When the 21-year-old Internet entrepreneur David Karp was 17, he moved himself to Tokyo for five months—he prepaid the rent on his apartment because he was under 18—where he continued working as the chief technology officer of UrbanBaby, the New York-based message board and e-mail list for overprotective parents with a lot of disposable income and free time on their hands. He had been home-schooled since he was 15, after dropping out of Bronx Science, and had been taking Japanese classes at the Japan Society on 47th Street.
“At that point, I still hadn’t met the UrbanBaby guys,” he said a few weeks ago, sitting on a red couch in the office of his new company, Tumblr, at 29th and Park. Mr. Karp is tall and skinny, with unflinching blue eyes and a mop of brown hair. He was wearing a black ribbed sweater under a gray hooded sweatshirt, dark jeans and Adidas sneakers, and periodically fiddled with his iPhone. He speaks incredibly fast and in complete paragraphs. “UrbanBaby is calling me at 4 a.m. Tokyo time with tech questions. After three months, they finally caught on that I wasn’t in New York. Then they found out that I was 17.” (They didn’t care.)
Even in a world of Internet business precocity, Mr. Karp’s trajectory stands out. He started interning for the animation producer Fred Seibert when he was 14 (Tumblr currently sublets office space from Mr. Seibert, who runs an online animation company called Frederator Studios); soon, an employee of Mr. Seibert’s put him in touch with the owners of UrbanBaby, where he saved enough money to allow him to go to Japan. “I wanted to meet engineers,” Mr. Karp said, who had named his consulting company Davidville. “At that point, I still thought that I was doing software consulting.” And when UrbanBaby sold to CNET in July 2006, Mr. Karp was able to cash out the sweat equity he’d built up.
By the time Mr. Karp was 19, a new word had entered the lexicon: “tumblelog,” which referred to short-form blogging. (That is, even shorter than regular blogging—many “tumblelog” posts were no longer than a sentence.) Fascinated by this new form of blogging, Mr. Karp says he “kept waiting” for one of the established blog platform players to set up a platform for tumblelogging. When, after a year, that hadn’t happened, Mr. Karp decided to do it himself. (The current incarnation of Tumblr launched November 1st; a beta version launched a few months earlier.)
Today, Tumblr—which is beloved by its users for its clean interface, ease of use and community elements—has 170,000 registered users tumbling along; Mr. Karp hopes to take that number to one million by the end of 2008. In October, Mr. Karp sold 25 percent of the company to a small group of investors, which include the venture capital firms Spark Capital and Union Square Ventures, and betaworks head John Borthwick and Vimeo founder Jakob Lodwick. At that point, the company was valued at $3 million, making Mr. Karp $750,000 richer. (He was originally offered $1.5 million for a 50 percent stake, but turned it down in order to retain more control over the company.)
The West Coast has never tempted Mr. Karp. “It’s incredibly incestuous in Silicon Valley,” he said. “It always turned me off. It’s so hypercompetitive—that was always my perception, though I haven’t actually had the experience.”
Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, Mr. Karp continued, have a tendency to cash out early. “I want to build something I’d be happy to be employed by 10 years out,” he said. “The idea of Tumblr employing 40 people in two years is such an incredible idea.”
Today Mr. Karp employs one other full-time person, a 25-year-old programmer named Marco Arment. (He also has a part-time community relations manager and a part-time designer.) In other words, an incredibly lean operation. “We think about real content and real viewers instead of valuation,” Mr. Karp said. “We would really rather not be gobbled up by a big media company.” Tumblr, which is free for users, has enough cash for 15 months of operations, and Mr. Karp says the company plans on spending that time to expand the audience and hone the blogging platform. After 15 months, the ways to make money could include offering some kind of premium membership (such as Flickr) or running ads on the site.
“David has this rare combination of someone with a native view of what Web consumers want and somebody who has a really strong technical depth and also a creative side,” said Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital. He spoke to The Observer from Spark’s Boston office. “We meet very talented folks out of MIT all the time, but they don’t have a sense of what the consumer experience needs to be.”
In addition to providing a platform for short-form blogging, Tumblr also has built-in community elements that, Mr. Karp argues, make it more user-friendly. For example, Tumblr bloggers can “follow” other bloggers—akin to adding someone as a friend on a social networking site—and those users’ posts show up in a kind of RSS feed on a Tumblr blogger’s dashboard, which is like a control room. Users can also re-blog other Tumblr users’ posts with one click.
And so Mr. Karp sees Tumblr as embodying a new kind of content curation, a community that affords its users access to a world of text and links and video and photos that have been carefully selected by other users whose taste they feel an affinity for. “At UrbanBaby, where the demographic is very uptight, very judgmental New York mommy, I learned what an engaged community means,” said Mr. Karp. “It was pretty cool.”
Tumblr is meant both to give its users another way to cut through the Internet din (“On Digg, for every decent link there are thousands that are just crappy, and you have to do this meaningless action of just clicking on a stupid button,” said Mr. Karp), and to actually represent its users on the Web by allowing them to create an identity that Facebook and MySpace and all the other social networking and blogging sites out there can’t. Users can select from a number of predesigned templates, or design their own; there are no fields asking for where you went to college or even your name. And it’s much easier to use than other blogging software. (Also, anyone can view a Tumblr blog, even those without Tumblr accounts.)
