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So What Do You Do, David Karp, Founder of Tumblr?

Popularity, not profit, is the name of the game for this Web platform prodigy

- August 27, 2008
When David Karp was 15, he dropped out of high school to be homeschooled on New York's Upper West Side. At 17, he moved to Tokyo to work for UrbanBaby, an online parenting advice site with highly trafficked message boards full of urban-dwelling moms and dads. And when he was 20, he founded Tumblr, a Web platform inspired by the tumblelog, a blog format which enables short-form, mixed-media posts. All of this without ever attending college -- as Karp says, he's just waiting on his honorary degree.

Karp wanted to share his life instantaneously, and without the time commitment required of other blogging platforms. More than that, he wanted others to experience the satisfyingly speedy genesis of tumblelog posts.

As one of New York's youngest tech darlings, Karp set up shop for his development consulting company, Davidville, on 29th & Park Avenue and then introduced Tumblr to the public in February 2007. If WordPress is for the OCD-est of bloggers, then Tumblr is for the ADD-est in the pack. No post is ever too short or too fast, and no tumblelog ever has too many entries. With 45,000-plus new users registered in May alone, Tumblr is seeing continual growth.

Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and just two weeks short of his 22nd birthday, Karp spoke with about Tumblr's success, its latest features, and why anyone concerned about their Google rankings needs a tumblelog.

Name: David Karp
Position: Founder, Tumblr
Resume: Computer support, to intern, to consultant, to product developer, to CTO of UrbanBaby, to Web developer
Birthday: July 6, 1986
Hometown: New York City
Education: Freshman year at Bronx Science High School
Marital status: Unmarried
First section of the Sunday Times: Not a regular reader
Favorite television shows: The Colbert Report
Guilty pleasure: New York City restaurants
Last book read: Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore

Where did the idea for Tumblr come from?
I always wanted, not necessarily a blog, but I really wanted an identity online. I think I've owned the domain name for five years now. I wanted something online to call "me." I wrote all these other great blogs, these personal blogs. Sometime around two and a half years ago, I'd shut down my third Blogger blog after trying Word Press and Type Pad and a whole bunch of other platforms. I couldn't keep it up. I also really found them discouraging for what I wanted to do. It was work. I found myself sitting down every night for 20 minutes summing up my day or whatever it was that I wanted to convey.

Sometime in 2005, I came across a tumblelog called Projectionist. It was actually, at the time, a blog that was tracking all of the tumblelogs on the Web. These tumblelogs were literally published tools to more easily do what people had been doing back in old Angelfire pages, which was putting up random bits of media and making it look a little bit like a blog. Projectionist solved the posting problems of WordPress with a brilliant aesthetic sense: You can put up bits of media but the theme or the "skin" will take care of the aesthetics, and the media will be in nice little enclosures. Video will come up in a nice frame, blurbs will come up in nice little bubbles, there will be the ability to make gorgeous typography quotes.

So the first thing that really caught my attention was the blog Projectionist. This was a very young movement -- it was one that [founding developer Marco Arment and I] realized no one was really developing on. We liked the idea that we could be the ones to link that, we could make the first tool that made that accessible to everyone, and could completely reinvent on the idea of a tumblelog.

I sat on the idea for a year and a half, and it was pretty clear no one was really doing anything with it. I was running a consulting company in 2006, and one month we had two weeks between contracts where we were just sitting around, and I said "Hey, let's go for it. Let's see if we can build this thing." It took [Marco and I] two weeks to build, and it became the first version of Tumblr. We launched it and showed it to the tumblelog community, and overnight we had like 30,000 registered users in this community who were following those things, who didn't have the know-how to create it themselves.

Tumblr is distinctly different from other blogging platforms. How did you achieve that?
The magic of Tumblr is we let you put anything in and get it out any way you want. We want you to be able to post anything. Tumblr takes care of formatting content nicely and making it look good on your blog.

