Interview with Caterina Fake
The creation of Flickr, says Caterina Fake, was "very much a phoenix from the ashes...a story that ended happily."
An Interview with Caterina Fake Co-founder, Hunch and Flickr
Date: November 16, 2009
Entrepreneurial Heroes Interview with Caterina Fake [music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I am the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT. This interview series is a series of discussions with women who have started IT companies, who have really wonderful advice to share with everybody who is interested in becoming an entrepreneur. With me is Lee Kennedy who, herself, is a serial entrepreneur, and as of late, of Bolder Search. Also an NCWIT Board Member. Welcome, Lee.
Lee Kennedy: Thanks, Lucy. It's great to be here.
Lucy: And also Larry Nelson. W3W3.com. Tell us a little bit about w3w3.
Larry Nelson: We are an Internet talk radio show and we've been doing it for over ten years now. We archive everything. You can go back and listen any time. One series here that we've enjoyed so much is the NCWIT series.
Lucy: Well, thank you. We are getting a lot of notice lately as well from a couple of people who write books on entrepreneurs from the National Academy of Engineering that wants to feature some of these interviews so we are pretty excited about the series. And today, we are going to have another great interview with Catarina Fake who is the co-founder of Hunch. And Hunch is -- and we are going to ask a little bit more about this in just a minute but for my preparation for this interview, Hunch is -- a collective intelligence decision making system and it uses decision trees to make decisions based on user's interests. And it was just recently launched, Catarina, in June of this year?
Catarina Fake: End of this year, that's right.
Lucy: What great name, Hunch, that is wonderful. But before that Catarina was the co-founder of Flickr and I'm sure all of our listeners know about Flickr and Flickr was one of those companies that open many people's eyes to the power of Web 2.0 and really taking together those features such as social networking and community. And things that people wanted to share like photos and other things. So it is a wonderful company. Catarina has won many awards and, in 2006, she was named Time 100 Time Magazine's List of World's 100 Most Influential People. That is very awesome. We are happy to have you here, Catarina.
Catarina: Thanks for having me.
Lucy: And now, tell us exactly what is collective intelligence?
Catarina: So, collective intelligence is when a lot of people get together. Not necessarily even people that know each other and create something. So a really great example of that would be Wikipedia. Wikipedia is as the people know that encyclopedia of thousands of thousands of subject where you can find out biography of the Queen of Netherlands or you can find information about biology or just pretty much any topic under the sun that will be in any encyclopedia anywhere. I would also say that Flickr, which is a photo sharing site, is also a kind of collective knowledge system and that there are millions of people I think it just announced that Flickr hit four billion photos. That is four billion photos out there. A large percentage of which are shared publicly among people. And it has become that vast, infinite national geographic that is constantly being updated with things from around the world and all manner of photograph. And so, it itself has become a kind of collective knowledge system. So I think what distinguishes the collective knowledge system, some other kind of social software is that there are a lot of people contributing to it. You can contribute very small amounts of information like for example you can just correct the spelling mistake on Wikipedia. Or you could contribute one photo or leave one comment on Flickr. The system gets better on the more people that you get.
Lucy: Well, so those kind of sites then I guess with all those knowledge will lead directly into decision making and how you are going to use algorithms. Is that what part is Hunch is doing?
Catarina: Yes, Hunch is another knowledge collective system. It is a new kind of system and it is design very differently from Wikipedia and Flickr in that what people are creating are decision trees. So the way that Hunch work is it ask you to leave a question and give you an answer. And you don't have to do anything. You don't even have to type anything. You just arrive at the topic. So let's say you are trying to figure out what college you should go to. The system will then ask you a series of question such as what do you want to major in? Are you interested in the college that has fraternities or sororities or not? Do you want a large, state college? You want a private college? Would you prefer a larger college that is based on the city? Those kinds of things. It is basically replicating an expert system so you would probably in real life, if you are looking for somewhere to go to college, you would talk to a guidance counselor who would ask you probably the same series of questions. And what Hunch does at the end, it gives you a hunch. It consist of lots of best colleges that apply to the criteria that you have given it. And so this applies to anything. This could apply to a rock bank. New York time best sellers. Should I retire to Florida? What kind of girls should I buy? Pretty much any question that is decision. And when the system works is that people are contributing the topic until somebody has a lot of knowledge about say, yoga classes in Minneapolis. We make a topic that say yoga class in Minneapolis. What are you looking for? What kind of yoga are you doing, etc., and all of this information. And so it is a way for people to get together and help each other with decisions that they are making. Now we are going to do things that I think that I found is directly in my work in the Internet is that I am a big believer that the Internet really flourish because of people's willingness to contribute to help other people. You see this all over the Internet and kind of the background with the Internet is really people uploading pictures of their cat. Started out, people uploading pictures of their cat. People writing little essay. People blogging. People adding information in the Internet. I mean this is really what the Internet is comprised of. And Aaron Key once said the Internet is comprised of words and enthusiasm and I think this is generally true, I think that if I go to the trouble of researching for example what is a good wedding photographer in Boston and I saw a whole bunch of wedding photographer and this person specializes in black and white. This person is formal shot. This person is candid and such and such. If I create a Hunch topic then everybody else can benefit the research that I've done and people can add oh, I actually know a really good wedding photographer that hasn't been mentioned here. Another people can add another question and all that kind of thing. Collaboratively, people can add topic.
