For Creator of Twitter’s Whale, a ‘Fail’ in Name Only

NOVEMBER 8, 2013, 10:44 AM

For Creator of Twitter’s Whale, a ‘Fail’ in Name Only



One of Twitter’s co-founders was struck by this image and chose to use it as a symbol when the Twitter site was temporarily down but would return soon. With its initial public offering on Thursday, Twitter minted a brand new group of billionaires, many of whom were rewarded for their early work with the company. But one person who brought a sense of levity to the start-up during its darkest hours will not be making anything. That person is Yiying Lu, the artist behind Twitter’s “Fail Whale” – the image of a whale being carried by birds — that used to pop up every time Twitter’s website was down, which was often in 2008.Unlike Facebook’s graffiti artist who took shares instead of payment that turned out to be worth more than $200 million, or the masseuse at Google whose stock options made her a multimillionaire, Ms. Lu was not richer after Twitter’s first day of trading.

“I have no stock,” Ms. Lu said. “Yet.”

Her story is just one of many from people who contribute to the success of a start-up but don’t reap a windfall when it goes public.

Ms. Lu, who was born in Shanghai, moved to New South Wales, Australia, as a teenager and later studied in London at the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. She created the whale as a birthday icon she would send to friends who were scattered around the world. It was meant to depict a whale so full of good wishes that it needed a little help from its bird friends.

In 2008, she posted it to, a royalty-free service where photographers and artists can post their work and license it for a small fee.

Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s co-founders, went to iStockphoto during Twitter’s early days when the site hit a rough patch with regular shutdowns. He was looking for a cheap image that could be used as a symbol when the Twitter site was down temporarily but would return soon. Ms. Lu’s image struck a chord with him and, as it soon became apparent, with Twitter’s followers.

Ms. Lu only discovered later that Twitter was using her whale image when a fan — one of many around the world who had named the image ‘Fail Whale’ — contacted her to congratulate her. “When it came up I had no idea,” she said, “I didn’t even have a Twitter account.”

Looking back today, Ms. Lu called the chance discovery of her whale by Mr. Stone serendipity. Even though she was not paid much for the image, she would end up reaping enormous benefits.

“I do appreciate the opportunities, and I want to tell the positive story,” she said.

Opportunities did begin to arrive. In 2010, when the comedian Conan O’Brien left NBC as host of “The Tonight Show” after a disagreement with management, he needed a fresh image for his new “Conan” show on TBS. His team, familiar with Ms. Lu’s work made famous by an online fan community, commissioned her for the job. She created a Pale Whale — depicting Mr. O’Brien riding the original Fail Whale — for the show.

Ms. Lu has also received a Shorty Award, which was created for Twitter users, and in a twist, a Twitter engineer commissioned Ms. Lu to create a logo this year for Twitter’s “capacity service” team of engineers who help to keep the website up. The image is of a bird equipped with cogs and tools.

Even though Ms. Lu said she harbored no bad feelings toward Twitter’s management, which took a long time to acknowledge that the artwork was hers, she did feel strongly about the role that art plays for technology companies.

“Tech companies should compensate artists who contribute to their company’s value,” she said, adding, “It’s important to humanize technology.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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