When we say you can take the content out any way, you can take that blog anywhere you want because our API (application programming interface) is totally open to pull that content and put it anywhere on the Web. You can incorporate your content into any other site, make your own domain name and do anything with that data. We've created what is the most flexible platform for publishing in the world. You can put anything in and get anything out. We're doing a pretty good job of that.

How do you market Tumblr? How do you advertise it? How do you promote it?
We're taking advantage of the really incredible user base of Tumblr and hoping to focus on the people who are doing really amazing things with it, and to do everything we can to make that resonate with the people who are our users, and with [those] who are fans of what we're doing.

Why aren't you doing any PR, advertising or marketing?
Probably the same reasons most of the companies in our industry doesn't. There's no real attraction to it really, why would we do it?

Will that change at some point in the future, and under what circumstances?
It might. It's certainly possible. Again, it's the last thing we're actually talking about. If we thought for any reason it would make us a better company, then maybe, but promotion is the last thing we're thinking about here.

How aware are media people on the West Coast, i.e. Silicon Valley, of Tumblr? What is your understanding of the perception of it beyond its home base of NYC?
Our user base is just as strong on the West Coast as it is in on the East Coast. I don't know any media people on the West Coast. We're on Silicon Valley's radar, and we feel fortunate for that. There's a lot of tech stuff out there and the fact that we're on their radar at all is very exciting for us. But again, we don't really know anyone out there.

Describe the ideal situation for Tumblr, five years out: What will be its key features and how many users will you have registered? How many will be on staff?
In five years, I have absolutely no clue. Hopefully we'll have moved into the position of refining a core product. We'll be refining whatever that product is and have shifted our focus on entirely new functionally and uses that we'll be investing on top of. We'd love to shoot to become one of the top five Web sites. It's a great goal to shoot for. We want it to be a business and product that people care about and which does something special for them.

"I'm much more enchanted with the notion of something that's employing me in 15 years rather than something that we flip in a year."

How many people on staff: that's an interesting question. I really don't know. If this thing grows like we want it to, we'd hope to be bigger than the four-man team we are now. It's nice to think that this never gets to be a team of 100, but I don't like the idea of being the next huge tech corporation where it's all about where our talent is coming from and what schools we're scouting.

That is the direction a lot of companies go and where they stay. Google is so scattered and they're not focused. I think this is a rule for all large companies: You get to a point where you're not nimble and you're not focused. The people on the top are thinking about very different things, and people on the bottom and middle aren't in the right place in the company to get anything done or to keep a team or a project focused. I can't imagine being in that environment, where you just don't know anyone you're working with.

Do you aim to sell Tumblr?
I don't think we aim to sell anything. I'm much more enchanted with the notion of something that's employing me in 15 years rather than something that we flip in a year. And again, that's something that we don't think about. And that's certainly not our goal.

Why not?
We're not motivated by money. We are into this thing that we're building.

Who is Tumblr's competition?
The biggest reason we're not really thinking about competition is that our interest is in the next big thing we haven't come up with yet, not necessarily just different ways to do the same stuff that we've already doing.

It's [for] the same reasons why no one is really adopting the Twitter clones that are coming up. They're not really inventing anything new. They may have slightly better tools and they may fix up a few of the problems. But there are two ways to solve problems: One of them is implementing a feature, making it a setting, or something to just kind of quell users who are saying, "Man I wish I did this" versus inventing a completely new product that solves all of the old problems of all those makeshift tools, but serves users in a completely new way.

What can other media companies learn from Tumblr, or the approach to creating it?
A lot of what we've done isn't our invention. We try to emulate people doing the smartest stuff and follow their lead. Jason Fried had for a long time preached to have a very open communication channel with your users, talk about what you're doing, and don't be afraid to ignore some of the feedback coming in because the stuff that's really good or really, really important will always come to the top. That's something we've taken into account.

