Behind the news of Tumblr’s sale for $1.1billion (£723 million) to Yahoo there lies the story of David Karp, its 26-year-old founder, who has now become one of the world’s richest technology entrepreneurs.
Prior to the sale his estimated net worth was $200million, with some analysts now suggesting that Karp’s 25 per cent share of Tumblr will have earned him up to $275million.
The combination of Karp’s wealth and youth places him firmly into the 21st century’s most exclusive clubs – the young millionaires who made their money online - yet Karp’s public profile is surprisingly discreet, especially when compared to the archetypal cyber-tycoon, Mark Zuckerberg. Although perhaps Karp is just lucky that Aaron Sorkin hasn’t taken an interest in his life.
Although Zuckerberg and Karp seem to have much in common, the companies that made their names speak to different instincts of internet-user. Both men talk about their websites in evangelical terms (Karp describes Tumblr as “a platform for creativity” and Zuckerberg preaches Facebook’s “mission’ - “to make the world more open and connected”); but while Zuckerberg is often portrayed as coldly pragmatic, expanding Facebook’s influence at the cost of users’ privacy, Karp ethos seems gentler and more patient.
Tumblr actively avoids Facebook-style tactics for growth, omitting the usual numerical markers of "popularity" used in social media. In a profile for the New York Times Karp even described follower-counters as “really gross”, going on to say that such mechanics that encourage public "reciprocal friending" can “really poison a whole community”.
Karp’s character also inspired Tumblr’s simplistic design – perhaps the main reason for its initial popularity among bloggers. The layout is clean and simple, with seven rondel-type buttons illustrating the types of posts that can be made, and Karp claims that the features that Tumblr eliminates are as important as the ones it keeps. On its release in 2007, TechCrunch praised the platform's “unparalleled simplicity” stating that “there is absolutely no learning curve, just sign-up and start posting”.
Again, there seems to be evidence of this unity of the personal and the professional - a characteristic that invites comparison with that departed saint of tech-tycoons, Steve Jobs, a man for whom design was living. A profile of Karp by Forbes in January 2013 was keen to play this link, stressing the millionaire’s (relatively) simple existence. The article describes Karp as only owning a single suit, with the loft in Brooklyn he calls home containing “virtually nothing”. Still, this is “virtually nothing” in a $1.6million, 1,700-square-foot property. Some might say that that’s a whole lot of nothing.
But still, Karp’s residency in New York and his love for the city is another way in which he stands out from the cookie-cutter world of Silicon Valley. At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference this month he praised New York as a base for start-ups because at least in there, “not everyone you run into is wearing a f*cking Dropbox or Airbnb Shirt”. Karp later followed up on this with a post on his Tumblr showing a mock-up of said-shirt.
Karp’s blog is the perfect example of how his personal style and tastes have guided his work. His Tumblr is almost a template for the platform: it sports a minimalist design that foregrounds content, and his posts blend the personal and the public – there are funny screenshots, snaps of his bulldog, but also updates on on-going projects and .gifs of Tumblr being mentioned on TV. As Karp’s first employee, Marco Arment, told the New York Times – “David is Tumblr.”
Karp’s education in the digital world began at the age of 11, by teaching himself how to code from ‘HTML for Dummies’ and he was soon building websites for local businesses. With his parent’s blessing he then dropped out of public education aged 15 and was home-schooled so he could follow his entrepreneurial ambitions. His first significant job was as head of Product at UrbanBaby, a forum dedicated to motherhood in the city. When the site was bought by CNET in 2006 Karp used his earnings to found Tumblr, attracting 75,000 users in only two weeks.
The journey since then has followed the route of most famous start-ups: rising user-numbers and a global spread, followed by a need to re-group, consolidate, and monetise on the popularity. Tumblr’s recent acquisition by Yahoo! is the next step in this journey, but many bloggers fear it marks the end of platform and it streamlined, user-centric design.
Both parties have done their best to allay these fears, with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer assuring the public that her company will “operate Tumblr independently”, and with Karp releasing his own statement with the promise that the deal won’t “compromise the community”. And, with a flourish that promises that Karp will stay true to his roots, he ended his public statement, announcing a billion-dollar corporate take-over with a characteristically informal sign-off: “F*ck yeah, David.”