One of the people I interviewed for our December cover story (see previous post) is Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield. What ended up in the package was just a small portion of what he talked about. Since Yahoo is in the news, below are his unexpurgated comments (the interview was conducted weeks ago, but they give a good glimpse of life inside Yahoo). I started off by asking how to remain an entrepreneur in a large, bureaucratic company. His response:
Do have a wellspring of spiritual energy to call on to surmount any obstacle.
I had never worked at big company before, other than some consulting. I did not understand large company dynamics. I did not understand how much connections were important to get things done, like knowing the engineer responsible for X. Even in a company of this size—this is not Wal-Mart or Exxon Mobile, but even in a 10,000-person company—often what you need is available somewhere. You just don’t know where. It is really figuring out who knows what.
Like finding the specific search technology we needed for Flickr. When we were a standalone startup, if we wanted search technology ourselves we would have used Lucene, an open source search platform, and customized it for our needs. But Yahoo has something much better than Lucene. Finding that out was the challenge. You still need the same degree of resourcefulness being inside a large company. You still need the same pitching skills, convincing people something is a good idea. Before it was to VCs or a board. Now it is the SVP of a business unit or the COO. They are about the same. They are looking for the same kinds of things. People can complain about big company execs or VCs, but in general they are both classes of very smart people and very busy people. So they want you to get to the point. Their questions are the same: How much money can we make? How much money will it cost? If I don’t pay attention for 3 months are these guys going to do something stupid, or can I worry about other things? One difference here is that I have the opportunity to screw up lots of parts of Yahoo by doing something dumb. The impact of screw-ups at Flickr was different for our VCs. I couldn’t screw up other portfolio companies.
In the case of Flickr, we are lucky to have as much independence as we do. But we have shown we are competent. If we were doing a bad job, people would not love Flickr. We have 20 million unique visitors a month. Flickr is ten times bigger than when we were bought, it makes a lot more money, and the PR is still good.
As a crude matter of fact, the more money we make inside Yahoo the more independence we have and the more we can call the shots. If we can make money, we have permission to keep going.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there has got to be a reason for what you are doing. You actually have to care about what you are doing. The business has to be about something. Whatever the point of it does not have to be inconsistent with making money, but usually if that is the sole reason it is not very successful. Because you have to have confident employees, happy customers and reliable suppliers to run a company as much as profits. I am still here to win. All the people on the Flickr team are committed to what we are doing, which is to be the eyes of the world. Otherwise, I would say fuck it, go back to the beach and get in shape.