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126 / Community First: Flickr’s Approach to Product Management, with Stephanie Cantor

Hosted by Paul Gebel




Stephanie Cantor


Stephanie Cantor has made her mark in the product industry with over a decade of experience working in companies varied from the early startup stages, e-commerce, and larger corporate spaces, but she is uniquely seasoned in community-centric products. She currently heads up product for Flickr and is leading the strategic direction for their 112 million users globally.

Stephanie has a passion for building teams, mentorship, and DEI. She takes a data-driven approach to problem-solving and has a track record of driving growth.

On the eve of its 20th anniversary, Flickr’s approach as a community-centric product continues to propel the company forward. For Stephanie Cantor, Flickr’s Senior Director of Product, the Flickr community extends beyond its 112 million global users; it is integral to the product itself. From ideation to prototyping, Flickr involves its users in every step, sustaining a platform that fosters creativity, connection, and serendipity.

In this episode of Product Momentum, Paul and Stephanie reminisce about her “amazing journey” to Flickr and reflect on the impact she has made in just her first year on the job.

Leading a team of smart, talented people presents challenges at any organization, no matter its scale. But imagine joining a team where the average tenure of your new colleagues is 6-8 years. This was Stephanie’s challenge when she arrived a little over a year ago. Her approach was simple, straightforward, and powerful.

“Everyone knows that I don’t do anything in a vacuum,” she explains. “I’m open and transparent…and very much into collaboration. Back in the day it was just me, an engineer, and I would make really horrible wireframes. And now, I love collaborating with everyone and I think that that’s like the biggest part of my product management philosophy.”

Listen to this episode to hear more from Stephanie Cantor, including:

  • The future of Flickr – remote work, a mobile platform, and sustainability
  • How Agile is reshaping Flickr
  • Inspiring old and new users
  • The “creative past lives” of all PMs
  • Her product management philosophy

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Paul [00:00:43] Hey folks, we have a really special conversation with Stephanie Cantor to share with you. She has been a bastion of product leadership at Flickr. And as we look at Flickr as a company, they’ve come a long way, but they are not resting on their laurels. Hearing the culture of innovation and really community-focused, and I think they use that word differently than many other companies. They really pride themselves on the connectedness and the empathy and the humanity of their platform. The vision that Stephanie has for the future is really exciting, and I think there’s pages of her playbook that any product manager can take and apply today. So we had a great conversation. Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:22] Well, hello and welcome to the pod. Today we are really delighted to be joined by Stephanie Cantor. She’s made her mark on the product industry with over a decade of experience working in companies varying from the early startup stages, e-commerce, and larger corporate spaces, but is uniquely seasoned in community-centric products. She’s currently heading up product for Flickr and is the leading strategic direction for their 112 million users globally. Stephanie has a passion for building teams; mentorship; and diversity, equity, and inclusivity. She takes a data-driven approach to problem-solving and has a track record of driving growth. Stephanie, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. Delighted to have you.

Stephanie [00:01:58] Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited about this.

Paul [00:02:01] Me too. You know, as I was thinking about the conversation today, I found myself thinking about our chat before the show and the journey that you took. And I want to give you a chance to share a little bit about how you found your way into the product role and some of the past life, as you’ve put it, that most of us in the product community find ourselves having as we get ourselves on to this product journey.

Stephanie [00:02:20] Yeah, for sure. I always love saying that every PM or every person in product has an amazing, you know, creative kind of past life, especially when you’ve been in the game as long as I have. I remember kind of just being in school, I’d never met anyone who said they wanted to be a product manager. It wasn’t really a thing back in the early 2000s or any of that. So I went into college, you know, with just the mindset of like, I was probably going to be in marketing or a designer, so I have a degree in both. And I think my first job ever in the industry was like an SEO analyst for this jewelry company. And it was, you know, I was just like commenting on different blogs and just working on backlinking. Totally not what it is today, but that was like my first job kind of in the technology space.

