Web Masters Episode #81: Scott Heiferman (Fotolog)


Scott Heiferman:

I’ve never said, “Oh, I want to start a company. What should I start?” Or, “I’m an entrepreneur,” or something like that. It’s more that you stumble on something that you just get excited about and have to do. There’s this notion of, you can have ideas or ideas can have you. An idea will have you, and you just got to bring it to life. I mean, whether you’re a academic researcher or someone who builds technologies, or whatever, it’s just a matter of being open to being turned on by something.

Aaron Dinin:

That was Scott Heiferman talking about the entrepreneurial drive to pursue an idea. According to Scott, it’s not about being an entrepreneur, it’s about being so excited for an idea that you just can’t stop yourself from building it. That’s exactly what happened to Scott. Of course, if you’ve been listening to Web Masters for a while, then you already know that, because Scott was the guest on our previous episode, Episode Number 80. He’s the founder of meetup.com. He was answering one of my questions about the relationship between Meetup and building community when he said this…

Scott Heiferman:

By the way, Aaron, I should also… there was something I built concurrently with Meetup, separately, that became a big thing, that I could go on that branch of talking to you about if you want. But to answer your question…

Aaron Dinin:

Scott did go on to answer my original question, but well, I also wanted to hear about that thing he built concurrently with Meetup. So I hopped on another call with him and we talked about the other company Scott launched while starting Meetup. It was a company called Fotolog. F-O-T-O-L-O-G. It had millions of users around the world and was basically Instagram 10 years before Instagram. Ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hello, and welcome back to Web Masters. The podcast that teaches about entrepreneurship by talking with some of the Internet’s most impactful innovators. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur, and I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University where I also study the history of the internet, worldwide web and social media. As you already heard on this episode, we’re doing a Web Masters first. I’ve had lots of guests who have built multiple companies, but this is the first time I’m bringing back one of those guests to talk about something else he built, other than what we talked about in the original episode. On that last episode, Episode Number 80, you heard Scott Heiferman tell the story of how he built meetup.com. On this episode, he’s going to share the story of building Fotolog, which was basically one of the first modern social networks. I’m going to tell you all about it, but before I do that, I want to make sure I take a minute to tell you about our sponsor.

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I’ve already told you Fotolog was one of the first modern social networks with millions of users. When you heard that, chances are you had one of two thoughts. Either you thought, “Of course, you didn’t need to tell me that, I know what Fotolog is.” Or you thought, “Fotolog, what the heck is that? How could there have been a wildly popular social network with millions of users that I’ve never heard of?” Well, Fotolog was indeed wildly popular, but its popularity was very country dependent. For example, its biggest audiences were in South America, especially Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. And let’s be clear, in those places where it was popular, Fotolog was extremely popular.

Scott Heiferman:

If you were a teenager in South America in the mid 2000s, you probably used Fotolog. And it’s really weird, because whenever I meet someone from Chile, and if I knew they were a teenager around 2007 or so, 2006, I’ll say, tell me about your Fotolog. And they will. And what’s funny is that they don’t know that Fotolog was not a global phenomenon. It was only a phenomenon in a bunch of countries, but all the teenagers used it. It was like a boy band. It’s like an iconic thing that defined a generation.

Aaron Dinin:

And out of curiosity, why do you think Fotolog became so popular in other countries as opposed to where you were located back in the United States?

Scott Heiferman:

That’s such a great question, because the answer is, who knows? I mean, I was in a studio apartment in New York City, cranking out this thing with a couple of people, and why it took off in those countries, I have no idea. It’s like with Meetup, a lot of what I thought people would use it for, they didn’t. And the things they used it for were things that I never imagined. You can have a lot of smart MBAs thinking about lots of strategies, and planning this and plotting that, and market testing this and doing all kinds of analysis about that. But in the end, if you make something that people can embrace and make their own, you really just can’t predict how they’re going to use it, why they’re going to use it, where they’re going to use it and how it will spread. And that’s just one of the best parts of the adventure of making stuff on a global platform that’s a network of computers and a network of people.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. I suppose that’s a fair point. We can’t really control how things spread across such a huge network of people like the internet. However, while Fotolog was basically iconic for some people, I’m guessing it’s not as familiar to, in particular, the people in my audience who tend to skew more US, Europe, Australia. Since it’s not entirely familiar to everyone listening, would you mind explaining what Fotolog was and where the idea came from?

Scott Heiferman:

So it’s kind of a really odd thing. After I had sold itraffic…

Aaron Dinin:

itraffic, you might recall, was the ad agency Scott built and sold in his 20s. That was basically one of the first, if not the first, online ad agencies.

