Reuters social media editor Anthony “SoupSoup” DeRosa is an avid Tumblr user who recently walked away from the platform in frustration after one too many problems with the service. He published a long piece today about the ways in which Tumblr is working to manage its massive growth and got an interview with Tumblr founder David Karp.
As has been the case in Tumblr’s dealing with fallout from Rich Tong’s fashion week proposal and conflicts with the developer behind the popular extension Missing e, Mr. Karp offered no apologies for the way his company was coping with its growing pains. A few choice quotes:
I’m generally really proud of how we communicate as a company. It’s not particularly easy when there are so many subsets of the community with dramatically different interests and questions.
Although we’ve had the occasional communication breakdown that we work hard not to repeat, I think we’ve done a good job of being honest, accessible, and thoughtful over the last 4 years.
I also love that everyone on our team contributes to our Staff blog — a blog we’re not afraid to curse on — and that we’re quite disciplined in staying out of the fray when incendiary people lie about us.
Mr. DeRosa ends his piece by noting that, “I walked away from my conversation with Karp feeling like they want to operate similar to the way Apple does, protecting their vision for how their product looks and choosing who gets to appear “in their store.” Apple has managed to make that aspect part of what makes their products great; it remains to be seen if this approach will work for Tumblr as well.”
It’s a fair comparison, save that one is the richest company in the world famous for its high-quality products and the other is a blogging platform with little revenue infamous for it instability.
As for Mr. Karp’s comments that he was proud of how they communicated with their partners, Mr. DeRosa got on the record a story Betabeat also heard about Mr. Tong, Tumblr’s fashion director, in which he ignores and then insults AOL’s StyeList blog. While Tumblr had early success partnering with fashion companies, Mr. Tong soured many of those relationships when he arrived by failing to return emails, showing up to meetings unaware of who the client was, snubbing former partners during fashion week and replying to their hurt feelings with, “You can do business the way you see fit, and we’ll do the same.”
It’s hard to imagine Steve Jobs defending an Apple employee who publicly bungled business and insulted valuable clients and partners. In fact, one of Mr. Jobs’s great strengths was his ability to tell the truth, even when it hurt. During his legendary keynote at WWDC in 1997, when Apple was being slammed in the press and pummeled by the stock market, Mr. Jobs was brutally honest about the company’s own failings. He realized that the only way to break with internal problems and chart a new course was to face the reality of what Apple had become.
Mr. Karp, by contrast, seems obstinate and paranoid. He may think Tumblr is “staying above the fray when people lie about us,” but the stories about Rich Tong have now come from three reporters working with sources across the fashion industry. That is not an “occasional communication breakdown,” but a pattern of behavior with serious consequences for Tumblr’s business.
The same is true for the ongoing issues with Jeremy Cutler, the developer behind the popular Missing e extension, which found fans by providing simple features that Tumblr, with its large staff and millions in venture funding, failed to create. Rather than support Missing e, Tumblr has tried to shut it down, even threatening to go after Mr. Cutler’s personal blog when he stopped using their API in order to comply with their rules. Tumblr has communicated almost nothing about this situation before today’s piece in Reuters, which left it looking like a bully.
Tumblr clearly has tons of potential and seems poised to raise yet another round of funding which will help it to scale on both the front and back end, meaning, hopefully, less stability issues and more new features. But if their response to the problems that arise continues to be silence, snubs and threats, they will find themselves with few allies as they seek to make the difficult journey from a popular platform to a profitable business.