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How Do You Make a Living, Entrepreneur?

Noah Davis talks to Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake about skipping class, the value of a liberal arts education, and the most difficult language to learn.
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Caterina Fake is an unlikely entrepreneur. The co-founder of start-ups like Flickr, Hunch, and Findery graduated from Vassar with an English degree and spent most of her 20s backpacking around South America. Eventually, however, she found her way to the Internet, where she married her artistic sensibilities with her interest in technology. The rest is photo-sharing history. She talked to Pacific Standard about skipping class, the value of a liberal arts education, and the most difficult language to learn.

What was your education like growing up?

I loved learning and sometimes school got in the way of learning. My grades reflected that. If I loved a teacher and was learning a lot, my grades were as high as they could be. If the teacher was uninspired or reading from a textbook, I didn't bother going. I read everything, all the time, and was always writing my own books and making a lot of art. We recorded radio shows and wrote software. Creating, not consuming.

Did you feel like you were smarter than your classmates?

Caterina Fake. (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

Caterina Fake. (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

This is a dangerous question to answer affirmatively. I was in a gifted children's program in 4th and 5th grade, and went to college when I was 11, through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. But I didn't like being called "gifted;" it felt weird.

You went to a liberal arts college. Why did you choose to do that? How do you think that impacted the rest of your career?

If it were not for the liberal arts, I would not be who I am. I learned how to write, read, ask questions. I learned to cultivate sensitivity to people and their individual selves. I learned to observe and understand. So much of life is expended in working and being entertained, and it's important to learn to be alive to the world around you.

Do you read for pleasure? If so, what?

I read, but I wouldn't say it's solely for pleasure, as I also read for edification, information, enlightenment, epiphany. Reading, if you're doing it right, transforms you. Right now I am reading Infinite Jest, one of those books everyone owns, but nobody's read. I am not enjoying it. When I see it on the bedside table, again, I feel dread.

You’ve found success combining art and technology. Why do you think you’ve been so successful melding the two together? Is there something about the way that you think and see connections that has made you successful?

Conveniently, I love both art and technology. Loving things makes it easy to make decisions about what to do. In addition to building my own start-ups, I've been able to invest in other people's companies that combine the creative with the technological, such as Etsy and Kickstarter, which are also worthy of love. I am drawn to such businesses. They manage to find me too, because of this affinity.

What’s one thing you’d like to learn? Do you still pursue formal education or does it come more haphazardly through your career?

I've been studying Finnish for the past couple years. We go to Finland often. We opened a cafe in Helsinki this past summer. The children speak Finnish, and I love languages. Finnish is by far the most difficult thing I have ever attempted to learn, and that includes calculus. I wasn't good at calculus either, but I was less invested in learning it. I've studied Chinese, Latin, French, and Spanish, but Finnish is so hard, I have nearly given up a dozen times. I have to take a month off, periodically, before I can return for more punishment.

I also like learning various musical instruments. I can play a few stringed instruments (guitar, ukulele, piano, violin, banjo), all of them badly. I like singing, dancing, and camping.

What are you working on now?

Kahvila Siili, in Helsinki. Findery, in San Francisco. Homeschooling, all over the world. Writing. Thinking. Making art. Reading. Some of these don't really seem like work. I just joined the Sundance board. I am excited about movies again!

In one interview you said, "I don’t think my parents were very optimistic about my post-college opportunities.” Has that opinion changed?

After college I spent a lot of time backpacking around South America, and doing odd jobs. I was only sporadically employed. And I didn't find the Internet as a place to work until I was in my late 20s. Many years have transpired between then and now. Things have worked out for me! But I'm not a trophy collector, and I was born on third base. I count my blessings.

Who should I talk to next?

[Groupon founder] Andrew Mason. He's another awesome, liberal arts loving entrepreneur. He is also funny. Ask him about the state of literature, music, and media.


How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.