With a buyout from internet giant Yahoo topping a billion dollars, the blogging site Tumblr is taking a risk both with investors and users. Saul Austerlitzprofiles the young man at its helm, and analyses how the move could affect its future
In January 1999, the internet giant Yahoo announced a splashy purchase. In exchange for $3.57 billion (Dh13.1bn) in the company's stock, it had purchased a majority stake in a widely loved, highly flexible site that allowed users to post a staggering array of material to individually contoured pages. The site, lamentably, was Geocities, and Yahoo's headline-news deal wound up an almost total loss for the company. Within a few years, Geocities was a forgotten also-ran, its pages vanished from the internet, remembered mostly for some of its users' unfortunate tastes in colour schemes.
This week, Yahoo made another splashy purchase, of another widely loved, highly flexible site. And two people above all are staking their reputations on history not repeating itself: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who is risking her sterling reputation with this risky move, and a 26-year-old wunderkind and internet entrepreneur named David Karp.
Karp is the founder and creator of Tumblr, a blogging site used by everyone from Barack Obama to Lady Gaga. Yahoo will pay $1.1 billion for Tumblr, a site that mashes up Facebook's communal feel with easy-to-use multimedia capabilities. On Tumblr, users can post photos, videos, GIFs, blog entries and quotes, as well as reblog other Tumblr users' posts. The result is an interlocking community of users interested in everything from pictures of sandwiches to distressed hipsters to Garfield comic strips with Garfield surgically removed.
Karp was 14 when his mother, Barbara Ackerman, realised he was more engaged with working on his computer than with his classes at the prestigious New York City magnet school The Bronx High School of Science. Karp had learnt to code when he was 11, and his mother encouraged him to drop out and be home-schooled so that he could devote himself to computer science and engineering. At 17, Karp, high-school diploma firmly not in hand, was off to Tokyo to work on the site of a popular parenting site called UrbanBaby. Embarrassed by his youth, Karp preferred to work with clients only over the telephone, putting on a deeper voice in the hope of fooling them into thinking he was older.
Karp had gone to Japan with an interest in a career building robots, but came back to New York with an idea for a consulting company, and a list of clients interested in his services, including Viacom. He was attuned to the bleeding-edge developments in the world of tech. He convinced Fred Seibert, a mentor who had asked him to design a website for his online-video company, to plan for the success of the video iPod, then primed to be released by Apple. Karp's advice helped Seibert get his company's videos onto iTunes before practically anyone else, and to eventually sell out at a handsome profit to Google.
Davidville, as Karp called his company, was a success, and in his spare time, Karp and his colleagues designed a site, modelled in part on the old Geocities pages that he loved. Instead of the blog's "big empty box" demanding to be filled, Tumblr would offer the opportunity for a wider variety of mixed media. The inspiration was what was known as "tumbleblogs" - shaggy multimedia sites that sought to expand beyond the text-heavy realm of the blog. Karp was particularly enamoured with the tumbleblog Projectionist: "You can put up bits of media but the theme or the 'skin' will take care of the aesthetics," he told a Mediabistro.com interviewer in 2008, "and the media will be in nice little enclosures. Video will come up in a nice frame, blurbs will come up in nice little bubbles, there will be the ability to make gorgeous typography quotes." Tumblr adopted the same aesthetic, making it easy for users to post practically anything to their sites with a minimum of fuss.
Almost immediately after its launch in February 2007, Tumblr had 30,000 users, and what had been intended as a playful side project became Karp's primary focus. In 2008, Karp sold off 25 per cent of Tumblr in a $4.5 million funding round intended to fund its next stage of growth. Tumblr was a New York company, with Karp, the native Manhattanite, preferring to deliberately avoid the hubbub of Silicon Valley.
Karp had initially intended to keep Tumblr deliberately small, choosing to operate with a bare minimum of staff, but the company's growth was too furious. The site was adding 25,000 members every day, with major media companies such as The New York Times and Newsweek adding Tumblr sites to their internet presences.
In September 2011, Tumblr went through a second round of funding, raising $85 million, increasing to a staff of 100 by 2012. But Tumblr's unproven revenue stream made some potential funders wary of investing. The former Tumblr president John Maloney suggested that the site would need to recruit hundreds of millions of new members to become profitable, a daunting task. And with $13 million in ads in 2012, Tumblr operates with a tiny fraction of the advertising revenue competitors like Facebook and YouTube have generated.
Karp had been a fixture on the New York party scene after Tumblr's first flush of success, becoming notorious in certain circles for his omnipresence. Since meeting his girlfriend Rachel Eakley, an NYU nursing student, though, he has become more domestic, purchasing a one-bedroom apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for $1.6 million. He rides his Vespa daily to Tumblr's offices in Manhattan. The coding for Tumblr has long since been turned over to a team of engineers, although Karp still sits in on meetings to throw worst-case-scenario questions at them. After late nights at the office, he likes to take employees burning the midnight oil out to dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Over the past few years, Karp repeatedly insisted in interviews that he had no plans to shop Tumblr to media giants. "We're not motivated by money," he told Mediabistro in 2008. Rapid growth came at a cost, though, and Tumblr had almost run out of cash when it began to discreetly shop itself around. With 217 million discreet users in the past month, it is the 24th most popular internet site in the US.
Yahoo has now, in one fell swoop, revitalised itself with some of the new-media cachet it had steadily lost over the past decade. But will Tumblr prove to be Geocities redux? With 109 million blogs on the site, and 51 billion posts, Tumblr has built up a vast reservoir of loyalty among its users. What it has not done, though, is make much money. The path to profitability for Tumblr, as with many other widely praised tech firms, remains tenuous. And the future intertwining of the two companies, which appear to serve entirely different constituencies, is still unclear. Tumblr's popularity stems in part from its adult content, which Mayer indicated she would allow to remain in place after Yahoo's purchase. Yahoo's plan is to allow Tumblr to continue on as an independent entity, but concerns remain. Will Yahoo be too stodgy for Tumblr? Will Tumblr generate enough revenue to make Yahoo's purchase worthwhile? These are questions most high-school dropouts likely never have to face.
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