From High School Dropout to Entrepreneur

Tumblr founder David Karp delivers annual Turpin Lecture on Media Management

David Karp
David Karp

At 16, David Karp was having so much fun at an internship with television and film producer Fred Seibert that he decided to drop out of high school to work full time.

"A risky decision and something that my parents thought sounded right but were terribly anxious about," said Karp, founder of Tumblr, the successful micro-blogging platform with more than 50 million active blogs. "But I think it worked out for the best."

The idea for Tumblr was "a lot less deliberate than people would expect," Karp said this week at the annual Turpin Lecture on Media Management, which kicked off Mass Comm Month at the VCU School of Mass Communications.

Karp's career started in 2000 when he was 14 and his father took him to get a work permit that allowed him to work full time in a Manhattan store selling computers. It was his first experience interacting professionally with adults and he enjoyed it tremendously. The next summer he met Seibert, whose production company produced many of the popular cartoons on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network. By 2002, he was ready to leave high school to work at the company full time.

He then met John Maloney, co-founder of UrbanBaby.com, which had just been featured on Good Morning America and was exploding in popularity. Karp found the company fascinating and ended up working for Maloney.

"UrbanBaby was a community of a few million insanely, or just insane, progressive urban moms basically," Karp said. "I'm 16 at that point. I'm 16 years old spending now hours a day … on this site where these insane moms – I probably shouldn't say insane – these very intense moms were talking about everything."

But what really fascinated Karp was that he was writing and designing software that shaped the way people interact. That would influence him greatly when he eventually started his own blog. After a year and a half at UrbanBaby, Karp decided to go off on his own.

"It wasn't really the right place for an aspirational 18-year-old kid who's kind of like trying to find new stuff and really wanted to be working on my own stuff," he said. "That's when I finally got the bug to consult or do my own thing – start a business."

He founded Davidville, a little development company in New York. He then met Web developer Marco Arment, who, Karp said, he was "stupid lucky to meet six and a half years ago on Craigslist of all places. … We started developing a taste for kind of launching our own apps," Karp said. "It was something I aspired to do for a while."

In 2005, Karp was bit by the blogging bug. He bought a domain name and tried all the available blogging platforms such as WordPress, TypePad and Blogger. He lasted on Blogger the longest — three months.

"What I kept falling down at was this big empty text box when you go to post," he said. "It's kind of discouraging if you just want to share a photo, song or quote – this was kind of a pain in the ass. Not being a writer, I was sitting down every other day to try to bang a blog post out and I didn't really enjoy it."

At the same time, Karp knew that many sites offered a host of specialized tools that made it very easy to post things other than long editorials. For instance, Flickr and YouTube made it easy to upload photos and videos to YouTube and Twitter. He stumbled across a community of avant-garde bloggers called tumblelogs.

"Tumblelogs were not full-blown editorials, but cool stuff they had come across," Karp said. “As soon as I saw it, I knew 'that's it.' Interestingly, these people that were doing this stuff, you'd think that by not having this long, developed editorial voice, you'd actually get less of their character. It was kind of the opposite – it was actually a lot more engaging because what you were looking at wasn't their editorial voice, wasn't their filtered voice, but a raw look through the authors' eyes.

Karp immediately started designing his blog and launched Tumblr in February, 2007. He had two goals: to let people share anything and customize everything.

"One novel thing we had that would attract users was the ability not only to easily tweet everything about the design about this blog, but actually get in and rip out the HTML and make it look any way you wanted," he said. "It attracted a very design-minded community of early users who really did make some very beautiful, unique stuff that really stood apart from the rest of the blogosphere."

Karp said Tumblr was lucky to get a lot of traction early on. The downside was that as Tumblr started getting bigger, the company was inundated with emails from excited users with suggestions and questions. This proved to be a problem for the extremely affable Karp.

"I don't really consider myself a jerk. I try to be as polite as I can, I try and be responsive, but I was notoriously bad at answering emails," he said. "I was so bad at responding to these sweet people. After months, it starts to be a real problem. We started to develop pretty quickly a reputation for being jerks."

One fan who noticed Tumblr's reputation was becoming a problem offered to help out. Karp realized he needed help when he came to the office one morning to find more than 1,000 emails in his inbox and gave up all illusion of responding.

That fan, Marc LaFountain, become the third person to work at Tumblr. Today, he oversees a team of 30 people working from the company's Richmond office, "where they now post the fastest response time of any service in our category" such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook," Karp said.

Tumblr is home to 50 million bloggers, running the gamut from designers and artisans to indie bands and journalists. The site boasts 600 posts per second with an audience of 131 million people per month. It receives 16 billion impressions every month — "a number that makes my heart skip every time I see it," Karp said.

The Turpin Lecture was created in 2002 by former students who wished to honor Dr. William H. Turpin for his dedication to journalism and mass communications students. Turpin, who served as a guru, coach and career advisor to hundreds of aspiring journalists, taught at VCU for 16 years and died in 2002.

David Karp
David Karp