David Karp: Leader of the New School (2013 Online Cover Story)

Tumblr's founding CEO shares the vision that made Yahoo! drop a billion.

This feature is a part of Complex's "Tumblr Generation" Week.

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Written by Damien Scott (@Thisisdscott)

David Karp is smiling, but not for the reason you think. It's not because he just pocketed an estimated $250 million from Yahoo!'s acquisition of Tumblr for $1.1 billion. When I meet with the co-founder of one of the web’s hottest properties in early May, that headline-grabbing deal is still two weeks away. On this day he’s smiling because he figured out the best way to get dressed.

Lanky and pencil-thin, Karp, 26, wears an ever-present grin that occasionally gives way to a wry smile. It’s the same grin you'll see if you do a Google image search for him. He seems happy, and his affable demeanor gives you the feeling that this is how he always looks. Like most young tech CEOs he has a uniform of sorts. His consists of a fitted hooded sweatshirt, a button-down Oxford shirt, jeans, and white Jack Purcells. And that's exactly what he’s wearing today, with the exception of the kicks—he opted for red Chuck Taylors. Karp says he usually wears the same type of clothing, because it makes his life that much easier.

“A couple years ago, I noticed that it could take me 30 minutes to get dressed in the morning and it really frustrated me,” he says while sitting in a comfortable-looking chair in Tumblr's airy, wood-floored Manhattan headquarters. He keeps one foot on the floor and the other tucked beneath him. “I didn’t want to do the Jobsian one outfit, but I didn’t want to ever worry about how my outfits were configured," he explains, reducing sartorial flair to a programming problem. "So I got rid of all but one style of sneakers—my Jack Purcells—I got a couple pairs of pants that were khakis and blue jeans, and a bunch of collared shirts that I knew would go with blue and khaki.”

To further simplify his wardrobe, Karp bought a gang of the same underwear and socks so he never has to wear that one pair of underwear everyone hates to rock come laundry day. You can tell he’s thought this through, and that having figured it out brings him a lot of joy. The same kind of joy, perhaps, that came from writing and implementing code back in 2007, before Tumblr grew from a company headquartered in his bedroom to one with offices on both coasts.

 

I noticed that it could take me 30 minutes to get dressed in the morning and it really frustrated me. I didn’t want to do the Jobsian one outfit, but I didn’t want to ever worry about how my outfits were configured.

 

That same dedication to minimalism and simplicity in his personal life has guided Karp’s hand in creating Tumblr. In much the same way that Facebook made social networking cleaner and easier, so did Tumblr with blogging. Creating a Tumblr page takes under five minutes. Publishing a post takes even less time. Even if you’ve never created anything more complicated than a Microsoft Word doc, you could make your Tumblr page look like something crafted by a professional art department.

Besides streamlining his closet, David Karp has a lot to be happy about. Since founding Tumblr in 2007, the New York native has enjoyed a steady, if challenging, rise to the top. At the age of 20, he created what's become one of the most popular publishing platforms on the Internet. In 2009, BusinessWeek named him the “Best Young Tech Entrepreneur.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the college he probably would have attended had he attended college (or even completed high school), listed him as one of the top 35 innovators in the world under the age of 35. He’s amassed a fortune well north of $200 million, which mostly sits untouched since he claims not to splurge (although he and his girlfriend, chef Rachel Eakley, did purchase a sick $1.6 million loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn).

Of all the things Karp has to be happy about, the biggest may be that after years of struggling to turn a profit, Tumblr’s financial woes have been all but eradicated. When Yahoo!’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, began talks with Tumblr last November, Karp had no plans to sell the company. But he could not pass up what he'd later describe as “an unbelievable opportunity to shortcut all the very hard things that we were about to be going through.” Just what kind of “hard things”? The things that most start-ups have difficulty doing, like making money. 

Karp’s use of the word “hard” when talking about finances shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Long the poster boy for New York City’s nascent start-up tech scene, Karp has long been big on creative vision but seemed less interested in the monetary side of his company. He once remarked that web advertising "really turns our stomachs," and appeared more comfortable poring through lines of code, looking for ways to make the service faster, better, stronger. But like many tech prodigies before him—including Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page—the time came when he could no longer spend his days and nights staring at his two-monitor set-up. With a pre-acquisition valuation of $800 million, Tumblr’s CEO had to, well, act like a CEO. 

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