Lucy: That is pretty interesting and I can see a way to get more girls into computer science. We put something up on Hunch and anytime the girls said, I want to pick a major, it comes back computer science. "I realized that is not..."
Catarina: Here's the thing about Hunch. Teach hunch about you. So it is a series of questions that ask you everything under the sun. How do you spend your weekend? Do you live in the city or do you live in the country? Have you ever written a poem that wasn't for school Do you believe that alien abductions are real or fake? Would you rather spoon or be spooned? And all these kinds of questions that teach Hunch about you and it will learn. It will learn gradually over time what you are like that you prefer this kind of music or that you are more likely to go out and party on weekend. More likely to stay home and watch a movie with your family. So what is does it tailors its answers specifically to each user. It doesn't give anybody the same answer. It gives everybody different answers based on how the taught Hunch about themselves.
Lucy: And so Catarina, how did you first get into technology?
Catarina: I think I had the benefit of having a dad who got us a little PRS 80 computer when we were really little kids. He had a curiosity about technology and he himself is never a programmer or even honestly, he never himself got that much about computers but he was always exposing us to new technology and things like that. He got us little computer which we used and I think nothing really happened with me and computing at all during my youth until I got into college. And then this is actually in the pre-Internet days in the early '90s. In the pre-web days. The Internet was nascent, but had not flourished into the web which made it much more usable for everybody. And so, I went to Vassar College and Vassar had a great, for the time, and since I haven't been back to campus lately, I'm not sure how the computer systems are, but in 1990 when I was there, it had a phenomenal computer system. We had data ports in all of our rooms and we could get on to the Internet from wherever we are. So as a result to that, I just taught myself how to use command line stuff which is all that you could do in those days, and was largely self taught. The thing that I loved about the Internet was that it was a means of communication. It was a way of connecting people. My sister was on the Stanford system out in San Francisco, I was on the east coast in New York. We were able to email each other and this was a revelation to me. You could actually, using IRC chat, have conversations with Dante scholars in Aarhus, Denmark, that you could discuss you paper with that you were writing in college. So that's how I started getting into it. What happened was I graduated from college. I had all of these odd jobs where I did interstitials on Seinfeld on the film crew. I worked in a dive shop in Arkansas. [laughter] I basically had this very peripatetic post college career. And then I was on my way to go backpacking in Nepal, when I decided to stop in and visit my sister who was living in San Francisco. What happened was, my backpacking trip got delayed, and delayed. Pretty soon it was avalanche season and we couldn't go on the trip anymore. So I ended up staying in my sister's spare bedroom for months. She is a very kind and generous older sister and has always been lovely to me. But after six months she said, "You know, maybe you should get a job." [laughter] This is 1994, and the most interesting thing that was going on in those days was the web. And the web was just starting out and was just starting to flourish. A friend of mine worked at one of the first web design shops and he sat down one weekend and taught me the basics of HTML. There were no books around at the time so I taught it to myself by doing View Source as you used to be able to do in those days. I started doing it free lance and then I got a job at one of the first web design shops here in San Francisco. Then took it from there.
Lucy: Wow. That is amazing. So you have really just led us into our next question which was, it's clear how you got into technology and really got interested, but what made you want to become an entrepreneur?
Caterina: It's interesting I think that entrepreneurialism is something of a personality type. It is very common that people who are entrepreneurs are the kind of people who spend nights and weekends just building stuff. Tinkerers, packers, creators, inventors, or however you want to describe them. People who see the possibility of technology. Or even non-technology entrepreneurs. They're building furniture in their spare time. They are doing electronics, making robotics, those kinds of things. It really is a career that appeals to people who are restlessly inventive, who are curious. Other qualities that entrepreneurs seem to share are that they're very determined, they have a vision they want to make real, they see possibilities in things. I think I had a lot of these characteristics and a lot of these traits that just became very natural career path for me. I have only worked at a large company after my company Flickr was acquired by Yahoo that was the first time I worked at a really large company. It is, I think, a kind of temperament. A choice and a path.
