Tumblr founder David Karp lives a "spartan" life with his $1.6 million 1,600 square-foot Williamsburg loft outfitted with a restaurant-grade kitchen, explains Forbes's Jeff Bercovici in this month's cover story. Wait, what? That doesn't sound very meager to us. (Nor to critics in the Twitterverse.) But, he has nothing in the big, expensive Williamsburg box, explains Bercovici. "I don’t have any books. I don’t have many clothes," Karp told him. "I’m always so surprised when people fill their homes up with stuff."
Karp and his affluent asceticism grew up on the Upper West Side and once he dropped out of high school moved to an apartment owned by his parents where he lived alone. His father helped him draw up his initial consulting contracts in his early coding days.
Bercovici starts his piece off with a description of Karp's home, "located in the world’s hipster capital, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where irony trumps showiness–he’s quite possibly the richest person in the neighborhood. But the most telling feature is on the inside, which contains … virtually nothing. A spartan bedroom with a half-empty closet. A living room area with nothing but a sofa and a TV." Responding to critics, Bercovici has clarified that Karp strives for a Spartan aesthetic not really living a monkish existence.
@benjaminjackson It's about an aesthetic, not being an ascetic.— Jeff Bercovici (@jeffbercovici) January 2, 2013
Ah yes: So he does care about money, he just wants to make it look like he doesn't. The question then becomes: Why feign a certain lifestyle at all?
This sparse living is something of a fashion statement for tech-moguls. These entrepreneurs like to look like they don't care about money, even if they do. Mark Zuckerberg wears hoodies and drives an Acura. (Karp, too, drove an Acura, as recently as 2008.) Steve Jobs didn't need much, just "a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had," as evidenced in this famous photo of him at his home in 1982.
But, how truly simple are the lives of these people? Steve Jobs built an ostentatious super-yacht, which reportedly cost $126 million. He also didn't think much of charity, apparently. Zuckerberg may not have cared about money as his company headed into its supposed very big valuation. Facebook isn't just a company he said, but something that would change the world. But, when that stock started to fall, he suddenly started to care a lot more about the dollars.
Why pretend, then? This kind of way-of-life helps them maintain a certain image about their company's values. The iPhone isn't just a gadget for sale; it's a world changing device that has connected billions of people. Facebook isn't just a social network; it makes the world open and connected. It's similar to how Silicon Valley doesn't like us to know about its bro culture: It doesn't match the ideals behind the tech. The same goes for Karp and Tumblr, his way of life says something about his company. Bercovici explains:
Karp’s intolerance for the inessential imbues Tumblr. Where others looked at the twin revolutions of blogging and social networking and saw new tools for communication, Karp saw possibilities for making them radically easier and more intuitive. Tumblr lowered the bar to creating a beautiful, dynamic website and raised the payoff in the form of positive social reinforcement.
This thing he built jibes with his values—for now. But, as Karp tries to monetize that, the company and its actions might not match this so-called spartan lifestyle Karp built. He might have to "sell-out," as The New York Times's Rob Walker put it. And when that happens, Karp can point back to his empty $1.6 million apartment and remind us that he doesn't care about money, while people who really do care about money (the ones who pay a lot to own a piece of Tumblr) will begin straying from Karp's pure functionalism ethos. At least, that's how this movie usually ends.