It's hard to imagine what could be worse than being fired in the same paragraph that heaps praise upon the work you've been doing. But at Tumblr, there is worse: your company shitcans you and then unveils shiny new LA real estate. What are they thinking?
Storyboard's story was short and strange: the editorial section, handpicking the gem posts amid the Tumblr's flurry of porn and spam, launched to acclaim. It would present a smart, friendly face for the otherwise sprawling, NSFW network. It might have even given Tumblr something to make money off of. Silicon Alley prodigy and Tumblr founder David Karp seemed pleased enough:
A year ago, Tumblr did something unprecedented — we created an editorial team of experienced journalists and editors assigned to cover Tumblr as a living, breathing community. The team’s mandate was to tell the stories of Tumblr creators in a truly thoughtful way — focusing on the people, their work, and their stories. The result of this ambitious experiment was Storyboard. After hundreds of stories and videos, features by publishers ranging from Time to MTV to WNYC — not to mention a nomination for a James Beard Award and entries into this year’s NY Press Club Awards — we couldn’t be happier with our team’s effort.
And in the same breath, he fired them all: "our editorial team will be closing up shop and moving on." Moving on to not having a job. Only a few days later, Tumblr VP of Sales Lee Brown posted pictures (including requisite grinning exec group shot) of the company's new digs in Culver City, a cushy corporate suburb of LA. Not the most artful timing—and indicative of an atmosphere of confusion and contempt at the Tumblr mothership.
To start, the destruction of Storyboard, says one former staffer (all emphasis added) was abrupt, but not out of character:
Because Tumblr is so volatile in many ways, nobody feels totally secure in their jobs.
But then the screw was turned:
LA office photos — Tacky! It's a sales office though. Gotta make that $$. That part wasn't a surprise, they just clearly had no tact in the posting photos of it. On any other day nobody would have noticed.
We've also heard from a current Tumblr employee that the LA satellite will house some of the company's media "evangelists "—a fancy word for publicists that makes them feel better and indicates Tumblr's enthusiasm distortion field. This makes sense given that all the TV shows and motion picture cinema strips are conjured up in Culver City's back yard, but doesn't make a whole lot of sense given that Tumblr is... Tumblr.
There's no clear way it's going to start raking in cash by inking GIF deals with Paramount (at least not enough to make a difference), at a time when revenue is increasingly crucial to the company, and its chief is increasingly oblivious (or full of shit) regarding that fact. According to our ex-Tumblr-er, advertising wasn't even on Karp's mind until recently: "a couple months ago, DK was of the belief that Tumblr didnt need marketing at all."
The disregard for the importance of a business to make money is only more glaring when you get Storyboard's take. Our source told me they doubted their axing had much to do with money, and everything to do with posturing. Or ineptitude:
I would be shocked if the three...journalist salaries plus budget was remotely close to the other budgets and engineering salaries at Tumblr. This was not a money issue.
Our source speculated that a recent catered sushi dinner for Karp at the L.A. branch was nearly half the budget of certain internal departments. So if money wasn't on Karp's mind, why kill Storyboard?
It may have been an issue of showing investors that they were cutting unnecessary fat, and [Storyboard was] an easy place to cut from. Tumblr doesn't NEED an editorial team. It was nice, I think [Storyboard] did a great job, but when the obsession is bringing in funds quick and there is not a single strategic thinking grownup in a position of power the idea that you might be able to monetize the work [Storyboard was] doing wasn't pressing.
David Karp, who's willing to say in an interview that he doesn't consider making money important for his company, sure doesn't appear to be one of those grownups—and if he keeps pulling moves like layoffs with an LA real estate chaser, it's going to be tough to attract any at all.