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The Story of Flickr


Internet fads are constantly coming and going. Often, when I first hear about a site like Flickr or Tumblr, I look into it briefly, maybe even utilize the service, and then, ultimately, take it for granted. But the truth is each of the latest internet fads, services, and crazes started out as an idea in someone’s head, an idea that they managed to turn into a business.

Nowhere is that more true than the immensely popular photo sharing site Flickr. Flickr is now owned by Yahoo! and seems more popular than ever. But it started out with frustration around an entirely different product: A massively multiplayer online player computer game called “Game Neverending.”

“Had we sat down and said, ‘Let’s start a photo application,’ we would have failed,” Caterina Fake told USA Today in 2006. “We would have done all this research and done all the wrong things.”

Instead, the Ludicorp team of Stewart Butterfield, Caterina Fake and Jason Classon started with a computer game, Game Neverending. Flickr branched out as a side-project, trying to capitalize on the photo-sharing functionality of Game Neverending that was quite popular with the users.

Longtime Ludicorp and Flickr employee Eric Costello did a 2005 interview that’s available over at Adaptive Path. In it, he explains:

With The Game Neverending, we hoped to build a massively multiplayer online game that was totally Web-based. You could play the game from a browser wherever you were. It was a Flash app that talked to a Java application server that we built… It wasn’t an immersive environment at all. It had interfaces that were really like Web interfaces or desktop application interfaces. The mode of interaction between users was in IM [instant message] windows.

You had IM windows where you could drag a person from your contacts list into any chat window and it would invite them to join your conversation. You could also drag game objects into an IM conversation and it would send to all the other members of the chat an image of the object… That feature was where the idea for Flickr came from. We thought, what if instead of game objects, you could drag and drop other digital objects into these conversations, like Word documents, or PDFs? Photos were the natural thing to go with because they’re more visual.

But in its earliest incarnations, Flickr hardly resembled the hip, sparse photo hosting site it is today.

Back then, it was a flash-based website, built off of the Game Neverending interface. It wasn’t a site to store photos so much as a site to share and talk about photos in real time.

When we first launched Flickr, it was a Flash application that was mainly just a chat environment with real-time photo sharing. So it was quite limited in what you could do.

It wasn’t a photo sharing site, so much as it was a place where you could go to chat and talk about photos. But none of that activity was stored in any asynchronous way – there were no Web pages that hosted the conversations people were having about photos, it was all just real-time.

They soon began building a traditional website, trying to incorporate as many features of the Flash interface as possible. The original chat-and-share environment eventually became known as Flickr Live.

As we started adding features to the site itself, like pages that hosted the photos so that people could visit them at a unique URL, we had a lot more success with that. People responded to it, and the site began to grow. So our energies tended to be dedicated toward enhancing that aspect of the site.

Adaptive Path

Flickr Live, meanwhile, receded further and further into the background. Eventually, it was removed altogether, due to some security issues with it that they couldn’t justify spending the time and resources on fixing. It was clear most users were interested in the photo-hosting and sharing capabilities of the new Flickr site.

And in a way, that’s where Flickr has gotten some of its best ideas. They watch their customers. What features do they use? What features do they ask for? Flickr wouldn’t even exist if Caterina Fake and friends hadn’t picked up on the popularity of the “photo-sharing” feature in Game Neverending.

Nothing about Flickr was planned. The site itself, along with all of its features and capabilities, arose from its creators’ willingness to experiment, go out on a limb, listen to users, and change course.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s one of our 12 Business AxiomsGo with the Flow. When things aren’t going your way, listen to your customers, they may be taking you to a better place. Often entrepreneurs start out in one direction and end up going in another.

The direction Flickr ended up going was up. Yahoo! bought Flickr and Ludicorp in 2005 for a reported $35 million dollars. The central Ludicorp team stayed on for a while. In June 2008, Caterina Fake resigned. Her resignation was shortly followed by her husband and fellow co-founder Stewart Butterfield.

At the end of last year, Yahoo! underwent massive layoffs, which, according to Techcrunch‘s estimates, accounted for about 5% of their worldwide staff, around 650-700 people. The Flickr division seemed to get hit particularly hard.

Things change. Companies change owners, companies change focus. Change is necessary for innovation. So here’s hoping Yahoo! has the common sense to keep Flickr as agile as it once was, despite its immense popularity and size.

I will leave you with Stewart Butterfield’s bizarre, amusing resignation letter to Yahoo!

The email, Gawker reported, was “classic Butterfield, and that his employees at Flickr” used to “stage dramatic readings of some of his better missives at Flickr’s San Francisco headquarters.” I can see why.

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