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Archive for August, 2006

Flickr doesn't suck.

August 31, 2006 17 comments

Kord Campbell, CEO of Zoto.com, seems to think Flickr sucks. It doesn’t. His point is that the rest of us didn’t get enough credit when Flickr finally introduced geotagging. He mentions that Zoto, SmugMug, and Zooomr have had geotagging for years. He’s right, but who cares?

The Flickr wannabees are always screaming about how they don’t get any recognition and that Flickr steals all the press. One of the Webshots founders recently said ‘Pound for pound [Flickr] is certainly the greatest PR machine in net history.’ That’s very true, but again, so what?

Flickr isn’t even the market leader (Webshots is, and Yahoo! Photos is much larger even at Yahoo), but they’re still an incredibly cool site with a very low barrier to entry – no fees, simple signup, and a great community.

The press and people who don’t really understand business always latch on to a market leader or a company with a ton of momentum and declare victory. Remember when Google couldn’t get any respect because AltaVista had “won” the search engine wars? What’s their market cap? Remember when fatbrain.com was dismissed because Amazon owned bookselling online? So how’d they become a $100M-in-sales, profitable company? For decades, pundits have been speculating that one of the car companies will own the market and we’ll all drive the same make.

It’s not gonna happen. There’s plenty of room for everyone to play – you just have to find your market, find your business model, and go for it. Google’s approach was anti-portal with a little PageRank mixed in. fatbrain.com went after the technical and business market, and provided in-house bookstores for the likes of IBM and Sun. And duh, we’d not all driving the same car. There’s room for BMW alongside Toyota.

At SmugMug, we have a lot of respect for Flickr and what they’ve been able to achieve. They deserve all the credit in the world. Personally, I wish their innovation rate hadn’t slowed way down when they got acquired by Yahoo – but I can’t think of a single ‘large company buys small company’ event that hasn’t caused that. Can you?

We have no desire to play in Flickr’s market, and never have. It costs money to use SmugMug – we have no free offering. We launched years before Flickr did, and we were profitable before Flickr even entered the market. We still are. We have a very different approach to the business and to our customers than Flickr does. Does that mean Flickr’s wrong and we’re right? Of course not. Do we wish we got more press coverage? Of course we do, every company does. But we’ll buckle down and earn it.

Companies triumph over market leaders all the time. They do it by innovating and executing brilliantly. If Flickr is stealing your customers or your press, it’s your own fault. Victory is there for the taking – but I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that your competition doesn’t suck. Once you realize they’re talented and aggressive, you can fight them on their own turf.

Categories: business, smugmug, web 2.0

Duke Nukem's fate in question? 'Come get some.'

August 31, 2006 1 comment

In a former life, I was lucky enough to make video games (actually, SmugMug is a happy accident based on what was a video game company – but that’s another story for another time). And the way I got into making video games was by hosting Duke Nukem 3D’s internet launch on my servers. It went so well, I did the same thing for Quake a few months later. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now, my old friends at 3DRealms are under fire. Duke Nukem Forever has taken an awfully long time to make (9 years at least), and Shacknews has a rather breathless article on the loss of some talent on the game. Now, Shacknews is my absolute favorite gaming site, and I love the addition of Chris Remo to the staff there – but come on people!

Every game developer I know loses people constantly – and on much shorter titles than Duke Nukem. We lost plenty of people making SiN, and that was a 2 year project, not 9. Losing people from time to time on a project this long is going to happen – people get bored, burnt out, want to do something new, etc. Big deal – it wasn’t the entire team that left.

I’m sure 3DRealms misses some of these people. Knowing some of the ones who left personally, they certainly lost some very talented people – but Duke’s fate isn’t in question. Even mentioning a phrase like that is ridiculous and silly. They’ll continue with the rest of the team (a game like Duke doesn’t get made with 7 people) and hire replacements as necessary. My understanding is that they didn’t all leave en-masse anyway.

Anyone can see that 3DRealms is doing fine financially (look at all the console Duke titles over the years, the Max Payne franchise, and now Prey) and they’re gonna take their time. Remember all the whining and moaning about Half-Life 2? How’d that turn out?

One of my biggest regrets (and I know I speak for lots of the other SiN team members here, too, some of whom are on the list of those who left 3DRealms) is that we didn’t have the money and time to make SiN truly great. We were forced by market pressures to ship the game before it was done – and as a result, we had an average title that had clear glimpses of greatness. Imagining what life would have been like if we could have polished it like Valve and 3DRealms get to do is a fantasy – but a beautiful one.

True game fans should stop whining about Duke and instead laud developers like id, Blizzard, Valve, and 3DRealms for taking the time to do their games right and ship them when they’re done. The wait can be worth it – just look at HL2 and WoW.

