The Former Flickr Employee Guide To Tumblr Yahoo Survival

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Editor’s note: Kakul Srivastava is CEO and co-founder of Tomfoolery, Inc. She was General Manager for Flickr from 2004 – 2009 and helped the product grow from 37,000 users to over 60 million. Simon Batistoni is VP of Platform and co-founder of Tomfoolery, Inc. He joined Flickr in 2006 as the engineering lead for internationalization. 

People can’t help but look at the Tumblr acquisition through a lens colored by the many examples of large, public (and often screwed-up) tech acquisitions by Yahoo and others — Marissa even refers to it in her blog post announcing the deal.

As leaders who helped to guide the Flickr team in its early history at Yahoo!, we had front-row seats as Flickr was (sometimes painfully) integrated with the larger Yahoo! organization. Despite this pain, we believe that Flickr has come a long way as part of Yahoo!, and yesterday’s announcement of a major redesign and refocus is a testament to the continued excellence of the core Flickr team.

Kakul, a product/business professional, joined Flickr just as the ink dried on the acquisition deal. She represented Flickr’s needs through painful acquisition-integration check-ins and figured out how (and if) any of Flickr’s roadmap needed to change based on Yahoo!’s larger corporate needs. Simon, a hacker/engineer, was responsible for creating the translation technology and internationalization infrastructure that allowed Flickr to begin serving customers in Yahoo!’s overseas markets.

Navigating an acquisition can be tough, and though there are a number of differences between Flickr in 2005 and Tumblr in 2013, there are striking similarities:

  • Yahoo! is on an upswing — at least in hype — and hope is rampant.
  • The advertising powerhouse has acquired fast-growing sites featuring rich-media content and extremely passionate communities.
  • There are ardent reassurances that independent growth will be nurtured.
  • Both products are missing “e”s in their names. ;)

So as former Flickr employees, here is some practical advice from us to our friends at Tumblr, humbly shared:

Don’t pretend it’s not happening or that it doesn’t matter.  

Regardless of who’s involved, acquisitions always make communities nervous, if only because they represent significant change. For some people, an acquisition can feel almost like a betrayal, and some Tumblr community members will be looking for any reason to justify their distrust of the situation.

The more honest you can be about the direction you’re taking and the reasons behind it, the better. Give your members a means to easily communicate back to you — the Flickr Forum, while sometimes contentious, has always been a great bellwether of how the community feels, as well as an opportunity for the team to explain and (hopefully) reassure.

Open discussions can be exhausting to manage, but they’re often more rewarding (and instill more confidence in your community) than pronouncements with no outlet for feedback. Avoid reassuring platitudes that gloss over the issues – if putting ads on the Dashboard will allow you to reach a goal of tripling annual revenue, it’s better to say so plainly. Honesty is appreciated by most communities, even if the truth is unpleasant.

Don’t forget you’re awesome.

Merging your company culture with another is a bit like combining a Trifle and a Tiramisu into a single dessert, layer by layer — hard work, probably messy, and it might taste a bit weird for a while. Losing focus on how you all work together can make the difficult moments seem worse than they really are.

Don’t forget that your culture isn’t just important to you — it’s important to Yahoo! too. Over the years, Flickr had many opportunities to influence the wider culture at Yahoo! including:

  • Innovative approaches to database sharding, website localization and geographic data handling which were adopted by other teams, and informed company-wide initiatives.
  • A highly productive team culture focussed around continuous deployment, which influenced a general trend towards faster development of many Yahoo! products.
  • Faceball, one of many ongoing experiments in office clowning, which became something of an official Yahoo! “sport,” and was even played live onstage by senior company management.

Tumblr can set new precedents on how to join and influence Yahoo!’s culture and management. Equally importantly, a truly strong product is usually the result of the strong, connected team behind it. When acquisitions wither on the vine, it’s often a symptom of that team having dispersed over time, taking too much knowledge and culture with them.

