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20 Jun 2008 11:29
It was a final flourish befitting one of Silicon Valley’s more eccentric characters. Stewart Butterfield, who with his wife Caterina Fake created Flickr, the web’s most popular photo sharing site, used his resignation letter to the bosses at Yahoo!, who made him a multimillionaire when they bought his company, to embark on a flight of fantasy.
In the email, which has leaked onto the web after his departure earlier this week, Butterfield compares himself to a tin-metal worker whose skills are no longer required in a multinational conglomerate that spans aeronautical frames, brewing, consumer finance and casinos.
The jokey tone of his exit—Yahoo!, of course, does none of these things—masks a serious problem inside the online search and media giant as it struggles to cope with an unprecedented brain drain.
Having seen off an unwanted take-over approach from Microsoft earlier this year, and clinched a crucial deal with the dominant search engine, Google, Yahoo! chief executive Jerry Yang now faces an exodus of potentially catastrophic proportions.
The exit of Butterfield and his wife also marks the corporate curtain call for two of the pinups of the so-called Web 2.0 movement, the generation of dotcom entrepreneurs which includes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the British creators of rival Bebo, who decided that helping people communicate with each other online was more important than trying to sell them something.
Flickr was born out of an online multiplayer game that seemed to sum up everything the Web 2.0 people were trying to do.
Rather than bashing mythical creatures, players in Game Neverending, as it was called, had to cooperate to solve puzzles.
After Game Neverending failed to live up to its name, it was that photo application that became Flickr and the focus of the attentions of Butterfield, the possessor of a first in philosophy from Cambridge, and his wife. It grew from launch in early 2004 to become one of the internet’s biggest repositories of photos.
Flickr‘s success was sealed just a year after its launch when Yahoo! snapped up the company, making its founders an estimated $35-million.
On Wall Street, however, the ideals behind Web 2.0 can quickly fall foul of the need to hit quarterly financial targets. It is a long way from the bean-bag boardrooms of so many Silicon Valley start-ups to the hard-edged reality of business, a journey that Yahoo! itself has gone through over the past few years.
Butterfield seemed to sum up the transition and his own inability to cope in his letter, using the somewhat bizarre analogy of tin-metal working.
“As you know, tin is in my blood,” he wrote in his email to Yahoo! vice-president Brad Garlinghouse. “When I joined Yahoo! back in 21 it was a sheet-tin concern of great momentum, growth and innovation. Over the decades, as the company grew and expanded, first into dies and punches, into copper, corrugated steel, synthesized rubber, piping, milling equipment, engines, instruments, weaponry and so on, I still felt at home, because tin was the core of the business.
“By the time of the internet revolution and our expansions into websites, I have been cast adrift. I tried to roll with the times, but nary a sheet of tin has rolled off our own production lines in 30 years!”
Butterfield is not the only one, which is a worry for Yahoo! boss Yang. Other recent departures have contributed to the sense of a mass exodus of people who “bleed purple”, the company colour.
In the last few weeks, executive vice-president Jeff Weiner has quit alongside head of research Usama Fayyad. Other technologists including Jeremy Zawodny and JR Conlin have also gone.
Their departures come months after the company slashed more than 1 000 jobs, as well as announcing that it was moving its Untied Kingdom offices to Switzerland to cut costs.
But what could prove more personally painful for Yang is that although some executives have defected to direct rivals—such as vice-president Bradley Horowitz, who was marched out of the offices when it emerged that he was taking a job with Google—most of them have simply decided that their time at the company has come to an end.
Yahoo!‘s response to this crisis of confidence has largely been one of paralysis. Insiders at the company have reported a near hiring freeze, with only a handful of open positions being filled, while the upper echelons try to determine how to fix the rot. - guardian.co.uk
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