So far, Tumblr is growing, but it’s nowhere near MySpace’s 70 million users or Facebook’s 61 million or even WordPress’ 3 to 4 million—which seems fine to Mr. Karp. Implicit in his discussion of other social networking and blogging platforms is that they got too big, too fast, and lost something in the process. As Tumblr grows, the challenge will be to maintain the sense of ownership its users have over the site, while being forward-thinking enough to change. It’s a tall order.
Mr. Karp grew up on the Upper West Side, the older of two sons of a composer and a science teacher at his school, Calhoun, which he attended before his brief spell at Bronx Science. “He was a child who, even at a very young age, knew what he wanted to be,” said Mr. Karp’s mother, Barbara Ackerman. “He was very focused, very driven.”
Home schooling is hardly a conventional choice for parents in Manhattan. “It’s a great leap of faith to do that for any kid,” said Ms. Ackerman. “It was a huge decision, but in this particular instance
it was the right one.” Likewise, the decision to go to Tokyo—alone, at 17—was one that Ms. Ackerman could only endorse. “He worked it all out. It was all paid for ahead of time—I didn’t have much to do with that decision,” she said. “He had everything lined up.”
“To have your child get on a plane and move to Japan …” Ms. Ackerman paused. “Well, he’s like a little adult..”
If Mr. Karp was a little adult at 17, at 21 he’s like a real adult. He lives alone in an apartment on West 71st Street that his parents own; he pays the maintenance. He owns a car, an Acura RSX, that he keeps in a garage. “I learned how to drive stick on that car,” he tells me proudly. “I mostly use it for weekend trips out of the city—Bear Mountain, the Palisades, that kind of thing.” During the week, though, his life consists mostly of work—he gets in around 9 or 10 and leaves around 7, walking the 40 minutes home to his apartment. “Usually I just end up crashing,” he said.
For another meeting a couple weeks after our initial conversation, he suggests the Time Warner Center branch of Landmarc, where he says he enjoys eating breakfast. Over two iced cappuccinos and a chicken Caesar salad, Mr. Karp says, “The whole binge-drinking, staying-up-late, hipster lifestyle has never been attractive to me.
“I never spent much time with people my own age.”
His girlfriend is 22, a recent Drexel University grad who lives on Long Island. A couple weeks ago he took her on a surprise trip to Puerto Rico. “At 4 a.m., I woke her up and told her we were getting breakfast,” he said. “I had packed her bag already, and she wasn’t sure where we were going until we got on the plane. It was total downtime—I was on a beach, drunk, for five days. I didn’t bring my computer, just an iPhone and camera.” Mr. Karp posted to his Tumblr the entire time he was there.
I decided to see if Mr. Karp’s evangelistic zeal for Tumblr would be borne out by starting a Tumblr blog of my own. Mr. Karp had assured me repeatedly that Tumblr is incredibly easy to use, comparing it to other blogging platforms, such as Blogger, that set a certain level of expectation for what a “post” is. Or as Mr. Sabet put it: “I’ve seen friends and colleagues start blogs and then abandon them because they’re too difficult to use or they create a type of publishing system where you feel that you really have to write something profound every day.” (“If blogs are journals, tumblelogs are scrapbooks,” according to the Tumblr website.)
Aha, I thought. A system that required little to no profundity! Sign me up.
Tumblr’s appeal lies in its simplicity. Users can post via the dashboard, which has buttons for different types of posts (text, video, audio, photo, etc.), but can also post from a bookmarklet in their browser (a bookmarklet is a bookmark that shows up in your browser’s toolbar), instant messenger, a mobile phone or a desktop widget. I posted a photo of my dog and then a video of my dog (videos are hosted by Vimeo, which was started by Mr. Lodwick and owned by Barry Diller’s Internet conglomerate IAC), and then an IM conversation, a photo of a candle my friend got me, and an image of a very large stuffed duck from a Web site specializing in oversize stuffed animals. It was kind of fun! Then I saw that a couple of people were following me, which made me feel good: I had fans! I found a couple other Tumblrs that I wanted to follow, and like magic, they started showing up on the Tumblr feed on my dashboard. I had joined Tumblrville.
“It was a really selfish thing in the beginning,” Mr. Karp said. “I wanted a tumblelog and nobody had it.” And so in many ways Tumblr is an embodiment of Mr. Karp’s personality. The interface is so simple that it’s appealing to people who have little technical expertise, but also to people who see the Tumblr platform as a blank slate that they can write code for and make their own; Mr. Karp encourages both types of users. Also implicit in Tumblr’s design is how it allows its users to use their own initiative to create the kind of experience they want. “David hates Amazon’s ‘what is this?’ button,” Mr. Seibert told me. “He has self-selected to a small group of people who can figure everything out.”
“Right now, we’re going after artists,” said Mr. Karp. “Before that we were thinking students and young people, but it’s much easier to target an adult who wants to express themselves online. Artists and producers have YouTube, and musicians are relegated to MySpace. They’re the worst platforms.” Tumblr, says Mr. Karp, is a natural fit.
Then again, perhaps Tumblr makes sharing thoughts with the world almost too easy. “If every shitty thing you said ended up at the top of your Facebook profile,” Mr. Karp said, “you would probably reconsider it.”