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Tumblr visionary 'legend of generation'

| Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

NEW YORK — As a teenager, Tumblr CEO David Karp would canvass the streets of New York City's Upper West Side, offering to build websites for local businesses. After his freshman year of high school, the precocious, computer-savvy kid decided to drop out to devote more time to his passion for technology.

A few years later, Karp built Tumblr, the wildly popular blogging forum, from his tiny childhood bedroom, hunched over his laptop with bags of Tostitos. And on Saturday, the 26-year-old technology wunderkind returned home to inform his mother that, in a game-changing transaction, Yahoo was buying Tumblr for $1.1 billion.

“There were a few tears and lots of hugs, and a lot of excitement,” said his mother, Barbara Ackerman. “This is something that he built — it's his baby — and it's emotional.”

The deal was a transcendent moment for Karp, who started one of the world's busiest websites. It boasts 75 million daily posts and a user base that's loyal, young and hip. While Facebook has morphed into a mainstream social network where grandparents talk golf, Tumblr is that little corner of the Internet where the cool kids hang out.

True to the company's laid-back, jeans-and-sneakers culture, Karp's wry sense of humor remained intact on Monday morning, when employees were summoned to a meeting in Tumblr's New York headquarters. Cognizant of media reports that Tumblr was on the verge of a sale, everyone waited with bated breath as Karp kicked off the meeting with a tongue-in-cheek announcement: It was time to formulate a new “dog policy.”

“We have gone above and beyond with our dog policy,” he told them. “There is now one dog for every five people in the office at Tumblr at any given time. So we are needing to figure out a better bathroom situation.”

Today he's the “chief motivator, the guy jumping around every week to make sure the employees are excited about the product we are building and the direction we are headed in,” Karp said.

“He doesn't have a pretentious or egocentric bone in his body,” said Steve Nelson, the head of The Calhoun School, a private institution Karp attended until the eighth grade. “He doesn't take himself too seriously.”

Yahoo said Karp will remain in control of the service in an effort to retain the same “irreverence, wit and commitment to empower creators.”

Tumblr, which will remain based in New York, has a minuscule 175 employees, compared with Yahoo's 11,300.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer showered praise on her new hire, saying Karp possesses a rare combination of computer programming prowess and a sense of aesthetics.

“He will be one the legends of his generation in terms of an entrepreneur who has changed the way people express themselves,” Mayer said.

Advertising has been a missing ingredient because Tumblr, like many online services in their early stages, focused on building a loyal audience before turning its attention to making money. That's why the Yahoo deal is so pivotal for Karp and his small team.

For now, though, they're basking in the glow of joining forces with an Internet behemoth. As for Karp's mother, she was positively giddy at the prospect of meeting Mayer on Monday night. “I'll get to talk her ear off about how wonderful David is,” Ackerman said. “That's what moms do.”

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