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Why ‘Be Passionate’ is Awesome Advice

November 10, 2010

Inc has a article entitled Why ‘Be Passionate’ is Awful Advice where they baldly state that companies built on passion are fairy tales.

They’re wrong.

SmugMug is living proof. Here’s what it was like when we started, in response to their list of questions:

Is your idea really a business or just a hobby from which you’d enjoy creating a business?

SmugMug was an accident. The real business was a social network around video games. We started SmugMug as a side project (aka hobby) since we couldn’t find a good place to host our own personal photos online.

Can you actually realize your vision with your available time, capital, and resources?

We honestly had no idea, but it didn’t seem likely. The video game thing seemed like the real money maker, but it was going to take a lot more effort.

Is there a real, palpable, and evident demand for your offering among consumers? How big is the market?

No way. Every other photo sharing site was free. The bubble had burst and the Internet was a wasteland (this was 2002). The idea of charging for every single account seemed ludicrous to everyone but the two of us.

Does it have a real business model that will allow you to generate income immediately or a “maybe” model that might take years to (maybe) make a dime?

Real model? Sure, we were going to ask people to get their credit cards out and pay us real money. Was it going to actually generate income? We had no idea – asking people to get their credit cards out for a tiny, unknown, premium-only place to store your priceless memories wasn’t exactly a recipe that had investors foaming at the mouth.

Can you fully defend to your harshest critic the reasons why your business is capable of generating a dollar? How about $1,000? $100,000? More?

Nope. Our closest friends, include VC on Sand Hill Road and successful Internet entrepreneurs, all told us we were insane and we’d never make money. After we got a single signup our first week, and only 5 the entire first month, we started to believe them.

Approximately how long do you believe it will it to generate income? Can you survive that long? How about two or three times longer than what you anticipate (which is more realistic, if not generous)?

We hoped we’d generate income immediately. We did – about $30. We bought more ramen and corn flakes. We had no idea when meaningful income would arrive – ‘never’ seemed the most likely timeline.

Why have other similar businesses failed and how is your iteration of an idea different?

We had no idea. We didn’t bother to do any competitive research deeper than “Is there a good place online to host my photos? No? Guess we’ll build one.”

Is your idea a money pit or a cash cow? Will it need constant reinvestment or can you scale organically?

Neither? We didn’t have any money (our idea was so crazy that no-one would invest in us), so we knew it couldn’t be a money pit. But cash cow seemed unlikely, too.

Can you survive a total failure or are you “all-in” if you want to get started?

We could survive a total failure for no reason other than we didn’t put anything into the business other than blood, sweat, and tears. Zero dollars of investment, either by the founders or outsiders, meant we could easily walk away. Painful, but possible. (We bummed free rack space from a friend, used three ancient free servers from a failed dot com, and threw some code on it)

Today, we’re profitable, growing fast, and work with the greatest people on earth. We host billions of photos and videos, we have millions of passionate paying customers. Our offices are possibly the most fun in Silicon Valley, complete with gourmet food, giant gigapixel prints, dogs, go karts, dueling quadricopters, more 30″ displays than you’ve ever seen, and more:

Best of all? We work on the things we love because we own our own destiny. No outside investors meant we got to keep being passionate, day in and day out.

My advice to entrepreneurs? I’m absolutely positive that if you take your favorite hobby, mix in the Internet and a ton of hard work, you can build a great business. Whether you will or not is entirely up to you.

SmugMug is always hiring. Come do what you love, every day.

  1. KMiller
    November 10, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Yeah, and according to these douche bags Disney was waste of time! I’m not going to pretend to hide my contempt for those ‘Reaganites’ that will do just about anything for the ‘proper numbers’ on their balance sheet. Screw that! If I wanted that kind of thought control I’d move to China! (no offense) Sorry Grey-Flannel-Suite man, but I want to LIVE my life, not just exist in in.

  2. November 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Passionate belief, love and enthusiasm always win through … watching someone with no belief in the cause/system (most corporate droids!) is the most depressing aspect of daily business.

    Inspiration, passion and belief is infectious, humans are pre-disposed to seek out and take notice of those who imbue it … how else can you explain religion …

    SmugMug is a perfect embodiment of this sentiment … you care, your customers care and we advance together … a riding tide floats all boats!

    It’s why I am and will be a delighted SmugMug customer whilst many emulate but never quite grasp the critical nuances of this situation.


  3. November 10, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    I completely agree Food is all about passion!

  4. November 11, 2010 at 1:25 pm


    You might be interested in this follow-up post from our contributing editor Donna Fenn: http://www.inc.com/millennial-entrepreneurs/in-defense-of-entrepreneurial-passion.html

    It seems to me, though, that SmugMug met the main criteria Scott addresses in his questions: a real business model (charging rather than giving away for free), a sustaining market (photographers, serious hobbyists), a distinct offering (premium photo sharing tools), and adequate resources for survival (you were able to run it with virtually no extra investment and survive on ramen while waiting for traction). You probably didn’t map all those out, since it started as a side project. But would you actually recommend that someone not consider those criteria at all if they explicitly intend to start a full-time venture?

    That said, I agree that it’s very possible to turn a passion into a business, and that passion is in fact needed to get through the challenges of running a business. Maybe it’s that companies built on ONLY passion are fairy tales.

    April Joyner

  5. November 11, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    There comes a point at which the company image of being a “passion driven” company can just no longer be maintained, assuming it ever existed to begin with. Is Microsoft passionate? “bwahahaha…..” and is Apple? My thought is reflexively “yes” even if tainted. Anything MS does I see as a sterile attempt to win customers, all business without an iota of passion, and that’s that. Apple hasn’t yet crossed that place even they waddle closer by the week. The point I’m getting at is this. Smug Mug has that special connection with it’s base. I feel like I’m a part of SM, like they care about me. Whatever right? But that’s just it. There’s a connection. We know the founders are real people, not suits, but real life photo/imagery geeks, maybe not just like us but with one fact clear. They get it when it comes to the idea of image presentation and all things that go with that. They get it. Eureka! Whatever “geek” clout Bill Gates may have once had is long long gone, MS is run by marketing robots as far as I know -or care and passion has nothing to do with anything they do. I own a lot of Apple stuff. Being passionate is pretty freaking important if you ask me.

  6. November 13, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    I loved the “fun afternoon” 30 minute video. Such a great “organic” promo piece about your company. I thought it was even better than the marketing video.

    Also, I just happened to be browsing for info about photo share sites for a friend that’s thinking about starting a blog from one of those free sites. The “organic” video has nearly sold me on recommending SnugMug to this guy because he is really passionate about his photography and other hobbies he wants to display. Now, I think that a free blog will never be satisfactory for his needs. Great job guys!

  7. November 16, 2010 at 3:56 am

    This is brilliant for me right now. I’m building a social network/service of my own. I have no idea if it’ll work, my missus is supporting us for 6 months whilst I try and get the beast off the ground. Yesterday, I had noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner – seriously.

    Anyway, reading this has given me a new lease of life. I was feeling a bit weighed down by it all. So thanks. I’m on with the HTML demo now.

    Cynical plug: If anyone is interested you can register your interest here http://www.bodiluv.com – no spam I promise.

    Thanks Smug Mug. Chris 😉

  8. ddn
    November 22, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Most truly great businesses wouldn’t be able to answer in the affirmative to any of those questions.

    Garbage. Great post.

  1. November 15, 2010 at 6:50 am
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