When William Tildesley complained to Tumblr’s founder David Karp expressing his disappointment about recent downtime, and asking about issues with various other features, he got a response which was unexpected. William was writing to ask not only about the level of uptime Tumblr has had over the past months, “…but also with countless issues posting, queuing” (which he only realised was down when he visited their help page), and about their “‘backup’ mac application deciding not to work”. He duly got a personal response from Karp, the 24-year-old founder of Tumblr. Here we should mention that William has blogged with Tumblr for two years and has bought various premium themes from them – recently paying good money to be featured in the directory of blogs on Tumblr – so he’s a paying customer, and a loyal one which Tumblr should value.
Karp responded abruptly, saying that “…we have no interest in customers that will go out of their way to discourage our entire team” continuing to say that this is a “…team that regularly spends their nights and weekends working feverishly to provide the best service we can against extraordinary challenges”. He signed off saying that “Plenty of services will import Tumblr blogs. Please go away.”
I’m not sure what one can glean from this e-mail which Karp sent out – although perhaps some questions should be asked. Firstly we’re unsure how William was “discouraging the entire team”, although beside that point one would have to ask why the team behind a company which has received in excess of $40 million venture capital funding is required to spend “their nights and weekends working feverishly”. We’d also have to side with William here and say that it’s debatable whether Tumblr is offering “…the best service they can”.
A knee-jerk response like this which is immediately defensive clearly shows that Karp has something to hide. Perhaps from this we can ascertain that there is some sort of internal friction with his team – perhaps some dislocation, maybe they’re overworked, or perhaps even some personal insecurity on his part. One thing is certain though – and it’s also how William responded to the e-mail. If Tumblr carries on the way it is – it won’t keep up with it’s competitors – namely Posterous and WordPress.
Many would argue that since Tumblr is a relatively new start-up they should be given some leeway when it comes to the level of service one expects, and also given that Tumblr is a ‘free’ service, apparently we should always expect less. (Should this be the case – especially with Freemium services?) Additionally, as one commenter on Hacker News pointed out, some might ague that “He’s young”. “He’s actually a nice guy”, going on to say that “These are the kinds of statements that should only carry weight when you have a personal relationship. A relationship with a company/website/app is no more or less than the sum of your interactions with them. I have a “good” relationship with Apple and Amex. A “bad” one with AT&T etc., based on transactions, not personal relations”.
The point here though, is not just where the $40 million funding is going with this relatively straight forward blogging service – and whether they should be spending money paying twenty fashion bloggers to go to New York fashion week as opposed to sorting out the technical issues plaguing their service first, but it’s also about the attitude of its founder.
Tumblr has a limited lifespan if Karp continues to treat some of his most valuable users the way he is, and especially when he quite literally tells them to “go away”, we can’t help but assume that that is exactly what they will do. These people are early-adopters, and evangelists – a start-up’s most valuable clientèle.
Karp seems to be glossing over, or ignoring some real issues with Tumblr and concentrating on others which really aren’t integral to the service itself. Surely a service with this amount of funding behind it can afford enough resources to host animated gifs for instance; a direct quote from their help centre reads “…please avoid uploading unreasonably large animated GIFs.” in case the “server runs out of memory” – because uploading animated GIFs apparently is “computationally intensive”. The point here isn’t that they can’t host animated gifs – of course that doesn’t matter – but surely server resources should be the top priority for a start-up growing at the pace which it is, and with the seemingly abundant funding at it’s disposal. The Oatmeal recently suggested a new Tumblr downtime mascot for instance, and it looks like Tumblr has adopted it as of the other day – a quick reaction – but should they really be spending their time doing this, as opposed to fixing the real issue? Are their priorities right?
Another issue seems to be with customer service – and the means by which Tumblr notify customers that there are issues. Should users be expected to constantly monitor their help page or Twitter stream to check that integral features such as back up and queue are working?
So all in all the recent $40 million funding win is good news for Tumblr in what’s been a very turbulent past few months, marked by significant downtime and reliability issues with its service, although could throwing money at the service just exasperate issues? Could Karp’s care-free and cavalier attitude be the ultimate downfall of Tumblr?