Also, we've tried to keep as cheap and lean an operation as possible, but that's not an original idea. That's something you should take seriously because it puts you in a much easier position in so many ways. Even if you can raise money, every time you raise money you lost three months pushing out paperwork and getting it to close. It's a real loss. It keeps our focus different.

What's really been important to us, I guess, is we didn't feel like this was a tech industry thing really. We cared about the community and told them why we're excited and that we're with them religiously, but we're just as excited about the other industries and what they are doing and how we can fit into them. In a lot of ways, we've been thinking about the media industry a lot -- we like thinking about the really neat things people can do with media. We talk to a lot of bloggers, Viacom and MTV and those folks -- what are they doing, and what could they be doing and what they are thinking about. Adding that extra dimension to what's just a Web tool, I think, is what makes it a much more meaningful development of focus.

Many online journalists and bloggers use Tumblr for their personal blogs. How would you explain the attraction for those who blog for a living, who finish their workday spent in front of a computer screen and, in large numbers, go and do the same for themselves via Tumblr?
That's the whole reason they weren't going for TypePad or WordPress: One reason is they're not supposed to be blogging while employed. They can't have anything that resembles a blog. They don't want to come home and keep writing. It's a passion, but in a lot of cases, it's work for them so what they wind up doing is they post to Tumblr and it's a very transparent thing -- you can have a tumblelog in addition to everything else you do, while you're doing research you can grab those links and share them transparently.

A lot of times people look at Tumblr as an auxiliary to long-form blogging, or it can be viewed that way, and I think it's how a lot of media people are using it. One really interesting characteristic of it is that it's much easier to maintain, and I think it's [a type of blogging that's] much easier to sustain. You're able to get [a tumblelog] up and running really quickly, much faster than I think a long-form blog where there's a lot more editorial consideration. You can just kind of turn the thing on.

Do you think of Tumblr as a microblog?
It's interesting, every time we use that phrase, our users go "No, it really isn't guys." It supports microblogging, and there is no other platform that supports small bits of every type of media like Tumblr does. But really, you're just as free to post any long-form stuff you want. I think the real trick is that it's the first real platform to alter that flexibility. We bill it as the easiest way to share yourself. It is a publishing tool, but because of the kind of simplicity and ease of publishing, it's been able to serve a much wider audience who's really just in it for the sharing, or that feeling of popularity of creating something online.

Do you feel blogs are contributing to the millennial narcissism?
For the first time, the millennial generation is growing up realizing and understanding that if you don't put yourself out there, the search results that come up next to your name are not necessarily going to be flattering. The only way to control that is to be out there, to flood the Web with stuff that you're comfortable with.

Now, when you search my name, you come across the thousands of posts I feel comfortable representing me. That's not the case for a lot of people, who got tagged in one embarrassing picture on Flickr, or all they have is their Facebook account, and things that they wouldn't want representing themselves to anyone.

I think that it's going to be necessary for our generation to be a little bit more, not necessarily narcissistic, but open to the public. I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing. I think at the end of the day we all crave that popularity, and this is a great, really fun way to have that identity and have that online as we're increasingly spending our time there.

How will users see Tumblr change in the coming months?
Basically, we're in a great place to start or to continue developing new functionality, keep reinventing, keep pushing ourselves and figuring out what else this platform can do. We're in such a good spot now, and we're far enough along with the community and we have a dedicated user base that we can start thinking about launching paid features, and start figuring out where Tumblr is going as a business.

What we're thinking about now is whether to position this as our Flickr model. If you're an active user, we basically want to find a way for you to pay for the thing. Or, maybe these pay-for-pro-tools are only for the top one to five percent of our users who can use them to build something so extraordinary. If you're using Tumblr as a publishing platform and building brands on top of it, then of course you're going to pay for this package because it just takes that advanced publishing functionality to the next level.

What are Tumblr's new features?
Enhanced design functions. Custom designs on Tumblr are already totally open right now, but are going to be a lot more powerful. Things you have to hack WordPress to do, you can do effortlessly on Tumblr.

