Fast Company Editor Robert Safian sits down with Tumblr’s CEO, David Karp, for a wide-ranging exploration of what it means to innovate on the web and in the social sphere today. Part of Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored 2013, 23-24 April in NYC. (Not word-for-word)
Safian: The theme of today is lessons of the most innovative companies. Tumblr is on that list…..[stats on Tumblr]… What is Tumblr?
Karp: It’s all a credit to the creative We’re trying to build a home for creators, and get it in front of an audience.
Safian: Is that home the same for users, investors and advertisers?
Karp: Many users not only come to create stuff, they come to see stuff. Our investors, absolutely. Our promise for advertisers is that this is a place for creativity, and this is a place where they can do the advertising they want to do, the kind of ads up to Mad Men aspirations.
Safian: Are the words we use to describe these things…is it a media platform? And ad platform?
Karp: We’re looking for a VP of Marketing right now. It started as a community, building tools that our users would love. Then a media network emerged, it evolves. These products evolve.
Safian: When you were first starting Tumblr, there wasn’t a focus on mobile.
Karp: This is a new and very core competency for us. We were a little behind on for a bit. Last year we had 2 star apps, and ended the year with 4 star apps. We built up our team, and I think we’ve caught up and really started pushing those boundaries.
Safian: …..How do you get your organization to change its mindset around mobile?
Karp: We’re down for the word “mobile”…. one of the big moments that wasn’t necessarily deliberate was when we started launching features that were mobile first and also designing features mobile first. It forces you to really think about it. What’s the core of this new feature?
The idea of exploration and discovery is no easy feat on Tumblr, but all of the engineering we’re doing around this concept on Tumblr… if we can nail the one or two key features, we can really scale that space.
Safian: One of the assertions of Generation Flux is that it’s not defined by chronological age….it’s a mindset. You’re 26. DO you think it’s easier to be younger? With the pace of change, is it easier?
Karp: I dunno. I used to feel like it’s all brand new to me, and now I’ve had a chance to feel a lot of this out. We have some extraordinary experience, and people with more experience than I have on the team. We’ve had luck with all sorts of people at Tumblr….It takes all types of people, and depends on where you are at the moment.
Safian: There are a lot of people that get pegged as startup guys, and might now stay with companies that long. You’ve stayed with Tumblr. Why?
Karp: For me, this was a very small idea in the beginning. It was something missing that I thought should exist and I took it on. I was really surprised at how many people also liked the idea, and wanted to put effort into making it happen. For me, it’s less about whether I like big or small companies…. for me, my guiding light is this mission that’s really formed. It focuses on a community that’s so underserved in the world, the community that makes the stuff we enjoy. None of the big guys are thinking about giving the the tools to really make that stuff, help them get fans and even commercialize. We think that’s where things are going. I’m still really excited about that.
Safian: As the business grows, you probably recognize there are some things you’re good at and not as good at. Is there a way to think about those things you’re less good at that you have to learn, or hire someone else?
Karp: There’s stuff that you actually enjoy. It might be that you want to do something, and that’s your jam…. Thinking hard about what you actually enjoy and being sensitive to that. Also, understanding that, when you’re in hyper-growth mode… if you haven’t done it before, you’re going to be learning on the job, and it’s a critical job. It’s very much worth considering the cost of you learning on the job versus bringing in help that knows what you’re doing and can get you there.
Safian: You started something called Storyboards… and it wasn’t something that had metrics for success, and then at some point you decided it wasn’t working, and it got shut down. What was that decision?
Karp: This was an ambitious experiment that none of us would call a failure. It was cool, but the trick is that when you have a whole team focused on that sort of project, it’s resource intensive…Our idea was, what if we started the “Tumblr Beat.” It was neat, it kicked off a few other companies – Facebook Stories, etc – and if we could tell these stories the way journalists could, it wasn’t traditional marketing. But we didn’t have the formula for it…. to do too much storytelling ourselves, we take away the storytelling from our community, which is what they’re there for.