What Tumblr’s Origin Story Teaches Us About Passion Products

“I wanted something where I could be free,” Tumblr founder and newly minted billionaire David Karp says. He found it in what one former colleague calls a “one-person product”–and then Yahoo came calling.

What Tumblr’s Origin Story Teaches Us About Passion Products

“There was a tool that I wanted to use that didn’t exist,” Tumblr’s David Karp tells Charlie Rose. “I found myself increasingly frustrated with the direction that the technology was going, which was less and less creative.”


Technology, he continues, was getting more and more restrictive: Put your photos here, your articles there. “I wanted something where I could be free,” he says, “where I could do anything.”

That can-do-anything-ness, you may know, became Tumblr, which recently became part of Yahoo’s acquisition spree.

Where Tumblr is going, where Tumblr has been

For the best perspective on Tumblr’s early days, let’s check in with Marco Arment, whom Karp hired back in 2006. Though Arment would later found Instapaper, he spent years working alongside Karp as lead developer.

In a post called “The One-Person Product,” Arment described how Tumblr differentiated itself: While you could go to WordPress to maintain a traditional blog or Facebook to define yourself by your school, at Tumblr you could “make your own identity and express your creativity.”

From what Arment writes, making that tool for expression is the center of Karp’s life: “David is all Tumblr, all the time.” And being all-Tumblr is to be all-product: Rather than trying to become profitable, Arment says, Karp always kept the team’s focus on driving the product forward.

The post-acquisition mission

And this, Karp tells Rose in language reminiscent of both Warren Buffett and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, is still the driving force of Tumblr.


“Hopefully (Tumblr is) an increasingly large, flexible, creative canvas for some of the most creative people in the world,” he says. “That’s our mission: Every day we find new ways to stretch that canvas and give people more room to make their best work.”

Bottom Line: If you want to create–and drive–a world-changing product, it helps to be beyond devoted to it.

[Image: Flickr user Steven Depolo]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.