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FAST GROWTH

5 Years In, the Growing Pains Hit Imgur

(Don't worry, Internet meme lovers. CEO Alan Schaaf is ready.)
Alan Schaaf

Alan Schaaf

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Imgur, the popular meme- and image-hosting site, had an idyllic childhood. It sprung from humble Midwest roots (founder Alan Schaaf's dorm room at Ohio University) and pulled itself up by its bootstraps: Schaaf bought the domain name Imgur.com for $7, and asked friends and users for donations to keep servers afloat as the site amassed users.

Today, it's in a growth spurt. Imgur (pronounced image-er) is one of the most heavily trafficked American websites, with 130 million monthly unique visitors, who upload 1.5 million images daily. If you've encountered a viral animated gif, or LOLCat-style image lately, it's likely been hosted on Imgur--even if you've never gone directly to the Imgur website.

Over a cocktail last week, I asked Schaaf, who is now 26, if his company has been having any growing pains lately. It would be only natural if it is--Schaaf kept the company exceedingly small for years, continuing that bootstrapping from Ohio, until moving to San Francisco in 2011 and taking a whopping $40 million in venture capital funding in April. At that point, six developers, including Schaaf, were supporting 100 million users, and keeping an Android app, an iOS app, and the mobile website functioning, as well as keeping the API updated. That's on top of, you know, running a website that requires massive bandwidth and ever-expanding server space.

With the funding, scrappy Imgur is getting big, fast. It has doubled in head count over the past year (Schaaf now manages 12 programmers), and it's still hiring at a rapid clip, as Imgur prepares to be not just the go-to image-hosting site but also a destination of its own. And this rapid expansion of staff is immediately where Schaaf went with his answer about growing pains.

"Hiring is a big one," he told me. "How do I find someone for a position I've never worked with, or worked under, even? I feel like I'm not qualified to make a lot of these decisions."

Qualified on paper? Maybe not: Running Imgur has been Schaaf's only job since college. But over the past few years, he has embarked on much self-guided learning, by frequently asking mentors for guidance, and is working to revise his own role as the engineering-minded leader of Imgur.

He says when he's not sure about a hire--or what kind of position he needs to create as the company grows--he turns to one of Imgur's newly minted advisers. Those include Chris Poole, the creator of online community 4chan and image-remixing site Canvas, as well as Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky, the creators of a network of question-and-answer websites called Stack Exchange.

"They're great from a software perspective and engineering--how you build an engineering culture--so we rely a lot on them for some of the hard hiring decisions," Schaaf says. "Like, at what point do I introduce a project manager? I've never worked with a project manager."

Schaaf says that expanding his team slowly at first has been an education in both hiring well and managing.

"Along the way, I learned how to be responsible for one person, and then two people," he explains. "You have a problem, and you solve it, and that's under your belt--it's iteration on top of iteration."

And when he emerges from an interview with a potential new hire, and he's uncertain about her or his potential, he has learned to go with his gut. Because, for Imgur, as it stretches and grows, keeping its scrappy, engineering-forward culture is paramount.

"You also just have to feel it," Schaaf says. "If you're even on the fence about hiring someone, that person is a no. You have to feel it in your gut."

Last updated: Jul 10, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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