Lucy: So what I am hearing is, you really love the tinkering, the building of something, the...
Caterina: Creativity of it.
Lucy: The creativity.
Caterina: Creativity. In some ways you also have to have an appetite for risk.
Caterina: In some ways I think you have to have the ability to take big risks and be fully responsible and be the kind of person where the buck stops with you. Because there is really some white knuckled periods of entrepreneurialism that you have to get through. There is nobody that's going to help you. There is no organization to support you. Often there is not enough money. Often there is a lot of doubt as to whether or not you can pull it off. So I think you also have to have this kind of appetite for risk that is different from people who take on a, I hate to call it a normal career, but a regular job for an employer. That's even the case with people who join startups. Not necessarily even people who found startups, people who joined startups have to have a certain ability to handle uncertainty and risk because it is an uncertain enterprise. It is not like going to work for a government job or the Bank of America or something like that. There are many people who would argue that entrepreneurialism and startups and small companies are actually not nearly as risky as working at big companies. Because there are often big rounds of layoffs and your jobs can be eliminated, some kind of large bureaucratic regime change and all of those kinds of things. So there are risks on both sides. People who work at big companies are not necessarily as secure or protected. I think one time companies in America were much more secure. So I think it is a different kind of thing.
Larry: Right. With all the people that you worked with over the years, if you were to pick out one person who was probably your most important role model or a mentor for you, who would that be?
Caterina: One of the investors in Flickr is Esther Dyson. I don't know if any of you are familiar with Ester or her works. She is very well known. She has been working in technology for, gosh, I am not even sure, 20 years, 30 years, a very long time and is highly respected and is very much a mentor to me. It is very inspiring to see women who are working in technology and have been working in technology prior to the web. She started a conference called PC Forum which was a huge conference. It is pretty much the conference. I think PC actually stood for personal computer and they stated it stood for personal computer, or something prior to that. But that shows you how far back the conference went. It wasn't really tremendous thing when Esther invested in Flickr. It was a big milestone for us. I think that we had built something that somebody of her stature was interested in investing in. So I have to say that she is somebody who I very much respect and admire. Lucy: I can see it. Esther Dyson investing in your company is a big deal.
Caterina: It is a big deal. It is a big deal. Here is the funny story. OK, so this is probably good little anecdote to show how persistent that you need to be. So she ran this conference. We are the six-person company in Vancouver that nobody has heard about. We've got a website and a dream. So Esther Dyson who is a very famous woman who runs a very, very big conference, we really wanted to go to this conference. Because we knew there are a lot of venture capitalists there and we needed people to invest in our company. We needed to show people in technology our website. So we wrote to her and we had no money, we were broke. We said we would love to present at PC Forum and we don't have any money to pay. It was $5,000 a ticket or something like that. And there was just no way that we could afford to go to this conference. As a fact nobody was going to invite us because we are nobodies up in Vancouver. So she wrote back and said, no, I am sorry that we can't do that. So then the following year we decided to try it again. So we write another letter and we say, listen, OK we are still here and we'd still like to come to the conference and we now have this new product called Flickr, which we would love to present. And we wrote to her and we wrote to some of her staff. We received an email from Esther which said no, I am sorry we are all full, or no I am sorry we can't accept your proposal. And I'd say about a half an hour later we received another email from one of her staff that said, oh actually, we'd be interested in having you present at the conference. So they contradicted each other. Of course, we only responded to the one that had the affirmative interest. So we say we'd be delighted to accept your invitation to present at the conference. And so, Esther who happens to sit on a board at a company in Vancouver said, "OK I'm going to find out who these persistent people are up in Canada." And so she scheduled a breakfast with us because she was in town for a board meeting so they ate with us. And it was at that meeting that we presented our website Flickr to her. And she agreed to invest in it. And we were just regular folks completely out of the blue and had managed to get this meeting with Esther. And so, I think that persistence paid off. And if you don't want to ever present something that's not good to people. But, if you feel as if you've got a worthy product and that's worthy or their attention you should definitely apply for, you know every conference presentation that you can.
Lucy: That's a great story. It's always good to hear those happy endings. The next question isn't about happy endings maybe, but it centers around the toughest thing you've ever had to do in your career.