Categories: business, personal, video games

Take a peek inside our datacenters

August 28, 2006 2 comments

Our customers often ask us what sort of hardware we use. I’ve meant to put up a page detailing all of the stuff we love (like Apple’s XServe RAID arrays and Rackable servers), but I’m a big procrastinator. 🙂

In the meantime, you can watch a video of me describing a portion of our storage infrastructure here, both our physical local storage, and little bit about Amazon’s S3.

Also on CNet is a video interview we set up with Equinix, the people who provide our datacenter space, power and cooling.

Take a peek inside, see what you think.

Categories: business, smugmug, web 2.0

It's about time, Flickr

August 28, 2006 4 comments

The news broke on TechCrunch first, but it’s now over on the FlickrBlog: Flickr has finally added real geography support. I guess the only real question is – why on earth did it take so long?

I’ve only spent a few minutes playing with it, but it’s really good so far. They did a nice job with the interface, especially “clustering” photos together as you zoom in and out.

I’m excited about this. Our customers have been enjoying geotagging support for more than a year (see Tim’s post about it), and I know Zooomr’s had good support for awhile, too. But Flickr has lot more market share, mind share, and PR leverage than the rest of us do, so hopefully this will get camera manufacturers to get on the ball and make this a standard checklist feature. Let’s hope so.

Categories: smugmug, web 2.0, webtoys

foo, nofoo, barcamp

August 28, 2006 4 comments

I wasn’t invited to foo camp this year – and that’s a good thing.

I attend quite a few conferences each year, and wish I had a lot of time to attend even more. Half of them match up with the ‘Chief Geek’ half of my title, like MySQL UC and OSCON, and the others fall into the ‘CEO’ half of my title, like D and Web 2.0 (though I can’t for the life of me seem to get an invitation to Web 2.0 this year, despite being a previous attendee and a Web 2.0 CEO. Other people at SmugMug have, though. Go figure.).

But foo camp is the best there is. I learn more in the two days at foo than any two months the rest of the year combined. It’s like mind-melding with super-brilliant people and having your brain sucked while you’re sucking theirs. Not to mention the best Werewolf games I’ve ever played. 🙂

Over the weekend, there were some alternatives to foo in the area. Scoble had his nofoo fireside chat at the Ritz (you can read more about our discussions) which was a ton of fun, and easily had the best view. But it wasn’t foo.

On Sunday morning, I stopped by BarCamp Stanford for a few hours, and there was some interesting stuff going on there. One Stanford student showed us his HCI work with the Staples button which was fascinating, and someone from Yahoo showed us a really cool search widget using JSON. But it wasn’t foo.

And it finally dawned on me why foo is so excellent and so difficult to replicate. It’s because Tim & Co. apply a filter to those who are invited. Now, before your hair catches on fire, I’m not talking about a quality filter – there were clearly quality people at both nofoo and barcamp. I’m talking about a diversity filter.

At foo, it’s not all Web 2.0 geeks. You’re eating dinner that first night with one of the guys on the original US spy satellite program to snoop on the Soviets – and he’s got photos, diagrams, and details of exactly how the cameras worked, how they’d get the film back, and how they’d get it developed. During the Geodata & Geomapping session, it’s not just Google Maps mashup artists like us – there are hardware guys asking the mashup guys what they’d like to see next year, and whipping out prototype GPS chips that can be embedded in anything. One session you learn about bioengineering and the state of getting your own chunk of DNA printed. The next, you’re watching someone show off their chocolate printer. Yes, we went from printing DNA to printing chocolate.

The point is that foo is diverse and unique. They intentionally don’t invite the same people every year for this very reason (see? I really am glad I didn’t get invited this year). With completely open-ended things, like nofoo and barcamp, I’m afraid it becomes a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Web geeks show up because they read blogs and heard other web geeks were going to be there. Rinse, lather, repeat.

(I think it’s only fair at this point to mention that foo and its diversity does have its fair share of problems. The O’Reilly team puts this on for free for us every year, so I’m happy to help put chairs away, clean up trash, etc for a few hours every Sunday afternoon. So are quite a few other campers. But there’s a large contingent that just sits on the porch chatting away, watching the O’Reilly team lug stuff around. Seems rather rude if you’re really ‘friends’ of O’Reilly. I have a feeling everyone at BarCamp pitched in and cleaned up together.)

I’ve become a big fan of applying non-standard thinking to a given problem. Freakonomics applied economic thinking to (at least on the surface) non-economic problems – with fascinating results. The Culture Code does the same thing – applying psychology to marketing with amazing results. foo is like that – the application of brilliant, non-standard thinking from people who are not experts in your field is enlightening.