Scott Heiferman:

… I was goofing around for a year, a year and a half. And in this period where people thought the web was dead… So this was, you’re talking 2000, 2001, the .com bubble had burst, people said the internet was dead, all the venture capital had gone away and so many startups had failed. That was this period when blogs and a lot of the community web was actually thriving and growing. And so, I was just really interested in all things related to how people were self-publishing and web blogs and stuff like that. And because I’m a crappy writer and I really always loved photography, I had this thought which was, what if you did a blog, but it was just photos. And so I started doing my own website, handmade website called, My Photo of the Day. And for a couple of years, I just posted a photo of the day, and it was really tedious to do.

And I was also really paying a ton of attention to LiveJournal at the time. So I went and saw Brad Fitzpatrick, the guy who founded LiveJournal, and I went and saw Ev Williams who was doing Blogger. And I was like, “Why isn’t there a Blogger for just photos?” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s cool.” I was like, I said to Ev Williams, “We should do this together.” He’s like, “No.” He was basically a one-man-shop before he sold Blogger to Google. I wanted to make it easier for me to do my photo blog, but most importantly, what I really wanted was other people to do photo blogs too and have basically a friend feed. A feed of what my friends were posting, pictures my friends were posting, on one page, which was basically Instagram 10 years before Instagram.

Aaron Dinin:

I mean, yeah, that’s basically exactly Instagram before Instagram.

Scott Heiferman:

I mean, everyone tells a story of the thing they built that was 10 years before the big thing. But the fact is, this thing actually took off massively. It became a top 10 website in almost 10 countries and sustained for a while. So I actually started Meetup, which people think was the big thing that I started, but Fotolog really massively took off. And I had to make a decision whether I wanted to focus on Fotolog or Meetup. And my heart was really in Meetup, even though I loved Fotolog. And so my buddy, Adam Seifer, who loved Fotolog, who by the way used to work with Andrew Weinreich at SixDegrees. I said, “Hey, why don’t you take this thing over?” And he did.

Aaron Dinin:

By the way, you heard Scott mention someone named Andrew Weinreich and SixDegrees. SixDegrees is largely considered the first social networking website. It was launched back in 1997. And Andrew literally filed the original patent on social networking, which is a story we heard from him back in Web Masters Episode Number 39. One of the interesting things about Andrew’s story and the story of SixDegrees is how so much of the more problematic issues that are present around social media today, in relation to everything from questions of privacy, to manipulation, to addiction, were already starting to appear on that very first social network. And Fotolog, which got significantly larger than SixDegrees, is really where these issues started to become particularly apparent.

Scott Heiferman:

All the behaviors that you saw about how young people used a photo-based social networking platform was right there. In fact, the New York Times had an A1 story about this youth phenomenon called Fotolog and on all the weird byproducts that was happening. That was really a big preview of what happened globally with Instagram a few years later. So thankfully, Fotolog was acquired at the height of its popularity in 2008, I believe, and 2007, and eventually Instagram and Facebook just crushed it.

Aaron Dinin:

What kind of issues were you seeing? Was there any foreshadowing of the kinds of issues, both good and bad, that we’ve come to associate with these kinds of platforms today? Things like addiction or bullying, spamming of accounts, bot accounts, what were you seeing early on?

Scott Heiferman:

Absolutely. We were dealing with all of it. Meetup ultimately has signed up a hundred million people. I mean, we really pioneered a whole lot of things in the trust and safety realm there. Fotolog was facing a lot of it too. In the case of Meetup, I mean, there was something called the Tea Party, a decade ago, which was a little bit of a preview of some of the Trump era politics that we see. And so, a lot of difficult decisions around, what does it mean to be a platform and enable activity that you think might be bad for democracy, bad for your country. If you look at the Linktree off my Instagram, you could see there’s some really crazy stuff that Fox News would say about me.

I’m proud that we made some decisions that I think were bold, and that I think could have been a blueprint for some other social media. I think most importantly, these questions around, what are the models, what are the business models that make for healthy platforms? For example, not being ad-based, but being subscriber-based, for example. There are some drawbacks, it can slow user growth, but I think with a long-term orientation, it does point to a healthier model.

Aaron Dinin:

I was reading up on Fotolog, because it’s not something I personally remember encountering. And I was surprised to see that it limited users to uploading one photo per day. Was that a response to those kinds of social media issues? I mean, I guess I should say, at first, I assumed it was to help combat some of those problematic issues surrounding social media. But I guess, looking at the timelines, I suppose that couldn’t have really been the case. Right?

