David Karp: Learn From Tumblr’s Whiz Kid

David Karp, founder of Tumblr, doesn’t go anywhere without his camera. His quirk actually can show us a lot about his mindset and that of his site’s users: they can “tumblelog” any type of media, at any length, at any time. He’s said, and proven, that he’s created a site that he would want to use– and his dedication shows.

David Karp grew up in New York City, with parents who were a science teacher and a composer. Neither of his parents were computer whizzes, but they were well-off enough to buy him a computer early in his childhood. At age 11, he began learning HTML and soon he was designing websites for businesses. By 14, he had begun an internship with Fred Seibert of Frederator Studios.

He switched to homeschooling at age 15, when his prestigious science-focused high school (where his mother taught) wasn’t giving him the kind of challenge he was looking for. Instead of focusing on his education, he focused on his career. He never ended up receiving his high school diploma.

While he doesn’t necessarily advise others to follow in his footsteps and drop out of high school, he feels very lucky that he knew what he wanted to do and decided to pursue it. His advice does include following your dreams. “Find a space where you can be creative,” he said, “and a place where you are open for free thinking. You want to enjoy what you are doing and do what you are best at.”

When John Maloney, head of a parenting message board called UrbanBaby, needed technical help, his friend Fred Seibert recommended David Karp. His project needed to be completed within a couple of days, and David Karp had it done within four hours. He was quickly hired and became the site’s head of product.

At 17, he moved to Japan to learn more about robots, but he soon moved back to New York. In 2006, he left UrbanBaby due to its sale to CNET.

He decided to start his own software consultant company, and quickly brought on board Marco Arment (who he found on Craigslist) as an engineer.

Karp and Arment were interested in short-form multi-media “tumblelogs” that were popping up on the internet. They were particularly inspired by Projectionist, an aggregator that allowed users to post bits of media to a page with a sophisticated aesthetic theme. They waited over a year for an established blogging site to snap up the opportunity to integrate tumblelogs into their system so they could make use of the technology– but no one did. During a two-week break in which Karp and Arment had no consulting projects to work on, they decided to make their own tumblelog site. Together, they built Tumblr in a fortnight.

Tumblr launched in February of 2007, when Karp was 20. By two weeks after its launch, it had 75,000 users.

His approach to business has not necessarily been one that would work for anyone else. He doesn’t keep a calendar, employ an assistant, or answer his email promptly. His focus is definitely on his website and its content rather than profit or fame. He says, “Where I feel the most productive and engaged is when I’m buried in code, buried in some project, tweaking some designs. I’m certainly introverted.”

In 2013, Yahoo bought Tumblr, and Karp stayed on as a key leader. However, in late 2017, Karp announced his plans to leave the company altogether.

What Can We Learn from David Karp?

1. Simplicity is key. Karp said, “For every new feature we add, we take an old one out. A lot of big sites don’t do that, and it’s a problem. Twitter started as a beautifully simple product, but it’s now going the same route as Facebook. The drive to innovate can overencumber and destroy a project.” He also makes sure to keep his team small– “The more people we have on our team,” he said, “the less room there is in the elevator and the more complicated everything gets.”

2. When programming, put yourself in the user’s shoes. Karp said, “Good products are built by people who want to use it themselves.” Don’t just imagine what the user needs– try to stick to projects that really interest you and which you plan on using yourself. Otherwise, it’s hard to know what design choices are best.

What have you learned from David Karp and the design of Tumblr? Let us know in the comments below!

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