Tumblr cometh

The day that Tumblr announced that they would be opening a satellite office in Richmond, VA the various ‘o’sphere’s (blog, net, twit) exploded with questions and praise. On Thursday January 13th, Tumblr’s creator and current Product Director, David Karp flew to Richmond, VA to christen the new office and answer some of Richmond’s most dire questions.

The day that Tumblr, a beloved blogging platform to over 12 million blogs with a world-wide audience of 50 million people, announced that they would be opening a satellite office in Richmond, VA the various ‘o’sphere’s (blog, net, twit) exploded with questions and praise. On Thursday January 13th, Tumblr’s creator and current Product Director, David Karp flew to Richmond, VA to christen the new office and answer some of Richmond’s most dire questions.

We met in Tumblr’s bright green office in the Corrugated Box Building in Manchester, that they will share with CoLab Multimedia and circle S Studio. Modern furniture, open work-spaces, and dozens of brand-new Macs glisten in the available light from the ample windows and skylights of the office. I enter the glass doors, newly adorned with the Tumblr logo in frosted glass, and find David seated at a conference table in the middle of a handful of work-spaces. Although slightly sick and having just walked off his plane, David is friendly and personable and eager to talk about Tumblr.

Briefly can you explain what Tumblr does that is different than the other blogging platforms?

David Karp: Tumblr came from me really wanting to blog for a really long time. I aspired so much to having something online where I could share all the stuff that I thought was cool, that I was working on and have something online that I was proud of. A thing that I could put on my business cards, something I could link people to, something that people would see when they googled me. So I tried all these platforms and the longest one I ever kept up with was Blogger for I think three months and what I always fell down at was that big empty text box that you got when you went to post. I just thought that’s such a burden because I’m not a verbose person. I can write, but its work and I don’t really enjoy it. What I really wanted to do with Tumblr which was build a blogging platform that I could actually use. It was really about getting away from that big, empty text box.

What are the main goals for the service this year?

DK: One of the main goals is building out a community arm for our company. That’s something that is very loosely defined, we haven’t done to date. We’ve been a 100% product company. Now that includes a support team obviously that does some community outreach, an engineering and operations, but ultimately it’s all around the product, the platform, and making sure we’re building the thing that people can use to do all this great stuff. We wound up in this spectacular, incredibly rare position now where these incredible creative communities have shown up, they’re now on Tumblr.

You look in fashion, creative writing, photography, music, so many of these creative circles and we have these really substantial communities that now live on Tumblr. There’s a next level of that, and we’ve done four or five events since Tumblr’s inception: there was a concert, a reading series we did, a film festival. As we get better at holding these events, and as these communities get more and more engaged they’ve been spectacular and the results we’ve seen from our reading series in New York and our Film Festival in Los Angeles were huge. They did wonderful things for the communities that were there and resonated through the industries and brought attention to all of the stuff that was happening on Tumblr and all of this great creative energy to people who were maybe not aware of Tumblr before, and not aware of all the great stuff that was happening there.

So that’s something that we want to get better at doing this next year that we’ve only ever dabbled in to date, and I imagine that by the end of this year that’ll end up being maybe be half of our team, people that are brought on to, and we’ve started to hire them, we’ve got two now, we have our first generalist in that team, and our first specialist, who is Rich Tong our fashion director. He’s the guy who, he happens to have this great background. His last company was acquired by Google, he has this really spectacular product and company view, I don’t know if I should say start-up view, on this stuff, but he also has the fashion vocabulary, so unlike everybody else at Tumblr, he can go into that community and say “Well, why do you use Tumblr? What could we be doing better? What’s the most interesting stuff that’s going on right now and where do we find it? Very often we don’t know where this stuff is on our network. So that’s something that we want to get really really good at.

