The Rough and Tumblr World of David Karp
David Karp isn't your usual teenager. In an industry known for college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, he stands out -- not only because he dropped out of high school at 15 and founded Tumblr at 21, but also for his hard work, intense curiosity and unorthodox business style. Tumblr lets you post photos, videos and other content on a short-form blog. It's easy to use and customize, and you can follow blogs without having to add "friends." In a short time, Tumblr has become one of the most popular services on the Web.
Some would be tempted to compare Karp with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, another wunderkind social-media creator, but he has his own strategy to keep Tumblr growing, and plans to avoid some of the pitfalls Zuckerberg hit along the way. But at the end of the day, Karp and Tumblr may have what it takes to match Facebook and Zuckerberg, or perhaps surpass it as a leading social media platform.
A Different Kind of Kid
Karp wasn't like a lot of kids. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as the oldest son of Michael Karp, a film and television composer, and Barbara Ackerman, a science teacher at the prestigious Calhoun School, where he also attended. The Calhoun School bills itself as an independent, comprehensive prep school.
Kids grow up on computers, but not many master HTML and design websites for businesses. At the tender age of 11, he taught himself to write code, and at 14, he interned for animation producer Fred Seibert, founder of Frederator Studios, creators of Nickelodeon cartoons such as The Fairly OddParents, Fanboy & Chum Chum, and Adventure Time.
He attended junior high for about a year, before dropping out to work on side projects, all while being home schooled. At 16, UrbanBaby hired him to do solve technical issues, expected to take several days. He completed it in four hours, and UrbanBaby owner John Maloney hired him as the head of product, giving him a small amount of equity as well.
UrbanBaby was a great training ground, but he wanted more -- and got his opportunity when CNET bought out the site in 2006. He used money from his shares and started a software consultancy company, called "Davidville." He hired engineer Marco Arment through a Craigslist advertisement, and the pair began work on their own platform during a two-week gap between contracts. In 2007, at 21, he launched Tumblr, the blogging platform that, at last report, had more than 87 million users. Those numbers continue to grow as people -- tiring of Facebook and its influx of parents -- launch their own blogs.
Not Your Usual Entrepreneur
Just six years after launching Tumblr, Karp's has a net worth of about $200 million. Now at just 26, Karp credits his business methods, which raised the eyebrows of more-seasoned executives, for much of his success. For example, he said he doesn't believe in scheduling meetings or keeping a calendar, because he thinks appointments are "caustic to creativity."
"It's so frustrating when you're in the middle of a great conversation or work groove, and you realize, "Oh, I've got an appointment. I've got to bolt," he said. "I prefer the "let's just call each other when we need something or want to hang out" approach. That way, I never have to cancel on people, which is always a bummer."
Also, he tries not to check e-mails until he gets to work, because reading it at home never feels productive -- if something is urgent, he'll get a text or phone call. He also doesn't respond to many e-mails.
"I've found that if you're not responsive to e-mail, it trains people to leave you alone," he said.
He also describes himself as a compulsive note taker, because he says he has a bad memory. He always writes with the same kind of pen, a Pilot Precise V7, which won't smudge. In addition to to-do lists, he uses his notebooks to sketch out Tumblr ideas. His meeting style is different too. On Mondays, his team meets not around conference tables, but in a room designed to be cozy, including a couch and chairs. The office is an open loft, and he works alongside his employees using two monitors -- one for writing code and one that keeps Tumblr open all the time. He doesn't follow many Tumblr users, but he does post and reblog items from his own blog often. He doesn't code all day anymore, either.
"That changed when we hired engineers who were a lot smarter than me," he said. "Occasionally, I'll sit in on their meetings to get a sense of what's going on and see if I can help with anything. I'm really good at asking questions."
Until recently, he lived just minutes away from his Manhattan office, and zipped around on a Vespa, which he said was "a lot cheaper than cabs for getting around the city." He and his girlfriend are renovating a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, so his commute will be a bit further -- but he's keeping his offices in New York City, instead of heading west like so many other technology visionaries.
What Makes Tumblr Different
Karp believes in keeping his site simple. The site rolls out changes at 11 a.m., between bug fixes or a new language file. New features are launched in secret at first so they can be tested, so he and his team watch to see how many people use it.
Unlike Facebook, Tumblr has fewer features, which "lets us focus on the ones we care about and make sure they work very well." And, for every new feature Tumblr adds, it takes an old feature out. Most sites don't do that, he said, emphasizing that his goal is to keep Tumblr focused. It's a more personalized way of using social media, and proving to be one that younger users -- who post and follow a lot of content -- tend to enjoy. On Facebook, if you post too many links, you're blocked or ignored by friends. But on Tumblr, the more you post, the better -- because your content won't interfere with any walls.
Facebook's membership has grown so large that privacy is a major concern, and users are fleeing to Tumblr, where they can make their blogs private and customize their sites. In addition, Facebook has become so ubiquitous, it's become a place where parents often pop up, keep track of their kids and comment publicly on their posts. More than half of Tumblr users are under the age of 25, an attraction in itself. Tumblr is also attracting many high-profile users. President Barack Obama has his own Tumblr blog, as do Lady Gaga and Zooey Deschanel.
What About Facebook?
Some analysts think Facebook may buy out Tumblr, in the same way it absorbed Instagram for $736 million. According to Quantcast, Tumblr receives 215 billion page views a month. It's ranked as the No. 14 most-visited site in the U.S., and while Facebook still dominates from third place, Tumblr hosts 80 million blogs and receives tens of millions of new posts every day. Meanwhile, Facebook's traffic is leveling off -- most people who are going to use it are already on it. Further, Facebook has had real issues with going mobile on the site, a problem Tumblr isn't experiencing.
Tumblr also allows people to curate their favorite multimedia items, something that can get lost on Facebook with its interactive Timeline. Those blogs also lend themselves well to attracting advertisers because the posted items stay grouped and easily accessible, unlike on Facebook. Since Facebook has historically had trouble monetizing over the years, it may start losing advertisers to Tumblr's more personalized approach.
Even if Facebook buys out Tumblr, it won't be easy. Zuckerberg negotiated the Instagram deal before the Facebook went public -- and when the company's stock was still heading for record sales. Today, Facebook is hovering around 40 percent lower than the IPO price, so it's not as strong as it once was. In addition, there is Karp, who remains notoriously independent, with enough personal wealth and youth to still be a dreamer who would want to keep his site completely independent.
Taking the Next Step
Tumblr is on the rise, but despite its success faces a pivotal point in its viability as a long-term business. It will need to keep attracting an advertising base to help it meet its costs. Advertising on such visually-driven sites is usually a hard sale, and Karp, like many visionaries, doesn't like the idea of ads breaking up the design. The company, though, is earning money through ads that don't feel intrusive, such as sponsored blog posts, like what Facebook does, to keep the feed clean and efficient.
Karp, for all his strengths as a programmer, is still young and needs the help of a seasoned, tougher team to guide his business to the top, and reportedly has hired a head-hunting firm to help the him find a experienced chief operating officer. He said his company is spending time meeting great executives, and he'll fill out the team this year. When it happens, there's no telling how high Tumblr -- or its creator -- will climb. ♦
Categories: Movers & Shakers