Categories: web 2.0

Lessons from the Ritz-Carlton

August 21, 2006 12 comments

At SmugMug, we pride ourselves on our customer service. We think it’s one of the key things that sets us apart from our competitors and we spend a lot of time focusing on it. Every SmugMug employee works a customer service shift every week. Think about it – how many web properties can you think of that provide over-the-top customer service?

I was lucky enough to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay over the weekend for my 6th wedding anniversary (and first overnighter away from the twins!). I had heard of the Ritz’s reputation for service, of course, but I’ve stayed at nice hotels before. Just how great could it be?

Boy, was I in for a wakeup call.

A few days prior to our arrival, I received a phone call from the Ritz Guest Relations Supervisor wondering if there was anything special they could do for me since it was our anniversary. I hemmed and hawed for a minute, thinking, and she took the opportunity to suggest a few wonderful things such as having ‘our song‘ playing when we got back to our room after dinner. Together, we came up with a few more great ideas and she made it happen – after dinner, my wife was in tears and I had earned major bonus points.

When we arrived and I pulled up to the guardhouse down the road from the hotel, the gentleman manning it wished us a “Happy Anniversary”. Before we’d even driven up or checked in, everyone already knew! The valets knew, the doorman knew, the front desk knew. Everyone wished us a “Happy Anniversary” and even correctly pronounced my last name (it’s difficult for most people, and we’re very used to a variety of pronunciations – but clearly, they knew at the Ritz).

The valets gushed over my car when I pulled up, asking if it was turbo-charged (they could hear the whine – but it’s a supercharger), complimenting me on my rims, etc. Ok, so I’m car-obsessed and a sucker for people realizing that my car is unique and wanting to talk about it. Now, remember, this is the Ritz – there was a Bentley next to a Rolls-Royce next to a Ferrari 360 next to a Laborghini Murcielago out front. I love my car, but it pales in comparison – but they knew it was my car and that I’d appreciate the compliments.

I could go on-and-on, but I think you’re getting the point. From service at the spa (best. massages. ever.) to dining, everything was on par with what I’ve already described. The next day, Ritz employees were still greeting us in the halls by our name and wishing us “Happy Anniversary”.

The bottom line: We felt special. We felt pampered. We felt like the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ritz-Carlton knew us personally and really cared about making sure we were happy. They’ve earned a customer for life.

Things we can learn from the Ritz and their approach to service:

  1. Attention to detail. Knowing how to pronounce my last name properly doesn’t sound like a big deal – but it is to me, and it’s but one small example. Everything was like that – no detail overlooked.
  2. Proactive service. Calling me a few days ahead of time, prepared with suggestions, was over the top and greatly appreciated.
  3. Warmth and caring. Every Lady and Gentleman at the Ritz seemed to genuinely care about us and our well-being.
  4. Communication. Everyone there seemed to know it was our anniversary, and that put a smile on our faces each and every time we heard “Happy Anniversary”.
  5. Understanding the customer. When I drove up in my car, they realized that I was into cars and reacted accordingly. Adjusting your game to be “just right” for every given customer is a diffcult but laudable goal.
  6. Every customer is special. I’m not a regular, I’ve never stayed at a Ritz, and I wasn’t well-dressed or anything – I was wearing my typical cheap, comfy Old Navy from head-to-toe. It didn’t matter – at the Ritz, everyone’s special.

We need to take our game to the next level. We provide excellent customer service, possibly the best on the web, but that’s no reason not to improve – and what better place to learn than from watching the gold standard.

Categories: business, smugmug

Scoble @ The Ritz

August 21, 2006 6 comments

My wife and I celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary (and first overnighter away from the twins!) last weekend. During lunch on Saturday, I spied a Google hat across the room and recognized the face beneath – Robert Scoble. I don’t know how we kept passing in the night at tech conferences, but we’d never met. I ambled on over and introduced myself and met Jeremy Wright as well.

Robert Scoble and Jeremy Wright enjoying Mojitos and sushi at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

You never know what to expect when you meet high-profile geek bloggers (I’ve been disappointed by more than a few), but I gotta tell you, Scoble is The Real Deal – a truly nice guy. Nice guys are rarer than they should be in the Valley, but Scoble was warm, friendly, funny and personable. Later that afternoon, while my wife caught some Zs, we had fun filming the inaurugal Mojito Show. I’m hoping I can make a repeat appearance this Saturday, but we’ll see.

Jeremy was fun, too, and sounds like he’s built an interesting business around blogging (and did it fast – only 11 months) with b5media. Oh, and he’s got a great business card with plenty of attitude.

Best part of the interview? Scoble said something like “Wait, you’re profitable? You can’t be Web 2.0!”. 🙂

Categories: web 2.0
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