We’re right in the middle of proving that we can get ahead of the curve with all this and get a support team in place that can handle the volume that we’re doing and an operations team in place that can scale us through the next hundred years and get an engineering team in place that can get us really pushing product. That’s been slowed down slightly over the last month as we’ve had to devote engineering resources to scaling, it’s been necessary but also very frustrating, so we want to ensure that “that never happens again” and as a result we have a queue now of a ton of features that we’re ready to push. We want to make sure that we have all the engineers and all the resources to push the stuff as quickly as we can. We have a lot that we wanna do with it.

Are there any other features for the service that you can talk about right now?

DK: Directories are getting a major overhaul, that’s something that we’re right in the middle of, and that lends itself to some of the community stuff that we’re thinking of. One thing that’s clear is that when we do a cool film festival and we build a couple custom tools to service that, if we’re doing a neat fashion thing and we want to build some things to aggregate all of this activity that’s going on within that community during fashion week, we’ve been looking for common threads between all of these special things that we’ve been pulling together, and just in thinking about community and hiring community people, thinking about what we can build to give them awesome tools to do awesome things with those communities, it’s clear that our current directories fall short. So we want to replace that and rebuild parts of that into something that’s spectacular for organizing those creative communities.

Community Director Marc LaFountain, and Jeff Rock, Product Director for Tumblr Mobile, both Richmonders, enter the space and join us at the conference room table. Coincidentally the discussion shifts to address them.

So how did you connect with Marc?

Marc was the third employee at Tumblr and I owe him so much. This was back when I was part stubborn, but more just terribly nervous and anxious about everything so it was just me and Marco [Arment], the first person I ever hired. I had this little consulting shop that was just me, and every once in a while I’d work with my buddies who were also 19 or 20. We’d put little websites together for people.

Six months in, Tumblr starts getting some pretty real traction. We got some real pickup right away, and all of the sudden there are like support emails and articles, I’m doing Interviews and I’m having to do plan blog posts and feature releases all this stuff and as it got bigger and bigger and bigger, I’m not good at this regardless, but I got really bad at responding to support emails.

Marc (who was working for the VA Department of Emergency Management at the time) as one of the very first Tumblr users and as an engaged member of this community noticed that I think partly before anyone, perhaps he was the only one to really catch on, and got a hold of me and said “hey, you’re kinda slipping on this stuff, is this anything that I can help with?”

I remember the first few emails where I’m like “oh ok,” I felt bad about it, was about the extent of it. It was partially cocky, like OK I was gonna get a handle on this, and we’d find a cool tool that would organize all the stuff rather than like auto-responses, but I could handle support. I was looking towards like 37Signals and Steve Jobs personal replies to emails and going “this is way cooler” you can just email one of us and we’ll send you a technical response to one of your questions. It really didn’t work and at some point it was getting really bad for the service and it was driving me insane. I remember one day when my anxiety about growing the team; I’m sorry that was the other piece about this too, I was terribly anxious about going from a team from two to a team of three or more. I thought that hiring one more person we were suddenly gonna go to like a team of five or more people which was just a horrible idea at the time.

So at some point my anxiety, broken by an inbox of like 1000 unanswered emails from people that I thought were wonderful users that I really wanted to respond to, that was the day that I broke down and said “Mark, when can you start, do you think that you can help me get through this inbox today?” And he started and, how many months was it that I was just sending you checks and you were on top of it.

At some point — after about four months — Marc raised his had and I think it was awesome at that point, but he raised his hand and said “This is turning into a full-time job and its something that I’d love to help with.” At some point it occurred to me that Marc is absolutely brilliant, taking this so much further than I ever was, and than I had ever imagined that we would ever be able to take it.

(To Marc) I’m sure you remember this phone call, and I had no experience hiring anyone, and this was someone that I had never met before, and at the time I thought that you had kids and were like a real grownup, and I was so scared of you that. This was right after we raised money and I was like “I can pay you what you want and I love you and this is incredible and all these great things.” I had this big list and I was so nervous about this phone call that I was a nervous wreck on the thing. As I recall, you sounded so confused because I’m sure my tone was such that it sounded like I was giving you the worst news in the world but I was going through the checklist like “this is great’ were going for it.” I remember that Marc sent me a follow-up email saying “just want to confirm that we’re OK?” I was so nervous about the whole thing because that to me was the most pivotal change in going from a little-side project to “we had a team” and Marc was it. He set such a specular example for the attitude towards community and just the company turned into.

