon.com lacks the sizzle that comes from having both the Valley and the City, under one virtual roof.

I don't think Tumblr was worth $1.1-billion to anyone else. I think, in the end, Mayer knew she was bidding against herself, and was swooping in with a blow-them-away offer. She has to keep that Tumblr team together, and that Tumblr style, which will be tough once the money comes raining down on people who have never seen it before.

She's depending on her own skills, as a development manager, as an executive, and (yes) as a celebrity to make it happen. It's a huge risk. But that's what good business stories are made of.

At the time of publication, the author was long GOOG and YHOO.

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