In a second response a day later, Karp reiterated the fact that William should “go away” if he has a problem with Tumblr, and in the same e-mail he accused William’s short and polite initial e-mail as wholly “unconstructive [sic]” – so he’s not turning a blind eye to the issues – he’s effectively denying they are an issue in the first place. In fact, his team are behind him and giving all the support he needs – support that is, for his attitude – and his very poor response to some real issues; 60-year-old Kavin O’Farrel, a Community Manager at Tumblr, who accidentally CC’d William in to a response said “Thanks, David. Your response was awesome. I really appreciate it”. Perhaps the team are repeatedly telling themselves they’re doing a good job – or moreover perhaps this is a sign of bad leadership – not just because they can’t admit they have issues with reliability, but also because they are having to work “nights and weekends” to run what they think is the “best service”. Since being dubbed a “play boy of tech” perhaps he is too busy in “yet another” photo shoot to care…
Some say that Karp is the creator of a “a non-revenue generating hipster blogging site” led by a founder who “steals [VC’s] money and uses it for his own pleasure” – possibly in reference to his use of a private jet (though we’re not sure it is a private jet) – but on a more serious note, others have more justified, nonetheless equally vocal opinions. A quick search for “downtime” on Tumblr reveals how others feel negatively about the issues too – interestingly in a post entitled “Tumblr – listen before it’s too late.”, Jon Beckett has some strong words for Tumblr – which couldn’t be more accurate and in line with the points we’re trying to get across here. He writes “Without users you are nothing” continuing to say “do something, before it’s too late”. He expands on this point – saying that “The web startups on the west coast you [Tumblr] seem to like comparing yourself with are significantly different in one regard. They care about what they are doing, and they therefore care about the service they provide to their users.” He also picks up on the whole fashion bloggers thing – saying that “…you might term it hippy evangelism, or misguided vision, but most startups are doing something they believe in, and lifting heaven and earth to make it happen. Why bother sending 20 bloggers to Fashion Week when nobody can read what they’ve written because the platform they are published on is so unstable?“. Karp would probably argue that his seemingly overworked team are indeed lifting heaven and earth to create what he sees as “the best service” – though most would tend to disagree with respect to the evidence on the ground. Just as William said in a response to David Karp’s abrupt e-mail “…users will only stand a certain amount of downtime and technical issues before they move on to competing services.” So what do you think about the way Tumblr is heading?
This is by no means a recent issue too – Tumblr has been ignoring complaints routinely for the past year whilst Karp apparently indulges in the money he gains from funding – in June last year blogger Alice Walker Wright proclaimed that “David Karp Doesn’t Care About Your Complaints, He Has A Sweet Ride“. We can see that the queue feature wasn’t working correctly even back then – despite having now received in excess of $40 million funding, and apparently hiring even more ‘professional business staff‘. Alice went on to say that “it just feels like he’s been on a 4 month spending spree”.
So can it stand up for much longer against it’s competitors Posterous and WordPress? Will it face a backlash from it’s users? Disregarding those threatening to kill themselves last time Tumblr went down, many genuinely moved to other services, albeit not in their masses – so is this a sign of things to come?. Tumblr is popular now, but if it continues to be plagued with issues (which do matter), then will its popularity fade as quickly as it gained it - will it go the way of MySpace sooner, rather than later – especially under the leadership of Karp? Let us know in the comments below.
UPDATE: William has got back in touch with us to say that he’s now leaving Tumblr, saying that although he will be leaving behind some of the friendships he has made there, a working blogging platform is more important to him. He has also since e-mailed Tumblr twice more asking for a response, to no avail.
UPDATE: A commenter on Hacker News has said that they “…hope that Karp realises his mistake and makes a public apology. At least this way he would look mature enough to admit his mistakes.” The commenter went on to say that they were “…about to start a personal blog on Tumblr, and will not be now due to this article”.
UPDATE: A separate commenter on Hacker News made the point that the original e-mail sent to Tumblr should be posted in its entirety. With the permission of William, here it is. Once again we should reiterate that William has been a very active Tumblr user for over two years, and is a paying member in the form of purchasing premium themes and a directory listing. He’s also quite an evangelist for the service and has never uttered a bad word publicly about Tumblr – in fact he has had nothing but praise for them until he received this response. He tells us that he did give Tumblr a fair chance before going public – he emailed them privately with his concerns, though after receiving the abrupt response from David Karp felt the need to make the issues public, and so he got in touch with us at PostDesk.
Here’s the e-mail William sent.
I am writing this email to you to express my recent disappointment with Tumblr.
Not only with the level of uptime tumblr has had over the past few months, but with countless issues posting, queueing (which I only realised was down when I visited your help page), and your ‘backup’ mac application deciding not to work.
I would move to a different service, but with no export feature and with the friendships I’ve made through tumblr I will have to hope that you fix these issues in the near future.
Yours Truly Disappointed,