Scott Heiferman:

There was no social media. Social media literally did not exist. The closest thing to social media was LiveJournal, which had the incredible innovation of saying that everyone else’s blog posts is in one reverse chronological stream. It was like what later came from Facebook as the feed. And Brad Fitzpatrick’s LiveJournal, Mark Zuckerberg sites it as… he kind of ripped off that part of Facebook from having been into LiveJournal years earlier. But the tagline for Fotolog, on day one in 2002 was, See What’s Up. You want to see what your friends are doing. And by the way, another grandpa telling the story here, there were no camera phones. The fact that there were a billion photos uploaded to Fotolog, with a limit of one per day, before there was ever such a thing as a camera phone.

People had to take a picture with a digital camera, connect it to their computer, download the picture, and then make its way to some cumbersome web-based upload process. I mean, it’s remarkable that it worked. But it is a testament to how that simple idea that people would want to see friends picture of the day, and see a stream of them and see a feed of them. It sounds so obvious now, but it was a real breakthrough at the time.

Aaron Dinin:

Then I guess, why did you limit uploads to one photo per day? Was it bandwidth or storage issues? I mean, those things would obviously have been very expensive at the time, I’m sure.

Scott Heiferman:

Yeah. I mean, people at the time thought it was because of bandwidth constraints and storage constraints, and it ultimately was hugely a really good thing to limit it to one photo a day. But that wasn’t why I did it that way. I did it that way because Fotolog was a response to photo storage websites. Because as I was building it, I would tell people about it, and they’re like, “You mean it’s like Snapfish or oPHOTO?” Or what you would say today, like Google Photos or things like that. And I’d be like, “No, no, no, no. It’s not the place to just dump all your photos. It’s the place where you would post a photo a day or something,” because I was posting a photo a day. Sometimes when you’re building something, it’s like, if you’re trying to communicate what it is and people might misunderstand it, go extreme in defining it or constraining it by the thing that would make people say, “Oh wait, that’s weird.”

Not unlike Twitter and the 140 characters of Twitter said, oh it could get as short or as long as you want. People would just say, “Oh, this is where I can dump a 5,000 word blog post.” But it was the constraint of 140 characters that made people sit up a little straighter and be like, “Wait, what? I can only do 140 characters? Why? What does that mean?” And then it just frames it. But just to be clear, Fotolog was five years before Twitter, before Flickr, and obviously before Instagram and anything. And so, it worked because it stood out for people. This weirdness of the one photo a day thing made people look at it a little funny. And they looked at it a little longer, and they got it.

Aaron Dinin:

Wow. So the funky limit and a stream of your friends photos, I mean, Fotolog was really like the playbook of Twitter meets Instagram. But of course, neither of those things existed yet. So I guess, let me reverse that and ask, what do you think about the fact that those other companies came along a decent bit after and basically built the same thing as you? And by the way, as you mentioned earlier, it’s not like you had the idea but never really executed it successfully, you clearly built a huge and popular version of those things.

Scott Heiferman:

Yeah. So not looking for credit, sometimes I think like, “Oh man, wouldn’t it have been great to be Ev or Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg?” Hell no, I learned how to run a decent sized company at Meetup with hundreds of employees and learned how to be a good leader like that. But the kinds of things that you face when you’re running something like Twitter or Instagram, Facebook, that doesn’t sound fun, with the complexities of that job. So, I mean, I’ve been really lucky and blessed with my career. At every turn, having had a hand in inventing online advertising, having had a hand in inventing social media, and then Meetup too, which is a different kind of species. With each of these things, I was able to make some money, got to have some crazy adventures with all three.

I think being a billionaire would be a pain in the ass, but having a bit of money is nice. But most importantly, I think as most people will tell you, the fun days of building something and having it take off, of just having a successful venture, are those early days, early years. And I hope I still have some more in me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, I mean, personally, I feel like I would suffer through being the billionaire founder of Twitter or Facebook, if I had to. But maybe that’s just me. Regardless, that does make me curious. Fotolog was of course still a business, or at least supposed to be, so how were you monetizing it? What was the business model?

Scott Heiferman:

So Fotolog, ultimately it had a premium user, freemium model. And in the latter days, I believe there were some ad elements to it. But basically, imagine the first few years of Twitter and the first few years of Fotolog, it was just torrid growth. The job of the company was just to keep the servers running and not melting. And venture money was pumping in there, and then it was ultimately acquired before it answered the revenue question.

Aaron Dinin:

I feel like that’s probably the best way to handle a business that’s based around a huge growth of free users. Just get it sold before you have to figure out the difficult and messy questions of how to monetize it. So I guess, just one last question about Fotolog, or actually, the question is more to understand you. As you mentioned earlier, you had these big successes in terms of a company that successfully helped invent internet advertising, another company that helped invent social media, and of course the biggest success of them all, which was Meetup. But you also mentioned wanting to keep building new things. I think you said something like, “I hope I still have some more in me.” I have to ask you, why do you need to do more? Why aren’t you just happily retired on your private island somewhere? What drives a serial entrepreneur like you to keep building, even after you had as much success as you’ve had?