Caterina: Interestingly, Flickr was the result of our company dying so it's not. I'm not sure how familiar you guys are with the story of how Flickr started but we had started our company to build a massive multiplayer game. It was an online game it was web based. And it was played in the browser. It was called game never ending. And we had tried to raise money for this game. And it was 2002 and the boom had just busted as everybody recalls. And there was no money around and the other thing too is that we were trying to build something that nobody had ever really seen before. And this it seems strange because there are so many people that are playing these things in their browsers now that never existed in 2002. So people didn't really get what we were doing. Is this something you can buy at CompUSA or at your local Wal-Mart or what is this. Is it like online solitaire. And so nobody knew what we were doing and we didn't have any investors. And we had rapidly run out of money building this game. And we were just about to collapse basically. The company was just about to disintegrate. I hadn't been paid for a year. Nobody on the team had gotten paid for six months, three months to six months. There was one guy on the team who had three kids. He was the only guy who was getting paid. And getting up every morning and knowing that your responsible for the paychecks for all of these people. And your company is going under and you haven't been able to find investments and this thing that you love is just about to die. This baby that you created is just about to meet it's sorry end. It's a really horrifying thing. And you like awake and wonder how the hell this is all going to turn out. And I've seen so many startups get to this point, run out of money and die. And it's never, its never a happy thing. But, that said, I would say that going through that is one of the most you know, growth oriented experience of your life. And we managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Because what happened was, we had about three months worth of money left that we could keep going. And so we had this idea for this photo sharing thing. And decided that gosh we don't have enough time to build this game, we'll build this little photo sharing site that we came up with the idea for. Because in three months were never going to be able to complete this game. And then another thing that we had fortunately done is applied to the Canadian government for a grant two years before, which we had completely forgotten about. And it was December 23rd when we got a letter from them saying that they were giving us this grant. I think that it was for like $150,000, but $50,000 production budget and then a $50,000 marketing budget and I don't remember we really only ended up collecting a fraction of that, about $50,000 at the time. It was just able to keep us afloat long enough for us to build this new thing which we christened Flickr. So it was very much a Phoenix from the ashes. We were able to pull something out of it. It was one of the stories that ended happily. I think that even when companies go under, what I was about to say before was, even when your company goes under, people look back on their experience starting a company as one of the best experiences that they have had even if it fails; that they learned so much; that they really pushed themselves; they extended themselves to the very limits of their abilities and that feeling is irreplaceable. To succeed or fail, that is a very powerful experience for people.
Larry: So you are talking about Flickr, you are talking about your new venture, Hunch. With all these things you have been through, how do you bring balance both into your personal and your professional lives?
Caterina: It's interesting. I think that there is a lot of people who talked about this idea of balance being very important and I completely agree. And one of the things that I found is that the first time around you're not as seasoned or practiced, and I wrote a blog post about this recently on my blog at caterina.net. But the first time around we spent a lot of time worrying about things that we didn't need to worry about and basically flipping out about things that didn't need to flip out about -- doing things that were really not important. And I think the second time around I managed to figure out along the way what is worthwhile. Maybe staying at the office around the clock isn't as productive as working really, really hard, for eight or nine hours and then going home at the end of the day and actually having dinner with people. Because you need to sustain yourself over time and I do think that we do end up burning out if you don't pace yourself. You need to pace yourself. I think that you can do, it is very important to be able to pull those work crunch, we are going to get something at the door and we are going to work really hard in anticipation of a launch or that kind of thing. But that as a continual daily thing is probably not advisable.
Lee: Yup. It's the toughest thing there is, is balancing that personal and professional. So Caterina, you have achieved so much taking Flickr from nearly in the ashes to a phenomenal success, and now launching Hunch. So tell us what you see down the road with your career in technology?
Caterina: I see, hopefully down the road Hunch is wildly successful and we have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of users. I am just really committed to making Hunch the best site that it can be. I think one of the things that I really love to do is build websites and build interactive communities and build things that people use. I think that so long as I am able to keep doing what I love, which is making things and building things and thinking about things and having new ideas. That is not much different from what I am doing. So if you are talking about progression of the career, do I want to take a job as CEO of some massive technology company, I don't think you'll ever see me doing that. I think probably I will continue to be self-employed and an entrepreneur for the rest of my life.
Larry: Sounds great.
Lucy: I was going to say your passion for this, it just comes oozing out through your voice. It is clearly something that you love to do and that you love entrepreneurship and I think we are all lucky that you are out there inventing all these great sites. Lee: And you have given such great answers to the questions, I am sure everybody is going to love hearing this.
Larry: Yes. You Betcha.
Lee: Thanks, Caterina.
Lucy: So thank you so much Caterina.
Caterina: Thank you guys so much. [music]