Stephanie [00:03:08] And then I stumbled upon this junior project management role within this little dev shop that I had the pleasure of, like, having UMG as a client. And it was an insane time. So we were working on different like splash pages for all these, you know, like Justin Bieber’s and all these different music artists and stuff. And it was like the taste of what it would be like to, you know, create websites with designers and stuff. I actually met my husband in college on my first day. He graduated with me as well, and he was the one, like he eventually ended up going into the design space. He let me know I was a horrible designer, which is very true and I appreciate that honesty. But he was the one, like, who told me that, “Hey, I heard about this project manager thing; you’re really organized; you should give it a try.” And I was like, “Sure.” And I tried it and then I just stayed here and I love it. And I had no idea where it was going.

Stephanie [00:04:04] You know, there wasn’t, you know, a product chief officer. There wasn’t any of that. And I just kept trying different companies as I went along, and I just kept learning along the way and was just hungry for those different challenges. And I haven’t looked back since. But it’s been an amazing journey and I’ve learned a lot and I am very excited whenever I hear that there is someone who’s actually interested in this space because that was unheard of when I was starting out.

Paul [00:04:32] A hundred percent. Your journey is reminding me of so many steps that I’ve experienced along my own. I come from a graphic design degree background that I didn’t end up using very much and found my way into, you know, broader tech dev shops through project management as well. So the story that you’re telling, I think that’s really true. It resonates really strongly with many people that I’ve spoken to. There’s this very exciting anthropology of product where nobody comes from a product management degree or a product management pedigree. We all kind of find ourselves in this journey from photography or finance or somewhere else and end up finding this problem to solve as worth pursuing as a career.

Paul [00:05:11] So I use the word community a lot, and when I refer to it, it’s usually in the context of communities of practice to get better, to discipline, or a community in a general sense of, you know, learning together and having some kind of mutual affiliation. But you use community in a very deliberate sense in your role. Can you unpack a little bit about what it means to be a community-oriented product?

Stephanie [00:05:33] Yeah, So most of the last, I would say like six or seven years of the, you know, companies I’ve been at have been where the community has been the product, you know, where we build products for the community. So there are users, you know, within this space that they’re, you know, whether they’re just people who log in or subscribers, you know, depending on how the company describes a typical user. But then there are those users who actually are invested deeper. So at StackOverflow, they were the moderators, you know, who volunteered and took care of the over 100 sites that were within the stack exchange network. We also had the moderators at Brianly, and then at Flickr, we have our users who are on our site and who are constantly sharing and inspiring others within the platform.

Stephanie [00:06:24] So we are building our products for them. We’re listening to what their needs are, where are their pain points, rather than, you know, what’s out in the market or what other people are doing and, you know, what the noise is out there. We’re definitely taking a community-first approach, and they’re the ones who are also going to let you know right away if you’re steering in the wrong direction, which is scary, but it’s actually really beneficial for someone like me who I love hearing feedback. So they definitely steer you in the right direction. So getting feedback from them as well as, like, you know, users within the form of like customer support tickets and then there’s forums and those different things. They are all part of the process and also part of, you know, being a community-centric product. We bring them along the journey within product development. So when we are first ideating, you know, we ask them what they think. We get their feedback earlier on when we have a first iteration, whether it’s a wireframe or an initial prototype, we get their feedback in and we just kind of get that kind of conversation and that feedback loop going earlier on and have them part of the entire process because we’re building the product for them and you’re a part of every step along the way.

Paul [00:07:45] I love the empathy and the passion for the community that you’re bringing out, and I hear something that maybe I’m projecting so I want to validate what I just heard. There’s social media in general and there’s the big ones, the giants that have the user as the product where the sole purpose of the platform is, if we’re being honest, I mean, it’s not even an open secret. It’s just the business model. The user is the product because we’re advertising to them and there’s a little bit of a, I guess, mercanistic attitude towards the user when the user is the product.