[We're also building a] sustainable submission tool that basically opens up posting on Tumblr to any of your readers, so they can pick to post a link, submit a picture … whatever it is. If they're logged into Tumblr already, it catches all of their user info; if they're not a Tumblr user or have no idea what it is, it lets them optionally put in their name and site URL just like a comment without registering first.

We'd take care of all the in-between stuff: You can go through and edit [submitted comments], decline or approve them, and they go straight up to your Tumblr blog. We're also building this new queue system now that lets you push all of that extra content into a queue that staggers out throughout the day, depending on when people are looking [at your Tumblr blog].

The queue will calibrate when people are looking at the blog. The idea is, the day you wind up on something like Good Morning America, or on the Digg front page or there's some sort of directed traffic to your blog, [the queue] senses that and will accelerate those posts so your blog is especially sticky or especially active throughout the day. This is the sort of inventing on top of publishing in ways that no one is really doing right now. Right now, that pro stuff is very publisher-centric and that's just what we're trying to figure out.

Who are three Tumblr users you were excited/inspired to see using your platform, and why?
The stuff that I'm really giddy about are the big media companies who are companies who could build their own things because they're comfortably using their open source tool, but who see there's so much advantage to building on top of a centralized tool. They're comfortable knowing that they can own content and use [Tumblr] as a platform, and they're ready to build stuff on top of us. This is some outreach that we've started to focus on, convincing the big guys to treat us like the solution to their awful proprietary concepts. That's one thing I'm kind of excited about.

I'm following 200 people and Marco is following 300 people who are just awesome, awesome people who we found online who are sharing awesome stuff. There aren't any specific people who are really cool. We're excited to find people we like, and people are finding other people who they like, too. We're just hiring now some people who are going to be our liaisons for celebrity bloggers who are high-profile people we'd like to give attention to. We like the idea of encouraging people to use Tumblr and helping them to manage it.

Who are you hiring exactly?
We're trying to hire more people who are talent people who will help other people do other interesting things with Tumblrs. We'll help you get a designer, if you need an editor or just someone to help out, or if you need some ideas or if you need help coding Tumblr, then talk to this person [from Tumblr]. We will just have a repository of really talented people who get Tumblr and can help other people build their own brands.

Which users will these new hires being helping?
It can be a celebrity or it can be a writer we met, an artist we met who's doing the coolest stuff and not doing anything online, or we say, "Hey, you have to get off of Myspace," [because with Tumblr] we can help you form a more meaningful fan base. We think that having a free repository of people will really help that.

There's two of us [Karp and developer Marco Arment] focused on building the product day to day, and now we have a handful of people helping users to build their product. So now we have a core team to help build our product, to make sure that platform is as open as it can be, plus now everybody sees that we're helping those people build cool stuff with it. These awesome users will bring more eyeballs and more [of a] fan base to us -- that's some of our thinking.

How many registered users do you hope to have by 2009? How, specifically, do you intend to get there?
We've been aiming for a million users by the end of the year. Our real push has been building something that resonates with the mainstream. We want to make sure there's enough incentive for new people to be exploring this tool and playing with the stuff that we offer.

I think a big part of that is messaging to different types of users that we're a very powerful platform for everything they want to do. So in the case of bands, showing them that there's really interesting ways of using Tumblr that could be a lot more meaningful than what [they can] currently do on Myspace, or showing people who just use Flickr that there's a way to present your photos and all the other things in your life that you haven't been able to include because those tools are limited to photography.

We need to improve our messaging [because] we're doing a pretty poor job right now of explaining to our new users what about Tumblr is quite so magical. They kind of get it, but it's not until they get really into it that they see there's something kind of special going on. We're just starting to really understand that magic and seeing how it relates to the mainstream. Those are the connections we need to draw.

Sammy Davis is an assistant editor at Hearst Digital Media.

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