Saroff's Place

Welcome! I am John Saroff and this is my place.

On Yahoo & Tumblr: “We have vision, delusion and hallucination and I want to know which one this is.”

“We have vision, delusion and hallucination and I want to know which one this is.”  - quote anonymously attributed to Yahoo COO Henrique de Castro while an exec at Google.

Looks like Yahoo may buy Tumblr for the sticker-shock price of $1.1 Billion.

Wow. Since Yahoo CFO Ken Goldman spoke about the need for Yahoo to be “cool” again at a JP Morgan conference earlier this week, it’s tempting to look at this through the gossipy lens of Silicon Valley meeting Silicon Alley.  

Shareholders are invested in Yahoo for returns, not for cool.  Yahoo employees have a big chunk of their net worth tied to their stock.  It may be sexy for Yahoo to buy Tumblr but will it have a positive return?  I believe the answer is no and that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, HDC and Goldman should slowly but surely walk away from the deal.

The power of math and corporate finance can build a good investment case for Yahoo/Tumblr.  Yahoo is a $28B media business with cash to spend ($3B on its balance sheet) and a substantial focus on display advertising.  Tumblr represents a ton of page views ripe for display monetization.  It’s a bulk play - Tumblr adds mass.

The opportunity cost of a $1.1B Tumblr purchase is $108mm/year.  ($1.1B multiplied by Yahoo’s 9.8% WACC).  Basic corporate finance asks if Yahoo is better off buying Tumblr or deploying that cash in some other way? 

According to Quantcast, Tumblr gets about 60B US page views/year.  If we assume no growth and no international, those pageviews will spin off $108mm/year if a net $1.79 RPM (revenue per thousand pageviews) is achieved.

There are data points that can make that $1.79 hurdle rate much lower and strongly favor the acquisition.  I imagine the Yahoo board will see some version of these tomorrow night: 

*Ad networks can fill display units at $1.79 and there are some hilarious, useful and beautiful tumblrs for which direct sold brand advertisers will pay 10x the remnant rate.

*International doubles Tumblr’s size. The international page views reduce the RPM hurdle rate to $.89.

*The WACC of 9.8% feels high.  If we instead use the risk free rate of 4.5%, then the US-only RPM hurdle rate drops to $.81, the international-included RPM hurdle rate drops to $.41.

*HDC is a smart and experienced display advertising executive who knows how to turn pages into dollars. (N.B. - I worked in HDC’s org at Google for many years and although he draws media attention for his unintentional comedy and his pay package - his skills as an executive are undeniable and underestimated.)

*Tumblr is likely to keep growing.  It is the blogging platform of choice for the immediate future and the more monetizable pages its bloggers create, the lower the RPM hurdle rate.  

—  

You can use the math to get the hurdle rate low enough to make the acquisition seem like a no-brainer, but I believe that there are many strategic challenges unique to Tumblr that make this acquisition a risky one.  If I were Yahoo, I would not buy Tumblr for $1.1B. 

*Tumblr CEO David Karp is correct in his resistance to the use of traditional display on Tumblr.  Karp will have a new boss on Tuesday morning, but it appears as though he will remain in charge at Tumblr.  As the product visionary behind Tumblr, Karp has been very public about his resistance to display ads on the platform.  I agree with him.  One of the reasons that I love Tumblr both as a blogger and a reader is about how it feels.  I can post a lobster roll, my godson and wistful thoughts on my career and they all “work” on my tumblr.  Traditional display disrupts that aesthetic.  Tumblr isn’t built for display and I’m not sure if the product can be changed to accommodate display and still maintain its Tumblr-ness.

*If traditional display is not used on Tumblr, then new forms of native advertising have to grow at incredibly rapid rates.  That’s hard.  Karp sees Tumblr as having great potential for new forms of advertising such as Tumblr sponsorship programs like Tumblr Radar and Tumblr Spotlight.  These “native” advertising formats are beautiful and fit with Tumblr, but it is unclear how much demand is out there for them.  Selling these kinds of units earned Tumblr $13mm of revenue in 2012.  Generating $108mm/year of net revenue with special native advertising units (both existing and to be developed) is a different and more difficult challenge than just making Tumblr a shelfspace for display. 

*Tumblr doesn’t own many of its page views, the bloggers do.  Tumblr is a blogging platform and a content management system first, a destination site second.  For Yahoo to place ads on tumblr.com is easy, for it to place them on johnsaroff.com is hard.  To facilitate advertising on johnsaroff.com Yahoo will need to get my permission, put an ad unit on my page, cut me in on a rev share and then convince an advertiser that johnsaroff.com is worth something.  It’s a challenge similar to what YouTube has done with user-uploaded videos over the past several years to great effect.  But, it requires product vision, engineering talent, business development work and account management skills that took Google/YouTube years to grow with many fits and starts.  These skills may not be in either the Yahoo or Tumblr organizations right now and will likely take time to develop.  

*Many tumblrs are unhospitable to advertising.  I’ll leave it to Sam Biddle over at Valleywag to talk about how many of Tumblr’s pageviews are not appropriate for ads.

*It is unclear if Tumblr has a sustainable competitive advantage.  Channeling the lessons of my strategic management of media professor Bruce Greenwald and his books on competition and media, none of this makes sense if Tumblr doesn’t have a sustainable competitive advantage and barriers for new entrants to enter its market.  Just because Tumblr is wonderful and the preeminent blogging platform today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow.  Over the course of the last ten years Blogger and Wordpress have held the position that Tumblr holds now.  I believe that the space in which Tumblr operates has very low barriers to entry, making Tumblr very susceptible to new entrants.  This makes the growth rate very hard to predict with any degree of certainty.

This is a tough call.  Assuming the deal goes through, only the future will show whether the rationale and the projections that back it up are vision, delusion or hallucination.  Like most things, the math behind the rationale and the projections will probably end up somewhere in the middle.

To me, the strategic concerns overwhelm the math.  Team Yahoo can make this acquisition easily, but it makes the next one harder, from all of a cash, investor and culture perspective.  Instead of Tumblr, I propose that Yahoo focus its cash not on bulk of pageviews, but on acquisitions and R&D that erect barriers to entry (Buffett’s famous moat) around its already robust display business.  Those likely take the form of deep investments in the product and engineering corps and strategic acquisitions of adtech businesses.  Those maneuvers will be less sexy, but they have the potential to reinvigorate Yahoo for the next twenty years.  It is hard to see how, with all of the strategic risks inherent in the deal, acquiring Tumblr builds the moat for Yahoo that I believe it needs.

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    I have been watching this deal with something close to trepidation. Just can’t shake off the feeling that this is a bad...
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  17. seldo reblogged this from saroff-nyc and added:
    Saroff writes persuasively about why the Tumblr acquisition is not a good move for Yahoo, but I disagree: The growth of...
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