How Flickr Went from Online Game to Photo-Sharing Giant

5 Feb

The following is an excerpt from the book The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.

Flickr is one of the most widely used photo hosting and sharing websites, with an estimated five billion-plus images on its servers. But the company wasn’t started by photography pros. In fact, its founders, Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield (who teamed up with Jason Classon), didn’t even set out to start a photo-sharing service at all.

Their original product, rolled out in 2002, was a multi-player online game called Game Neverending. Most gaming platforms at that time allowed one or at most a few people to play the same game together at the same time. But Caterina and Stewart wanted to create a game that hundreds of people could play at the same time. To this end, the plan was to build something they saw less as a game and more as a “social space designed to facilitate and enable play.” To attract and retain players to this social space, they pumped out social features like groups and instant messaging, including one add-on to the instant messenger application that allowed players to share photographs with one another. As with most features of the game, the photo-sharing add-on was developed very quickly – it only took either weeks from idea to implementation.

When photo sharing was first added to Game Neverending in 2004, it was no big deal – photographs were just another thing players could trade with one another, like the objects they would collect during the course of the game. However, it didn’t take long for the photo-sharing capability to eclipse the game itself in popularity. As this became increasingly apparent to the leadership team, they were faced with a decision: Should they try to expand their new photo-sharing platform while sticking to their long-term plan and continuing to develop Game Neverending, or should they put the game (and its twenty thousand avid users) on hold to devote the majority of their precious resources to photo sharing? They decided to deviate from the original plan and focus exclusively on building the photo application and the photo-sharing community that went along with it. They called it Flickr.

Flickr soon became the photo-sharing service of choice for millions of Internet users. Its social features – tagging and sharing – grew naturally out of the social DNA that defined the original online game, even as they differentiated the service in response to market feedback. In 2005 Yahoo! acquired the company, making it a Web 2.0 poster child. But more than just a Silicon Valley success story, the evolution of Flickr is a case study in smart adapting: its founders were in constant motion early on, tried many things to see what would work, and nimbly shifted their plans based on what they learned.

– Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha (The Start-Up of You, Chapter 3, “Plan to Adapt”, pages 52-53)

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