eHub Interviews Photophlow

Posted by Emily Chang on Tuesday, January 15th, 2008. Filed under: eHub Interviews

Visit Photophlow, originally added to eHub on Dec 31, 07.

imageThanks to Neil Berkman of Photophlow for this email interview.

eHub: What is your web application/service about?

Photophlow: Photophlow is a web application that lets you share photos in real-time. It is meant to be used for all types of interactions around photos – organized activities such as group critiques and tutorials, as well as just plain hanging out and sharing.

Photophlow has a chat component, but it offers a lot more than “chat with photos”.  It’s deeply integrated with Flickr so you can comment on photos, “fave” them, tag them, etc., all of which are reflected on Flickr and are also shared with the group you’re interacting with in real-time.

We also integrate with a number of external services.  For example, you can “Twitter a photo” from within photophlow and you can receive IM notifications when interesting things happen on the site.

It’s really difficult to describe the experience in a few sentences.  The best way to start to get a sense of what it does is to check out the video at

eHub: Why did you start this project?

imagePhotophlow: Years ago I helped create a service called , which was sort of a hybrid web-based IM client / music player that allowed you to listen to and control the music along with a group of people.  The company succumbed to the dotcom bust, but I always thought we were onto something with the idea of “real-time media sharing” via the web. I decided to do something similar but without any dependencies on big media companies for content.  Photos turned out to be a great fit and Flickr was the obvious choice for a first service with which to integrate due to its large and passionate community and extensive set of API’s.

eHub: How much time do you devote to its growth?  Do you have a day job?

Photophlow: I work full-time for Oortle Inc., the company behind photophlow.  In addition to photophlow we’re working on some other projects we haven’t yet announced.

eHub: How large is your team and what are your backgrounds?

Photophlow: I’m the founder and CEO of Oortle, but my background is technical.  I’ve been VP Engineering or CTO and in some cases co-founder for several venture-backed startups, most recently  I did most of the back-end and Javascript development for photophlow although a few other people have contributed, most significantly Bill Ataras, a world-class engineer I previously worked with at and Ofoto.

imageAfter building an initial prototype of photophlow I was extremely fortunate to bring onboard Bryan Partington, known as striatic on Flickr.  He was heavily involved in the early Flickr community, and his knowledge and experience have been invaluable.  He’s responsible for all of the design and front-end coding and has been the primary force defining the product.  Bryan describes his background as “a bizarre amalgam of New Media Art and Film, with a side-order of photography.”

Andy Stack, formerly co-founder of Stata Labs and Mozes, has been working with us on the business and operations side, and Benjamin Grant, formerly VP Technology at, has been helping with network operations and scaling.

Finally, Dave McClure is an advisor.  He formerly ran the PayPal Developer Network and is currently focused on applications that take advantage of existing “social graphs”, as we’re doing with Flickr.

eHub: What is your design philosophy?

Photophlow: Bryan’s take on this is: Give people something to do, not something to look at.

Although in the case of Photophlow, the “something to do” is most often “looking at things”.

I’d add that while Bryan’s UI is intentionally low-key so as not to distract from the photos (grey and white are the main colors), it’s still quite stunning in itself.  I’d call it a work of art, although he’ll kill me for saying that. Working with such a beautiful and functional design made development a joy.

eHub: What technologies are you currently using?

Photophlow: There are three main components of photophlow:

1) On the browser side, our UI is all Ajax with a heavy dose of Scriptaculous and Prototype and small bits of other libraries, along with a lot of our own code.  The majority of people who see the site assume the UI is Flash-based, which we take as a compliment.  We do use Flash for sound and network communication, but it’s optional.

2) The back end that handles real-time communication is a custom Java-based server we developed on top of several open source libraries.  Most significantly we’re using Apache Mina for network communication.  We also use Spring, Hibernate and ActiveMQ, along with various IM client libraries.

3) Everything else on the back-end is Ruby on Rails with too many gems and plugins to mention.  We’re using the nginx web server and mongrel, although we’re starting to look at JRuby as well.

eHub: What are the most requested features from your users/community?

Photophlow: We’re most frequently asked for small usability enhancements such as tab completion of usernames in chat.  We also get quite a few requests for additional types of photo searches.

eHub: Does your user base reside in a primary geographic location or is it distributed?

Photophlow: We have users from throughout the world.  We’re drawing from Flickr’s userbase which itself is widely distributed.  This is one of the most exciting things about photophlow – the opportunity to interact with people from different cultures in a very personal way through photos.

eHub: Where do you see the project heading in the next 6 months?  The next 2 years?

Photophlow: We plan on working with our user community to make photophlow more and more useful as a platform for a whole range of activities.  We will also support other photo-sharing sites in addition to Flickr, although we haven’t yet decided whether we’ll do this under the photophlow umbrella.

eHub: What is the greatest challenge to your success?

Photophlow: With very limited resources, we’ve managed to develop what I feel is a world-class product that a major company would be proud of.  Now that the product is out and gaining momentum the demands on our time are growing, and keeping all of the balls in the air at once is proving to be a challenge at the moment.

eHub: What is the one thing you need to get to the next phase of the project?

Photophlow: We have a plan in which we’re confident however we need the resources to execute on it.  We’ve already closed on some initial funding from angel investors.  I expect we’ll have no problem completing our seed round, especially given the phenomenal response we’re getting to photophlow.

eHub: Do you have a business model?  If so, what is it?

Photophlow: We do have a business model but for competitive reasons we’re not quite ready to talk about it.  We can say that our plans do not include charging for access to the site.

eHub: If you’re able to disclose this information, how much traffic or usage do you see on an average day?

Photophlow: At the moment, all we can handle.  We’re in limited beta and we currently have a backlog of invitation requests.  We’re working to add capacity and fix software issues so that we will no longer have to limit the number of users we can accept.

eHub: What is the one thing you’re most proud of about the project?

Photophlow: I’m proud that we’ve built innovative technology in the service of a unique and useful product with a great design.  But if I had to pick one thing, it would be that even at this early stage many of our users genuinely love the product and are using it to connect with others in a way that I don’t think would be possible otherwise.

eHub: How would you describe the shift that’s occurring with the web right now to future generations?

Photophlow: The most exciting aspect of web 2.0 for me is that openness is now recognized as a virtue.  As an example from our own product, we enable people to send photos to their friends via Twitter, and also to pull their friends in from Twitter for real-time “foreground” conversation around photos.  Everybody benefits here – Flickr, Twitter, and us, and we’ve achieved deep integration without a single meeting or contract negotiation.

eHub: What site(s) do you visit everyday other than your own?

Photophlow: Along with the usual tech news sites, my favorites tend to be eclectic personal blogs such as Nelson Minar’s, which covers everything from technology to politics to food.

eHub: How many hours of sleep do you get a night?

Photophlow: In recent weeks, five if I’m lucky.

Thanks to Neil Berkman of Photophlow for this email interview.

Visit Photophlow
Originally added to eHub on Dec 31, 07