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.)