However, the magic that really binds a team is larger than any one individual and can persist through multiple “generations” of people, provided everybody feels ownership of it. Ensure that new team members understand the value of the culture you’ve built, and the history that led you from being an experimental blog engine to a 400-million-user powerhouse.

At Flickr, we had several traditions to aid in ensuring that history and culture were passed along. When veteran members left the team, they were asked to provide a “last lecture,” summarizing the most important things they knew, and the lessons they’d learned at Flickr. Equally, new employees spent time with managers from each department during their first week on the job, learning more about how the team operated, the product philosophy, and the engineering infrastructure that made it all work. Every new Flickr team member was also encouraged to spend a day answering member help questions, which allowed everyone to understand how to communicate with the community, and the common problems they had with using the product.

Finally, the importance of goofing around was also underscored by regular bouts of spontaneous dancing, foam-dart wars and liberal posting of lolcats on the walls.

Plan for the Bear Hug.

Yahoo is a friendly place — and everyone will want to greet the new neighbors. Everyone will want to figure how they can work better with you. Everyone will have ideas about what Tumblr can do to support their property. By and large, these meetings come from a genuine desire to be a better partner, but they can take time and focus away from your core mission and slow the whole team down. Sometimes too much of this “love” can be overwhelming, and at times it definitely led the Flickr team to handle the overtures less than gracefully. In some cases, this led to relationship management headaches for years.

Allocate a “first point of contact” to triage the ideas and opportunities that come your way. Filtering in this way will allow you to seize the best opportunities and execute well on them, without draining your resources trying to handle too much. And remember that, while the occasional approach will be from someone furthering an agenda of their own, most folks are trying to help both Yahoo! and Tumblr get better. Even if their approach is clumsy, they mean well.

Think bigger.

Tumblr has promised to continue executing on its own roadmap, and right now that’s essential. But Yahoo! wants 1+1 to equal 5 (or even 15), not just 2. Back when Flickr was acquired, it seemed everyone was thinking about what the “Flickrization of Yahoo” might mean — except for the team at Flickr. We just wanted to keep Flickr as “Flickrized” as we could. In our case, we missed out on some promising avenues for product improvement and growth.

Don’t forget to leverage what Yahoo! can really add to your business. Whether it’s 24-hour datacenter support, the world’s largest Hadoop cluster, international legal expertise or better Tumblr schwag, you now have access to the resources of a large company that wants you to succeed. Relying on these resources whenever you can will free you up to focus on the things — your core team and your product — that you’re truly the experts on.

Know how deep the rabbit hole goes.

For both parties to really benefit from the acquisition, Tumblr will need to embrace certain Yahoo! technologies and infrastructure, but sometimes a successful integration can be much more complex than it initially seems. Will it require that you host Tumblr in Yahoo! datacenters? Perhaps you’ll also need to start using Yahoo! IDs or introduce new features to comply with foreign laws? When large, complex “sub-problems” crop up halfway through a project, the knock-on effects can cost months of time to address.

Make sure you’re always asking questions and scoping out the entire landscape – a large company like Yahoo! has some intrinsic challenges and approaches that will be unfamiliar, and you need to be ready to embrace and work through them. Being a part of Yahoo! will subtly change a few things about how you do business.

  • You’re a bigger target for hackers hoping to get access to Yahoo! data, or to “punish” Yahoo! for a mistake that might have nothing to do with you.
  • You’re a bigger target for opportunists like patent trolls looking for a quick payout from an “Internet giant”
  • Yahoo! is a multinational company with offices in many countries — the legal landscape in which you operate will likely change as a result.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people for a “gut check” even if you feel like you’re asking a silly question. It’s better to spend 20 minutes before you start ensuring that your security measures are adequate, or you’re legally compliant, versus having to significantly rework a project after you thought it was finished.

Parting Words.

We are still passionate advocates of Flickr, we use Yahoo! Mail, and run our company blog on Tumblr.  We are thrilled about these marriages and can’t wait for you all to show us how well it can be done.