Scott Heiferman:

Because the world’s messed up, because there’s an opportunity to, there’s just really positive things to invent. I mean, if the world was going swimmingly and people’s lives were fully solved for, and they had opportunity and they felt powerful, because what else is the point? Some people are good chefs, so they should make people happy by making good food. Some people are good teachers or nurses, or whatever the heck they do that helps a few people, that’s just a good way to spend your life. I’m not good at most things, and I’m good at a few things. And if I can contribute, I need to do that. It’s a real thrill. Fundamentally, I think that of all the various important things to work on, people can work on healthcare, they can work on climate, they can work on education, there’s so many things to do. There’s so many things to do.

For me, it’s this intersection of missed opportunity for connection. I look around and I’m like, Uber connected a driver and a rider, or Etsy connected a buyer and a seller, or Airbnb connected a person who has a home and someone who wants to rent it. The world is this one giant missed opportunity for people to connect who could connect or should connect. If a bunch of people who want to go running at night in their neighborhood would do it if they only knew that there were a bunch of other people who would want to run at night together as a group safely. Well, they just don’t, because they don’t know how to find those other people. So for me, there’s just a lot of good unleashed when you connect people in all these various different ways, whether it’s marketplaces or Meetup, or who knows what. Yeah, I just believe in my core that there’s just a lot to do.

And then couple that with the fact that at the end of the day, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And there’s a lot of this big trend towards people getting screwed with all kinds of various injustice around them. And some days, most days, I’m feeling hopeless about that. But some days I feel like, wow, the history of the world is really defined by what happens when people meet up, and what happens when they come together and how they organize for power, and how they do this thing that technology can do, which is bring people together and be powerful together. So yeah, it’s just really, it’s invigorating and motivating to think that I could do more of that.

I also feel like I’ve learned a lot. And people with good opinions and pundits on Twitter, people who tweet really well are a dime a dozen. But actually getting your hands dirty, making stuff that people might use, there’s not many people who have built platforms that have been used by tens of millions of people. So it would be a shame if I didn’t put some of that experience to use.

Aaron Dinin:

I loved this answer, and it kind of helps me solve a bit of a riddle I’ve been increasingly thinking about as I’ve interviewed more and more people for this show. As you all have heard, here on Web Masters, we’ve talked with some of the most successful entrepreneurs in internet history. People have built companies that have made them very wealthy, even in a number of cases, billionaires. And for the most part, all of these people are still working on new entrepreneurial ventures. Why? What’s keeping them motivated? My sense is that Scott’s answer can actually stand in for a lot of their answers. For them, it’s not about the money. Retirement would probably be more of a punishment than a reward. What they’re interested in are the challenges and the opportunities to help solve difficult problems. As they get more successful, they don’t want to stop, they want to use what they’ve learned to see how much farther they can go. Or as Scott puts it…

Scott Heiferman:

I don’t want to say it’s an addiction or something, but it’s a thrill. It’s like, I don’t know, if you’re a musician, I mean, the thrill of writing a pop song must be just amazing. And so, a lot of musicians you and I respect, maybe who, they’re still trying to craft that perfect song. So it’s also a selfish pursuit, just whittling away at this hobby that you have. Yeah, it’s fun.

Aaron Dinin:

Honestly, despite his protests otherwise, what Scott’s describing does sound like an addiction. But that’s not a terrible thing, certainly not for all of us who get to benefit from the incredible things he’s addicted to building. And of course, we also got to benefit from him taking the time to join us yet again, to share another part of his amazing story. Remember, if you’d like to see what he’s working on these days, and see what he’s building next, you can follow Scott Heiferman on Twitter. He’s @Heif, that’s H-E-I-F. This podcast is on Twitter too. We’re @WebMastersPod, and I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin. You can also find lots of other content I’ve created around startups and entrepreneurship. They’re all linked on my website. It’s aarondinin.com.

Thanks, as always, to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for bringing together the episode. And thanks to our sponsor, Latona’s, for supporting this project. Remember, if you’re in the market to buy or sell in internet business, you should start that journey by checking out latonas.com. Lastly, thanks to all of you for listening. If you enjoyed the episode, please take a moment to rate, review, like, and whatever else you can over on your podcasting app of choice, maybe even share the episode with a friend. And of course, be sure you are subscribed so you get the next episode as soon as it’s released. We’ll have that for you very soon. Until then, it’s time for me to sign off.