Paul [00:08:14] But when you’re focusing on the community… I have very fond memories of Flickr where I know Twitter was probably the platform that popularized the use of hashtags, but I have very fond memories of tagging and finding myself down rabbit holes on Flickr because the community is so vibrant. And there was this element of serendipity that I remember it having, you know, all through the albums and the boards that I curated and having this experience of, you know, where is this going to lead me? There’s just clicking on a tag like blue and seeing where that takes me and finding myself an hour later in some niche board with minis that are painted for hobbyists in some off-brand that is just this thriving sub-community within the larger community.

Paul [00:08:54] And that kind of feeling really brings me back to what’s really best about the Internet. You know, Flickr as a platform really brings out that creativity, that connectedness, that is, I think, becoming more commercialized in a lot of the platforms today. And it seems like Flickr has really maintained a sense of purity in that ability to connect people for the pure sake of connecting people. You know, it’s almost an altruistic, community-focused attitude. So tell me, am I projecting too much of my own nostalgia? Is that where we’re going? And I’m curious to know a little bit more about the future of Flickr. Where are we going from today?

Stephanie [00:09:28] Yeah, I like to say that Flickr was the original, you know, binge platform because it’s so true. You can go in and you can stay there for hours and you know, somehow you’re like, “I’m looking at Lego photos; how did I end up here?” And it’s amazing. And I think one of the greatest things about Flickr is that there’s so much more than what you think. There’s so many different types of communities within Flickr. You know, there’s the cars, the trains, the birds, the Legos, and it’s amazing and you’re certainly not projecting at all. That’s what the community at Flickr is all about. And we’re actually going to make 20 years this February, which is incredible, and especially for the people who’ve been there since the beginning. We have such a loyal group of subscribers who have been there and they make it known also. They let us know that they’re here for the long run as well.

Stephanie [00:10:20] And we have definitely had quite the evolution along the years. You know, we’ve had different managements, different people who have purchased the company, you know, and Yahoo bought us and all that type of stuff as well. And SmugMug bought us a couple of years ago as well. And they saw that value as well and they saw what we had back then and what the future was to come. So what I’m working on as well is to bring that life back to new users as well, you know, and to have other people also experience what that joy and beauty is of what the Flickr community really has to offer.

Stephanie [00:10:57] So with all the different, you know, those bigger names that you’ve mentioned throughout the years kind of being in the tech space, there’s a lot of noise and a lot of distractions and a lot of, you know, trying to keep up with the Joneses that can tend to happen, you know, with all these different features that you try to make just because, you know, this company is making it you think you have to. Whether it’s short stories or reels or, you know, all that type of stuff. So I’m sure that Flickr throughout the past decade or two has felt the need to compete with some of that. And with me coming on and Alexander Seville on who’s actually the head of Flickr on my team as well. He has an incredible vision and so much empathy. He’s actually been at Flickr for a very long time as well and we are taking a different approach.

Stephanie [00:11:46] So I’m all about the simplicity. So taking a step back, you know, taking a look at what we have, we have an amazing core product that our users love and our users are very passionate about. But there’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of other things that, you know, probably aren’t used a lot, aren’t maintained, are just taking up a lot of stuff. So I’m looking to declutter a little bit, kind of clean things up, and modernize. You know, dust off a little bit of the old code in there and, you know, clean things up. There’s a lot to come in 2024. We want to clean up and work on some of those core features to make them better. And we’re all about evolving and we’re definitely going to bring our community along the way as well. They’ve been asking for a lot of these changes and a lot of these updates for a very long time.

Stephanie [00:12:37] We’re very blessed that we have so much user feedback and surveys and all these forums with all this amazing content from our users and our community and our subscribers. So when I joined, it was like a plethora of, like, “Oh my goodness, we can do so many things.” So at least for the foreseeable future, it’s taking that step back, kind of cleaning things up and modernizing a little bit of those core features. Then from there, I would really love to focus on things like the app and looking at our mobile approach. Our cameras are getting better and better on our phones and everyone has access to it, you know? So I would love our app to get to a place where you can do everything on it at the palm of your hand as well. So that’s a little sneak peek of what we have coming.

