The Leadership and Innovation Ways of David Karp

By June 1, 2013Millennial

David Karp - Leadership and InnovationDavid Karp has had an amazing experience, and he is only 26. He is representing Gen Y or Millennial leaders with gusto and results.

Who is David Karp?

David Karp is the Founder and CEO of Tumblr. Tumblr enables people to share text, images, video, and quotes in an effortless way. With over 111 million blogs in Tumblr, it is very popular with younger generations, with about 68% of their users 34 and younger. This may be one of many reasons why Yahoo purchased them for $1.1 billion. This is the second recent acquisition of a company founded by Generation Y and Z.

Brian Solis made this point well:

“Yahoo as a media brand skews toward older demographics. Tumblr is ridiculously strong in terms of engagement among Millennials and to some extent Generation Y.”

A shift to meet the new generation market spend. Yahoo is becoming GenYahoo!

What is unique about David Karp’s leadership ways?

There have been some past interviews with David and provide some insight into his working and leading style. Here are some key leadership points:

Aligned Growth. It is interesting that some of the Millennial leaders come of age as an individual and as a company, bound together. In other words, both grow in sync. In old world terms, we may call this a career path, but it would be inaccurate as careers advance but organizational culture sometimes remains static. In the new world, the individuals and the companies adapt together, learning and changing in positive ways.

Millennial leaders grow as their companies grow, and companies grow as Millennial leaders grow.

Autonomy. Being autonomous was essential for David as well as what he looked for in team members. Some may call it being introverted; others may call it being given space to create and do the work. In all likelihood, it is a mix of both.

The essence of it is trust. David seemed to work hard to gain the trust of others, and he obviously did, evidenced by the “adults” who engaged him and invested in him. It is a mutual trust.

In that autonomy, David seems to trust his team to do the right things for their customers and for their company.

Millennial leaders embrace autonomy for themselves and empower it in others, all based on trust.

Unscheduled. David does not like organized meetings. The only meetings scheduled were formal Board meetings and informal Monday morning all-team meetings. As he said, “I think appointments are caustic to creativity.”

However, being unscheduled doesn’t mean being unorganized. David learned how to sort his email into priority folders, working on the most important items first. He also became a fan of taking notes and an active user of Action Method notebooks.

In the free-form use of time, real work happened along with real creativity and real interaction with other individuals. Moments of getting work done or solving problems were not interrupted by moving to another scheduled meeting.

Millennial leaders focus on solving problems and creating new solutions, unbound by predetermined meeting schedules.

What is unique about David Karp’s innovative ways?

Similar to Nick D’Aloisio, David was enamored with technology at a very young age. This was so evident that his Mom pulled him out of high school and home-schooled him. From working for a family friend involved in a web video production firm to being CTO for UrbanBaby, David was innovating and creating technology solutions at a very early age.

Highlighted below may be some of the innovative ways gleaned from the David Karp story.

Aligned Experiences. David grew up in a digital world. Given that natural tendency and understanding, he was able to see the possibilities of applying new technology to older world ways of doing things. It may have come from frustrations in working with older systems and processes and realizing how newer technologies can drastically change how things are done.

This was evident in his early job in which he convinced the web video firm to be one of the first to market in iTunes. Using and leveraging newer technologies are completely natural, embedded in the way Gen Y creates.

Millennial innovation comes from the experiences and comfort in the digital world.

Open, Lean, Agile. David took a key lesson from Jason Fried and kept very open communication channels with their customers. In listening, it is important to understand what is important and where the momentum takes hold.

Another essential element seemed to be on being cost-efficient. If the operations were lean, it meant they did not have to be distracted with raising money. It also may have kept the path clear from organizational clutter as well as closer alignment with customers and the work being done.

Releasing new features was done in small bites to see what worked and what didn’t. The releases were done while the engineers were around so immediate adjustments could be made as feedback came in. Also, each time a new feature was added, an old one was removed. Remember lean (less to support going forward).

In a hosted solution, there is great value in seeing what new features are being used and which are not. Adjusting quickly by pulling unused features was a key approach. It helped lower maintenance costs but also kept their focus on high-value items, based on customer usage not their own personal biases of perceived value.

Millennial innovation is clearly aligned with customers, quickly developing and adjusting based on immediate feedback and usage patterns.

Community-Oriented. More than just open communication, a sense of community around the product was a key belief and action point. David wanted the company to really align with customers, sensing customer areas of excitement and letting customers know what they were excited about, too. With this diligence to community, a positive friction likely occurred in which the energy of ideas operated at an intense level.

