TUMBLR HITS REVISE: David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, the microblogging site, caused a stir last week when, in a blog post lavishly praising one of his site’s newer projects, an edited and reported blog called Storyboard, he also said he was killing it and firing its staff of three.
“We couldn’t be happier with our team’s effort,” Karp wrote. But, then — “Storyboard has run its course for now, and our editorial team will be closing up shop and moving on.”
This story first appeared in the April 18, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
If he was so proud of the little upstart, why shut it down when it was just hitting its stride? On Wednesday, Karp got a chance to explain himself, again, at a tech conference by the site paidContent.
A year ago, when Karp decided to start Storyboard, Tumblr was undergoing a tremendous growth spurt. There were so many new users, he felt a need to highlight the best among them.
“Marketing Tumblr is really about surfacing the incredible stuff that’s going on here,” he said. “One of the ways we were hoping to do that was to literally start the Tumblr beat.” Storyboard was a relatively inexpensive way to do that.
He hired editors, three veterans of editorial outfits like BlackBook and Newsweek/Daily Beast, and gave them creative freedom to do with the blog what they wanted. To promote the new blog, Karp threw a kickoff party at the Tribeca Grand last May. Storyboard found scores of fascinating characters behind the hundreds of millions of blogs on Tumblr — fanatics of One Direction, for instance, and a coffee shop barista who made intricate drawings on his lattes — and also attempted to cover serious subjects, like last year’s political conventions, attended by its three editors and a team of six “correspondents,” hand-picked Tumblr bloggers.
But less than a year after its launch, Karp decided it wasn’t working “in the ways we had intended it to work.” He originally wanted Storyboard to highlight the best of the network, but now he believes Tumblr ought to be like survival of the cutest, with the best content rising to the top.
“We don’t want to be too prescriptive. We want to help you get to the stuff you’re going to love, but we don’t want to say what great Tumblr content is,” he said. “You don’t want to scare off anybody. You don’t want to overemphasize one community while making another community feel neglected.”
Those Tumblrs that have succeeded already — Karp said seventy of them have signed book deals, and in the last month three others got TV development deals — found an audience without any help from Tumblr, the company.
“That wasn’t us pushing a button saying, ‘You’re it.’ It was these guys showing up, doing their best work, and earning an audience,” said Karp.
And so if Tumblr is now definitively not a media company but just a platform, how is it going to make money? “The one we’re hinging our business on for the foreseeable future is advertising. With this much engagement it’s a natural for us to start there,” said Karp.
In February, Tumblr turned six and it can now claim more than 100 million users. It finished 2012 with $13 million in revenue and in its last funding round, in September 2011, was valued at $800 million, according to Forbes. But is it profitable? Not at the moment, Karp said.
He hopes it’ll be a big business in the long run, but profitability “is not a milestone that’s particularly important to us,” he said. “I don’t think any of us are sweating it right now.”