Paul [00:13:25] Love the enthusiasm, I love the passion. And, you know, first of all, congratulations on 20 years. To be a product with a 20-year lifespan on the Internet is an accomplishment regardless of, you know, the vision or the current status. The fact that Flickr has been opinionated about what it is for so long and the community is so clear about what they want, that’s rare. And I think that that deserves to be celebrated. So it’s definitely a lot of inertia and I’m sure the challenges that you’re looking at and the changes that you want to make are not easy, but I’m sure the community is going to appreciate it. As we kind of shift gears a little bit, we can’t talk about social platforms or photo-sharing platforms without talking sort of about the macro and what is going on in the environment. You shared a bit of a sneak peek already, and I’m maybe begging too much to pry a little bit further. When you think about what’s coming up as far as other causes and values that are important to Flickr, what are those ideas that you’d love to share with others who are maybe discovering Flickr for the first time, or rediscovering it, or a longtime user and fan of the product? What things excite you about what Flickr is focused on?

Stephanie [00:14:31] Yeah, so actually one of the really amazing things that has happened over this past year is actually we’re now certified climate neutral, which is a big deal when we’re kind of thinking about everything that’s going on with the world and kind of the environment. So what that actually means is that we’re partnering with a nonprofit organization called Climate Neutral. And what it does is it’s meant to, like, measure and help reduce and offset all carbon emissions created by our company. It’s amazing. So it’s like, we’re not just focused on our website or our photographers or our users or our community. It’s the company itself and figuring out how as a business we can make a difference in the world. So it’s like, Flickr and, you know, SmugMug itself is trying to make a bigger impact across the world.

Stephanie [00:15:22] So we are, you know, remote. That’s a big thing as well. We’re tracking, you know, travels and we’re tracking everything that we’re trying to do to make those little bit of changes that actually make a big impact. So that’s something that we’re really excited about and we want to promote more and showcase more on our platform and perhaps even let our users know how they can make an impact on their day-to-day as well.

Paul [00:15:48] Yeah, I love that. The values and again, that opinion of itself is something that comes through so clearly. It’s really refreshing to have something that’s not all about the monetization of the user. It’s about a bigger picture, it’s about the greater good, so to speak. I love that. It is really a breath of fresh air. I want to bring us back down from the stratosphere a little bit. We’ve been talking a lot about strategy and history and the space. I want to talk a bit about your product management journey and sort of how your approach to the future of Flickr, in a really tactical sense, is really meeting the road, where the rubber meets the road. So you’ve shared a couple of posts on LinkedIn over the past few months about your talks and the experiences that you’ve had. What’s your product management philosophy? How do you bring your tactics and your toolkit to bear on what needs to be done at Flickr?

Stephanie [00:16:38] So everyone within the Flickr organization knows that I don’t do anything in a vacuum. I’m very, very open and transparent. I’ve kind of been that way since the very beginning. I’m very much into collaboration, whether it’s, you know, back in the day it was like, just me, an engineer, and like, I would try to make really horrible wireframes. To now I love collaborating with everyone and I think that that’s like the biggest part of at least my philosophy.

Stephanie [00:17:04] And at Flickr, we actually hold that really, really highly is that we have this saying that we’re better together. And that’s not only within product management but just as a company overall. And I definitely use that within our development strategy. So we do make a ton of mistakes and we do fall on our face a lot, but we pick each other up and we work on it together and we do retros and we try to figure out, you know, what we can do better next time. We iterate on different processes together so that we can collaborate a lot sooner. I just had a talk in San Francisco recently where the topic was about, you know, bridging silos between teams. So it was about how product and the customer success teams can work together to make a customer happy. And that was an area that I’m very, very passionate about, not only with just customer success and customer support teams, but with everyone, because I feel like we all can help contribute to the feedback loop and we all have our different areas of expertise.

