Fast Chat: David Karp

The Tumblr founder on crashes, follows, growth, and dreams

David Karp

Adweek: How many people do you follow on Tumblr?

David Karp: I follow about 300 people.

What do you look for in a blog?

Creative people and the projects they’re working on, other developers, and the new tools they’re finding. There isn’t a whole lot of celebrity navel gazing on my dashboard. I don’t just follow everybody I meet in real life.

What works for brands on Tumblr?

If you’re a super-fan, the idea of having access to the behind-the-scenes raw feed is amazing. It’s crack to people who are obsessed with a brand. College Humor is an interesting early example of that. What also works is when a brand or publisher likes or reblogs one of your posts. That’s spectacularly vindicating. I may not give a shit about Vogue’s behind-the-scenes stuff, but when they reblog my photo? Holy shit.

Even though it’s probably just a social media intern?

[Laughs.] There’s something special about it. People post screenshots.

What’s your pitch to skeptical media outlets?

It’s as much of a platform for promotion and communication as anything else. Any good piece of new content that you put up there can spread really, really far. That’s something we’ve done a really bad job of exposing. What we will be opening up is the ability to see all of the blogs that stuff appears on, all the RSS feeds that post shows up on, and the subscribers of those RSS feeds, the Facebook, the Twitter pages that post gets syndicated to.

How big do you see getting?

It always felt explosive. But the growth in the last month just totally shatters the growth for the first three years. It makes it look like we weren’t going anywhere. So it’s impossible to say. If projections are to be believed, we’ll be doing impossible, impossible amounts of traffic in just a year and a half. Like, hundreds of billions of impressions.

What does that make you think?

We have no idea what to think when we hear projections like that. Facebook is perhaps the only other company that’s gone through this recently. What we hear from those guys is, “You will make your projections and feel like you’re really bullish. And you’re going to get there and realize that you were way too conservative and you should have ordered twice as many servers and hired three times as many people.”

What did you learn from your big crash in December?

That crash was definitely a punch in the stomach. We were trying to be too clever for too long. So for the next few months, we did nothing but devote our full attention to scaling. We stopped pushing features, we hired like crazy, we started looking for real executive leaders, we quadrupled the engineering team in two months.

Is there a dream feature you hope to include at some point?

There are dozens and dozens. Everything from tiny little tweaks to big features. Man, if we checked everything off of this list by the end of next year? We would have the most extraordinary, perfect, innovative, amazing thing that ever existed.

Can you give an example?

This is stuff we want to build so we don’t usually talk about any of that. A lot of it comes down to creative expression and being able to build an identity online that you’re really proud of. And tools for interaction, opening up Tumblr just enough to solicit all those tens of millions of people who aren’t active, registered Tumblr users to come and offer feedback. Feedback is the most important thing. You put something on WordPress, you might get a comment, you probably won’t. You put the same thing on YouTube, you might get a comment calling you fat. Or ugly.

Does it drive you nuts when people complain when Tumblr, a free service, goes down for five minutes?

You get error messages at Google, you get exceptions when accessing the Facebook API. At this scale there are way too many moving parts for it not to happen. Desktop computers still freeze. When people post a screenshot of an error page and we know that they hit refresh once and happened to get an error, that does frustrate me.

You’re a big tea drinker. Favorite flavor?

Moroccan Mint.