David Karp isn’t your usual teenager. In an industry known for college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, he stands out — not only because he dropped out of high school at 15 to found Tumblr at 21, but also for his hard work, intense curiosity and unorthodox business style.
Some would be tempted to compare him with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, another social media wunderkind, but Karp has his own strategy to keep Tumblr, which lets you post photos, videos and other content on a short-form blog, growing. Unlike Facebook, you can easily customize accounts and follow other blogs without having to add friends.
In a short time, Tumblr has become one of the most popular services on the Web. And at the end of the day, Karp may have what it takes to match Zuckerberg, or perhaps even surpass him.
A Different Kind of Entrepreneur
Karp wasn’t like a lot of kids. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as the oldest son of Michael Karp, a film and television composer, and Barbara Ackerman, a science teacher at the prestigious Calhoun School, which bills itself as an independent, comprehensive prep school, where he also attended.
Kids grow up on computers, but not many master HTML and design websites for businesses. At the tender age of 11, he taught himself to write code, and at 14, interned for animation producer Fred Seibert, founder of Frederator Studios, creators of Nickelodeon cartoons such as The Fairly OddParents, Fanboy & Chum Chum, and Adventure Time.
He attended junior high for about a year, before dropping out to be home schooled so he could work on side projects. Then at 16, UrbanBaby hired him to do solve technical issues. Expected to take several days, he completed it in just four hours, so UrbanBaby owner John Maloney hired him as its head of product, giving him a small amount of equity as well.
UrbanBaby was a great training ground, but Karp wanted more. He would get his opportunity when CNet acquired the site in 2006. With the money from his shares, he started a software consultancy company, called “Davidville” and hired engineer Marco Arment through a Craigslist advertisement. The pair began work on their platform during a two-week gap between contracts, and in 2007, at 21, he launched Tumblr, the blogging platform that, at last report, had more than 87 million users. Those numbers continue to grow as people — tiring of Facebook and its influx of parents — launch their own blogs.
Just six years after launching Tumblr, Karp has a net worth of about $200 million. Now at just 26, he credits his business methods, which have raised the eyebrows of more-seasoned executives, for much of his success. For example, he said he doesn’t believe in scheduling meetings or keeping a calendar, because he thinks appointments are “caustic to creativity.”
“It’s so frustrating when you’re in the middle of a great conversation or work groove, and you realize, “Oh, I’ve got an appointment. I’ve got to bolt,” he told Inc. Magazine. “I prefer the “let’s just call each other when we need something or want to hang out” approach. That way, I never have to cancel on people, which is always a bummer.”
He also tries to avoid checking e-mail until he gets to work, because, he says, reading it at home never feels productive. If something is urgent, he’ll get a text or phone call. “I’ve found that if you’re not responsive to e-mail, it trains people to leave you alone,” he added.
Karp, who describes himself as a compulsive note-taker, says he has a bad memory, so he jots down to-do lists and Tumblr ideas with the same kind of pen, a Pilot Precise V7, because he likes how it doesn’t smudge.
His meeting style is different, too. On Mondays, his team meets not around conference tables, but in a cozy room with a couch and chairs. The office is an open loft, so he can work alongside employees using two monitors — one for writing code and another to keep Tumblr open all the time. He doesn’t follow many users, but he does post and reblog items from his own blog often.
He doesn’t code much, either. “That changed when we hired engineers who were a lot smarter than me,” he told Inc. Magazine. “Occasionally, I’ll sit in on their meetings to get a sense of what’s going on and see if I can help with anything. I’m really good at asking questions.”
Until recently, he lived just minutes away from his Manhattan office, and zipped around on a Vespa, which he noted was “a lot cheaper than cabs for getting around the city.” He and his girlfriend are renovating a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, so his commute will be a bit further, but he’s keeping his offices in New York City, instead of heading west like so many other technology visionaries.
What Makes Tumblr Different
Karp believes in keeping his site simple. It rolls out changes at 11 a.m., between bug fixes or new language files. Features are launched in secret at first, so he and his team can test and see how many people use it. Tumblr has fewer features than Facebook, which “lets us focus on the ones we care about and make sure they work very well,” he said in the interview. For every feature Tumblr adds, it takes an old one away.
Most sites don’t do that, he added, emphasizing his goal is to keep it focused for a more personalized way of using social media. Facebook’s membership has grown so large that privacy is a major concern, and users are fleeing to Tumblr, where they can make their blogs private and customize their accounts. In addition, Facebook has become so ubiquitous, it’s a place where parents often pop up, keep tabs of their kids, while publicly commenting on their posts.
Younger users, under the age of 25, post and follow a lot of content, making up a large part of its base. But it’s also attracting many high-profile users. President Barack Obama has his own account, as do Lady Gaga and Zooey Deschanel.
On Facebook, if you post too many links, you can be blocked or ignored by friends. But on Tumblr, the more you post, the better — because your content won’t interfere with any walls.
Some analysts think Facebook may buy Tumblr, in the same way it absorbed Instagram for roughly $1 billion. According to Quantcast, Tumblr receives around 60 billion U.S. page views a month. It’s ranked as the No. 14 most-visited site in the U.S., and while Facebook still dominates from third place, Tumblr hosts 80 million blogs and receives tens of millions of new posts every day. Meanwhile, Facebook’s traffic is leveling off — most people who are going to use it are already on it. Furthermore, Facebook has issues with its mobile strategy, a problem Tumblr isn’t experiencing.
Tumblr also allows people to curate their favorite multimedia items, something that can get lost on Facebook with its interactive Timeline. Those blogs also lend themselves well to attracting advertisers because the posted items stay grouped and easily accessible. Historically, Facebook has had trouble monetizing its content, which may start losing adverting to Tumblr’s more personalized approach.
If Facebook buys out Tumblr, it won’t be easy. Zuckerberg negotiated the Instagram deal before Facebook went public, when the company’s stock was still heading for record sales. Today, Facebook is at a weaker position, hovering at around 40 percent of its IPO price. In addition, there is Karp, who remains notoriously independent, with enough personal wealth and youth to still be a dreamer and keep his site independent.
Taking the Next Step
Tumblr is on the rise, but despite its success, it faces a pivotal point in its viability as a long-term business. It will need to keep attracting an advertising base to help it meet its costs. Advertising, on such visually-driven sites, is usually a hard sale, and Karp, like many visionaries, doesn’t like the idea of ads breaking up the design. The company, though, is earning money through ads that don’t feel intrusive, such as sponsored blog posts to keep the feed clean and efficient.
Karp, for all his strengths as a programmer, is still young and needs the help of a seasoned, tougher team to guide his business to the top. He’s reportedly hired a head-hunting firm to help him find an experienced chief operating officer, he told Business Insider in an e-mail. He added that Tumblr is spending time meeting great executives, and he’ll fill out the team later this year. When it happens, there’s no telling how high Tumblr — or its creator — will climb. ♦