Stephanie [00:18:07] I am not an expert in a lot of different things and that’s why I love having different SMEs in many areas to come and help fill in those gaps and we can make something amazing together. So that’s my philosophy. And it’s also, like I mentioned about, you know, making a ton of mistakes. I love obviously the Agile approach of iterating and, you know, doing things and trying to get feedback much quicker. And that’s what we are trying to do a lot more of at Flickr. You know, coming into this organization, I’ve been here over a year, so not too long, but they’re, you know, coming to an organization where the tenure of the average person who’s been at Flickr is probably between six to eight years. So they’ve been there a long time, which is really unheard of in the tech space. They were very much used to, like, the way they do things and stuff, and I was very nervous about that. But thankfully, everyone has been super open to trying new things and, you know, working on different new processes and embracing change.

Paul [00:19:11] Wonderful. I love that story and I appreciate your transparency. I think you’re a bit too humble. You might be too close to see some of the good things that are going on. The falling down and making mistakes are really leading to a lot of what I see is subtle but really meaningful implementation of progress over the years. I don’t think it’s emphasizing the mistakes. It’s about learning from them. And the patience of a company to be able to test sustainably and really in a measured and human approach, take those learnings from those mistakes and apply them in new, fresh ways that allow users to continue engaging, that’s really powerful. And again, that 20-year lifespan just speaks volumes, where we’re on, you know, months, if not weeks, of getting to product-market-fit, and how fast can you get a million users, and all the metrics that make headlines today. The slow, steady but really connected community, I think really speaks volumes. We only have time for a couple of questions left, and I want to wrap us up with a few ideas that we ask all of our guests. The first of which being, what is your definition of innovation?

Stephanie [00:20:12] Innovation is evolving, and it could mean in many different ways. Obviously in the tech space innovation could be, you know, in technology or in processes. But in my opinion, it’s pretty much just learning how to embrace when it’s time to evolve and figuring out what those next steps are, whether that’s a straight and linear approach or in a bumpy way like I’ve been, so…

Paul [00:20:38] Love it. And the last thing I’d love to close with is to share with our community of listeners, what inspires you? What books are on your bookshelf that a product manager, maybe just starting out in their career, should take a look at to make sure they’re on the right path.?

Stephanie [00:20:52] Yeah, so there are two that come to mind and then one course. So one is called The Lean Product Playbook, and it’s pretty much about, like, how to build MVPs. So I started out my career in MVP. Like, MVP building was like a crazy time, like just building a ton of MVPs for a small dev shop also. And I definitely highly recommend that. You learn speed, you learn intention, you learn about feedback and integrating that loop super quickly. So that’s by Dan Olsen.

Stephanie [00:21:27] And then the second book is one that is not directly about product management, but it’s called The First 90 Days. I recommend this book to everyone, whether you are getting a promotion or starting a new job. And it’s basically how when you’re starting a new position, what your first 90 days should look like. And it is by Michael Watkins. So I definitely highly recommend that book. And then there’s so many courses out there. One that I recommend to people within Flickr and we just partnered up is with this company called Reforge. They have a ton of different courses, but their product management foundations course is really great. But there’s a ton out there and there’s so many free ones too that I highly recommend, especially if you just want to, like, take a little taste. But yeah, definitely check out those books if you’re interested.

Paul [00:22:21] Yeah, I can’t agree more. Those books are both on my bookshelf and we’ve actually had Dan also on this very podcast, so great recommendation.

Stephanie [00:22:27] That’s awesome.

Paul [00:22:28] It’s been a blast talking to you, hearing about your vision and the journey that Flickr has been on. I really appreciate you taking the time today. Thanks for joining us.

Stephanie [00:22:35] Yes, thanks for having me. I look forward to connecting more.

Paul [00:22:38] Cheers.

Paul [00:22:41] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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