Weekend Confidential: David Karp
David Karp Photo: Spencer Heyfron for The Wall Street Journal
By ALEXANDRA WOLFE
David Karp doesn’t look like a Champagne-swilling clubgoer who parties with P. Diddy. Tall and reedy, the young techie—he turned 27 last week—looks like he’d be more comfortable in front of a computer monitor than under a strobe light.
But in late June, the Tumblr CEO had cause to celebrate, waving a bottle of bubbly in the air amid the thrum in a Cannes discothèque in widely circulated photos. Mr. Karp had recently sold his company Tumblr, a blogging service, to Yahoo for $1.1 billion. (His estimated take: $250 million.) He was in France for an advertising festival, schmoozing ad buyers to help his parent company earn back some of that money.
Just a few weeks before his trip to France, newly invigorated by his multimillion-dollar windfall, Mr. Karp was sitting in a quieter milieu. Seated at a booth in the Manhattan restaurant Maialino, he speared strawberries as he extolled the virtues of the company he started at age 20 and his new corporate partner. “Marissa Mayer is awesome,” he says, referring with seemingly unfeigned enthusiasm to Yahoo’s chief executive and his new boss. “It’s been an awesome couple of weeks.”
There’s more change to come. His company, which now hosts over 100 million blogs, is about to get much more visibility thanks to its parent company. Though he’s taken great pains to promote Tumblr’s independence, it was clear from the very first joint news release that Ms. Mayer plans to be deeply involved.
With the draft in Google’s online service for sharing documents, “I watched her in the Google doc editing the press release, with [Yahoo’s] lawyer making comments on the side,” along with Yahoo’s heads of PR and marketing and himself, he says. The experience of drafting the document together was, he adds, “awesome.”
The second sentence of the release reads, “Per the agreement and our promise not to screw it up, Tumblr will be independently operated as a separate business.” Ms. Mayer “wrote ‘promise not to screw it up’ herself,” says Mr. Karp. “To have her personally go into the press release and make that statement up front, in front of the whole world, in front of their shareholders…was such an awesome gesture on her part.”
It will be the first time Mr. Karp has reported to anyone full-time since he was a teenager. He grew up on New York City’s Upper West Side, the son of progressive parents who encouraged him to leave Bronx Science, a prestigious public high school, to focus on his passion: computers.
The summer that he turned 15, Mr. Karp was interning as an engineer for the media entrepreneur and TV producer Fred Seibert, and his parents realized he was enjoying work a lot more than school. They “were the ones who caught it,” he says. “I remember very vividly: They came to my room and asked, ‘Are there any teachers you’re excited about this year?’ ” He says that he was oblivious to what they were getting at, admitting, “I never know when somebody’s angling for something.”
When he answered his parents’ question in the negative, they told Mr. Karp that he could continue his internship instead of going back to school. Within a few years he had learned enough programming to build websites for stores in his neighborhood.
Instead of socializing with contemporaries, he hung out with the adults at Mr. Seibert’s office. “I didn’t say a word my first few months,” he says. “I was a shy kid.”
When it was time to get a full-time job, Mr. Karp became a salesman at Apple retail and service company Tekserve. But he was only allowed to sell computer wires, not computers, because he was “just a kid.” He went on to be head of product at Urbanbaby, the parenting blogging community, working remotely from his bedroom in his mother’s house.
While working on Urbanbaby, he abruptly left the U.S. in 2004, at age 18, after his girlfriend of 2½ years broke up with him. Two weeks after the split, he bought a ticket to Tokyo and told no one but his mother that he was moving. “She was kind of sad,” he says. Mr. Karp stayed in Japan for a year, returning to the U.S. once he began to get reports about the startup boom. His stint at Urbanbaby later paid off: When CNET bought the company in 2006, he reportedly earned hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Back in New York, he contacted his old mentor Mr. Seibert to rent office space, where he started a company called Davidville. In 2005, he came up with the idea for starting Tumblr as a Davidville product, after seeing a statistic showing that more blogs were being registered every year but the number of active blogs was actually decreasing.
Mr. Karp suspected that this lack of follow-through had a lot do with the relatively formal feel and voice of blogs at the time. Would-be bloggers felt obliged to mimic the style of existing publications. The idea for Tumblr was to offer a simple way for anyone to start a blog and add text, photos and videos to it. “It was about unlimited expression, really raw expression, a raw look through the author’s eyes,” Mr. Karp explains.
By the fall of 2012, the company had attracted the attention of Yahoo. Mr. Karp says his company wasn’t looking for a buyer. But when Ms. Mayer visited his office that winter and walked him through what the two companies could do together—Tumblr bringing Yahoo more content, Yahoo increasing Tumblr’s audience—Mr. Karp took her seriously. He says the toughest question she asked was how Tumblr would make money from mobile users, the majority of its base. (Users can post to their own blogs and browse others on their phones.)
It was a good question. With Tumblr’s business on mobile growing three times faster than on the Web, living up to a billion-dollar sale price is a tall order without a proven model for mobile ads. Did the size of the offer from Yahoo surprise Mr. Karp? “I wasn’t, like, shocked when Marissa came in and said it. It was just like a general shock to the system, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, can I do this right now? Is this the right thing for us?’ ” Mr. Karp says he’s not worried about revenue. He points to the four ad products Tumblr has rolled out in the past year as well as to plans to continue to update Tumblr apps.
Excursions to the French Riviera aside, Mr. Karp says that his personal life hasn’t changed much since the acquisition, and he plans to keep it that way. He’ll continue to live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his girlfriend of the past four years, a nursing-school student. He has no plans to move closer to the mother ship in Silicon Valley. “I don’t know how you could live in Palo Alto,” he says. “It’s just boring.” Mr. Karp won’t be taking any wild vacations, and says that he prefers spending weekends at home or at the movies with his parents. His only new toy is a Honda motorcycle that he enjoys fixing and rebuilding. He does plan to take on philanthropy at some point. “There are some ramifications,” he says earnestly. “I have to think of something responsible to do.”
Our allotted time together is one hour, and at exactly 59 minutes, Mr. Karp looks down at his phone to check on his next meeting and then stabs the last of his strawberries. He concludes, “It’s a ridiculous circumstance for a 26-year-old to be in.”