How did you get connected with Jeff and Mobelux?

DK: They were one of the first developers to release a Tumblr iphone app. Once the iPhone store opened up we had plans to do an official app, we imagined that would come three or four months after the app store opened up. These guys, a few weeks after the store opened released this killer app built on top of the Tumblr API, and it was one of the first apps that really used all of the features of the API that we had had out for a few months. It was just so much more well considered and designed and just so beautifully thought out. It was only two bucks and we thought It would be amazing if we could tell all of our users to go buy this thing. It would be amazing if we could do it for free, maybe subsidize it. We got to talking [with] them and this was their first product, and one of their first engineering projects. They’d both just changed careers, they got together and wanted to get into iPhone development, were fans of Tumblr, they wanted to play with our API and they built this killer app with it. We went to them and said “what’s your deal, this is the coolest thing ever. If we give you new APIs can we build features around that, is there a way we can do this cheaper, or free for our users?” We wound up absorbing it a few months after they released it thus making it the official Tumblr app, and them the official mobile team for Tumblr.

What is in the works for them?

DK: A lot of things in the works. They have since grown that team and are now taking on our iOS, Blackberry, Android development. We haven’t released our iPad app yet, that’s a big new project. The iPhone revisions are really substantial, and we’re going back now and really building a lot of functionality into the Android app that I think was missing and really doing the Blackberry app completely, as it’s pretty rudimentary. That’s harder to build for frankly, so we just have a rudimentary app now that they’re working with us to make robust.

So how did the idea to create an office in Richmond come about?

DK: First of all we just moved our New York offices a few months ago so we’ve had space on our minds recently, and in all of this the support team here is growing, the mobile team is growing, both very quickly. It was just natural to ask that “do you guys want us to get you guys a building, a space somewhere and get started building out?” We had mentioned it a few months ago and they weren’t quite ready, but it’s just recently crossed a threshold where there’s enough going on that it’s helpful to be in the same space. These guys again, over the last couple months have pushed us to set everyone up and make it official.

How do you plan to carry over the culture of the NY office to this space?

DK: It’s funny again, Marc very much seeded the original culture, so I think that’s very much represented in New York. We still see Marc in New York most months and we get to spend time, he’s very much a part of the team. Just about everybody in the New York office interacts with Marc pretty much every day: our product team interacts with him very closely, our engineering team interacts with him very closely for anything related to technical inquiries and things. We’re still very much connected and I think you can do that remotely. Remember, the entire Virginia team, mobile development, the whole thing, was fragmented here even, so you can have it work remotely. Just because everyone on our team in New York is so connected to everybody over here that it works.

I put on my Tumblr the fact that I’d be doing this interview and the only questions I got were how can people get jobs?

DK: [We’re looking for] really great engineers, really nice and patient people to join our support team, I think it’s clear that we’re hiring. Its hard to imagine that we’re going to be going from, with the entire team, 30 people, potentially approaching 100 people by the end of the year. Realistically we’re hiring people on the community side, we’re hiring people in support. We’ll be bringing in dozens of really good, patient people to join the support team and really talented engineers is really what we’re looking for more than anything.

David and the rest of the team politely excused themselves and joined the rest of their Richmond team at lunch. I next saw David a few hours later at the Tumblr meetup at nearby Legend Brewery. He made his rounds throughout the space, but for the duration of the evening he and his staff were mobbed by 300 members of the techie-elite of Richmond who gave them a rockstar’s welcome. When he and his New York City staff head back to the city they will leave Marc and his team of six support staff, and Jeff with his 4 developers in Richmond with a huge responsibility riding on their shoulders and a city ready to embrace their new tech saviours.

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Johnny Hugel

Johnny Hugel is a hopeless multi-tasker who spends many an evening writing about the distractions (across film, tv, comedy and the web) that keep him from focusing on his own projects, as scattered as they may be.

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