David Karp's Multimillion Dollar Plans for Tumblr
Image: Walter Smith
avid Karp is in the midst of a rite of passage that seems universal for the young tycoons of the internet’s social era: He’s buying himself a proper swank pad. Karp’s choice says a lot about him—and Tumblr, the blogging platform he founded nearly six years ago. The 1,700-square-foot, $1.6 million loft is quite modest for a 26-year-old whose net worth, on paper, exceeds $200 million. That’s in part because it’s located in the world’s hipster capital, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where irony trumps showiness—he’s quite possibly the richest person in the neighbourhood. But the most telling feature is on the inside, which contains… virtually nothing. A spartan bedroom with a half-empty closet. A living room area with nothing but a sofa and a TV. (One concession to opulence: A restaurant-grade kitchen for his girlfriend, Rachel Eakley, a trained chef.) “I don’t have any books. I don’t have many clothes,” Karp shrugs. “I’m always so surprised when people fill their homes up with stuff.”
“He owns, like, three items,” confirms Marco Arment, Karp’s first and, for a long time, only employee at Tumblr.
For Tumblr’s CEO, minimalism isn’t just an aesthetic choice. It’s the key to freedom. When he travels he avoids making plans more than a few days in advance, even on his trips to Japan, and packs only the sveltest of carry-ons. “It’s my Jason Bourne or James Bond fantasy, wanting to be perfectly mobile,” he says. One of Tumblr’s directors, Roelof Botha of the Silicon Valley venture firm Sequoia Capital, recalls showing up at a board meeting in New York toting only “the tiniest of duffel bags” for his trip. “David took one look at me and said, ‘You really brought all that stuff?’”
Karp’s intolerance for the inessential imbues Tumblr. Where others looked at the twin revolutions of blogging and social networking and saw new tools for communication, Karp saw possibilities for making them radically easier and more intuitive. Tumblr lowered the bar to creating a beautiful, dynamic website and raised the payoff in the form of positive social reinforcement.
If Facebook is where you check in with your real-life friends and Twitter is how you keep up with current events, the Tumblr experience can be boiled down to people expressing themselves publicly. Like those other two networks, Tumblr is organised in the form of streams of posts. But it’s far more sensory and emotive, a swirl of photographs, songs, inside jokes, animated cartoons and virtual warm fuzzies. On the main Tumblr feed compiled by its editors, a photo journalist’s visual diary of Afghanistan might be followed by a cartoonist’s impressionistic drawings of Darth Vader, which give way to a gallery of hamsters that look like President Obama.
Users make sense of the chaos with the aid of a dashboard, the interface for finding and following other users and keeping track of the feedback their posts receive. Hearts are good; ‘reblogs’ are better, suggesting another user liked your post enough to share it with his or her followers. The tools for creating these multimedia posts are simple: Seven buttons that let you add text, photos, hyperlinks, video, music, dialogues or quotes with a click.
The result: Classic hockey-stick growth that’s getting steeper by the month. In November it shouldered its way into the top 10 online destinations, edging out Microsoft’s Bing and drawing nearly 170 million visitors to its galaxy of user-created pages, according to the measurement firm Quantcast. Tumblr’s tens of millions of registered users create 120,000 new blogs every day, for a total of 86 million and counting, which drive some 18 billion page views per month. Its latest funding round, in September 2011, valued Tumblr at $800 million, making Karp’s 25 percent-plus stake worth more than $200 million. Then its traffic doubled.
An impressive start. But this is Tumblr’s make-or-break year, where it needs to prove three things: That it can continue the growth. That it can actually make money. And that David Karp, the creative genius and quintessential minimalist, is the right guy to lead Tumblr to glory. “The road is littered with dead companies that made the wrong move at the wrong time, the MySpaces of the world,” says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “They’ve got to be really careful.”
Karp has momentum. When Hurricane Sandy flooded massive data centres in New York, knocking the Huffington Post, Gawker and BuzzFeed offline, all three gravitated to Tumblr as their temporary publishing platform. Hollywood has taken note, with no fewer than three new TV series in development spawned by Tumblr sensations that went viral. And this: When Oxford Dictionaries USA designated ‘GIF’ its word of the year for 2012, it credited Tumblr with pushing the term, a technical name for a type of compressed image file, into the mainstream. “The growth we’ve seen in the last year just totally overshadows everything that came before it,” says Karp. “To be honest, it’s a place I never thought we’d be.”