Millennial innovation is fostered through an intertwined, interactive community.

What can we learn from David Karp?

As you read this, you may be thinking “nothing is not that new.” In principle, many principles are timeless. What is changing is how Millennials are taking ageless principles and making them age-appropriate. What I mean is Generation Y is bringing a new mindset and innovation to bear upon solid, tested principles.

As I read through the articles and discovered more about Tumblr and David Karp, I learned a few new things, and my hope is people from different generations will, too. All said, stories like this one are the reasons why I am excited about Millennial leaders.

What changes do you see unfolding with a new generation of leaders? What principles are being refreshed?

Image: Some rights reserved by Pixel y Dixel


Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Scott Torrance says:

    Great post Jon. I have noticed that the best Gen Y leaders truly believe that the rules are negotiable and that we can create our own future.

    I see this in other generations but as you touch upon- I just believe that the environment we have grown up in makes it all the easier to experiment and design our careers/businesses/lives.

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Scott. I agree. Gen Y seems very willing to refresh old principles with new technology and innovative perspectives. It is a great way to lead and to innovate. You have a great opportunity and responsibility ahead! Thanks again for adding your perspective! Jon

      • Scott Torrance says:

        It is an interesting time for all generations. I am happy to say that some of the most innovative and progressive people I know in business are not Gen Y, I think it is more about mindset than age.

        • Jon M says:

          It is definitely a mindset more than age. Another reason why two generations need to sit down and share experiences and insights. Thanks!

  • Jon, an impressively thorough and insightful article–and very informative. Thank you! What I got from reading your analysis of young leaders is the contrast of how much we older generations have evolved to rely on control mechanisms to replace trust, e.g., butt-to-the-seat expectations, calendar full of meetings in the name of keeping each other informed, rigid hierarchies, etc. While up to a certain point, some structure is important, the fluidity of the younger leaders, which may seem chaotic to some of their older counterparts, can teach us something. They have a fresh viewpoint that could truly complement some blind spots we may have inadvertently developed. While we have experience to offer them, they have untethered vision and singular focus on unencumbered creativity that can inspire us. They remind me to always keep a beginner’s mind about what it means to be an effective leader. Thank you, Jon, for this great piece!

    • Jon M says:

      Very well said, Alice, and I agree! When we combine the power of two generations, wonderful things can really happen. David Karp’s story is another great example of this. We can learn a great deal from each other, as long we keep an open mind and spirit. Thank you so much. Spot on insights! Jon

  • blogbrevity says:

    A great read, Jon. I would like to add that the autonomy and support David’s parents gave him to explore his interests was key. You might have seen this interview already, but here David credits his parents:
    “I have a hard time taking too much credit for it,” he told Rose. “I had a lot of dumb luck along the way and some incredibly enabling parents.”

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks for sharing that article, Angela. I had not seen that one but did read some others that highlighted how enabling his parents were in letting him develop and pursue his passion. It is also great to see other adults that entrusted him in his teen years as well. A great way to build and empower a better future!

      Also, I see these characteristics in you in working with your son! Keep doing it and it is a great example for us to follow.

      Thanks! Jon

  • Terri Klass says:

    Fabulous post, Jon about the unique gifts of the Millennials! They are such a treasure to organizations because they can streamline projects with their technology know-how as well as be outstanding collaborators on teams. David Karp is extraordinary as he seems to value both the old and the new. Thanks for sharing this Millennial’s amazing story! Terri

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks, Terri. Really appreciate your feedback, and I share your thoughts on the value Millennials are bringing to innovation and leadership. I believe there are many more positive changes ahead. Thanks! Jon

  • Hiten Vyas says:

    Hi Jon,

    This was a very inspiring article about David Karp and I’ve been following his story and the recent sale of Tumblr to Yahoo on the news very closely.

    I loved the point you made about him growing up in the digital world. I think the digital world has given huge amounts of opportunities to entrepreneurs to develop creative and innovative solutions. What also helps in the digital world is that for digitally-based products, we have instant connections with customers and can quickly get feedback from them.

    Thank you.

    • Jon M says:

      I agree, Hiten. Gen Y leaders and innovators seem to be leveraging their native digital skills very well in translating them into new products, companies, and initiatives. An transformative generation ahead! Thank you. Jon

  • Marquita Herald says:

    Thanks for this great read Jon. I love reading about innovative people and Dave is certainly inspirational.

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