Long time readers will know that more than a year ago, I tried to get a SmugMug site going on StackExchange.
Today, we’re finally in Public Beta! We’re not done yet, though, so please head over and start asking & answering questions so we can flesh out the knowledge base and create a rich resource for everyone to use.
Thanks to everyone who helped get us here!
tl;dr: Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope. Trying to move the Q&A for our community to StackExchange, which I love, and could use your help. Please click here, hit ‘Commit’, then click the link in your email if you can help us out.
I’ve been in love with StackOverflow since the day Jeff and Joel announced it. I taught myself how to write SmugMug using Google, not books, so a site like StackOverflow was a dream come true. However, I’d only been a lurker until recently – I figured I didn’t have the kind of time needed to really answer questions.
When ServerFault, and recently, the Photography & Photographic Editing StackExchange site came along, I started lurking more. Now that I run a photography company, I don’t get to take as many photos (go figure), but our employees and customers, obviously, take tons. And just like StackOverflow, the Photo site is full of great information shared by a wonderful, and growing, community. One of the things I really love about these sites is the overflow nature – many photographers are into geekier pastimes and vice versa, so there’s a natural compatibility with Photos and StackOverflow, for example.
Very recently, a few people have both asked “Why doesn’t SmugMug have a StackExchange site? Do you want to control all the data or something?” and “Why does your support forum suck so badly for finding answers to fairly simple questions?”. Our support forum does suck for this (good answers get buried pages deep, searching is tough, you don’t want to read all the discussions all the time, the same question get asked many times, etc…) Which, of course, got me thinking – surely we can just pay StackExchange to solve this problem (I do not want to control all the data – I just want an awesome experience).
StackExchange would be amazing for our community because:
- The best answers to a question are always on top. No wading through pages of replies.
- Searching is easy, both on StackExchange and via engines like Google.
- The same questions won’t get asked over and over – they’ve already been answered and are easy to find.
- The system encourages people to ask great questions and provide authoritative answers.
- You can tell at a glance if someone answering your question knows what they’re talking about.
- They’ve done this for large topics like StackOverflow already, so they understand the ins & outs of the process and software to support communities like this.
- And more… See for yourself at StackOverflow
Turns out, they won’t take a check. We have to go through a formal community vetting process, to make sure our criteria matches with theirs. After that, it’s free (yay!), but until then, we can’t use it (boo!). The process seems like a sound way to ensure that a StackExchange site won’t just linger and drift into obscurity, and that it starts off with a nice subset of users as it ramps up. After glancing through the FAQ, it looked like we’d be a slam-dunk.
We have millions of paying customers, tens of thousands of whom are active posters on our forums at Digital Grin, and they’ve posted tens of thousands of threads with hundreds of thousands of replies around just the sorts of things we’d ask & answer on a StackExchange site. Best of all, we’d instantly have all the world’s experts (say, the top 100-200 most knowledgeable SmugMug people in the world) to jumpstart things. Sounds perfect, right?
Our problem is that during the ‘Commit’ phase, what matters more than warm bodies is your rank on other StackExchange sites, like StackOverflow, ServerFault, etc. And SmugMug’s community, while full of warm, eager bodies, isn’t brimming with StackExchange users. To make matters worse, I can’t reach out to my customers and ask them to ‘Commit’ because there’s nothing useful there to see, and explaining the process is difficult. When it’s in ‘Beta’, this probably gets much easier – since the site becomes fully functional at that point, we can begin directing *all* of our customers to it, and drive usage and adoption pretty rapidly.
When it comes right down to it, we’re really trying to expose tens of thousands (hundreds eventually and perhaps millions) of new people to StackExchange. I’m very confident that many of these photographers would love to be exposed at the same time to the Photography StackExchange site, and that the thousands of developers of our API would love to be exposed to StackOverflow.
This seems to be a win-win for everyone involved: SmugMug gets massively better community-driven Q&A, SmugMug’s customers get the answers to the questions they need answered, and StackExchange gets valuable users, traffic, and data. But we’re stuck with a chicken-or-the-egg problem – we can’t jumpstart our community of fresh new StackExchange users because we don’t have enough StackExchange users.
So our ‘Commit’ process has stalled. And I’d love to have your help. If you’d like to see a repository of authoritative answers for SmugMug questions, from Pro-related sales & money-making to Power-user customization to API developer questions, please, give us a hand.
Click here, hit ‘Commit’, fill in your details (your SmugMug URL works as an OpenID!), and then click the link in the email they’ll send you.
Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.
P.S. – I’m a full-fledged addict on StackOverflow and ServerFault, now, not just a lurker. Hardest thing? Answering a question quickly enough that someone else hasn’t already answered it. Those communities are on fire!
Inc has a article entitled Why ‘Be Passionate’ is Awful Advice where they baldly state that companies built on passion are fairy tales.
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.
Anton Lorimer, a SmugMug customer and unbelievable photographer and videographer, recently filmed an excellent look inside SmugMug for us:
Make sure to go Fullscreen and turn HD on, or click through to see A look inside SmugMug bigger.
There’s quite the discussion going on over at Facebook, too.
It’s awesome to take a step back and look at what all of our years of hard work have built. The future is bright, I’m excited for our customers and employees!
tl;dr: The new AppleTV is a huge disappointment. Welcome to AppleTV 2007.
SmugMug is full of Apple fanboys. (And our customer list suggests Apple is full of SmugMug fanboys) We watch live blogs or streams of every product announcement as a company, debating and discussing as it unfolds. Everyone was especially hyped up about this one because of the iTV rumors. When Steve put up this slide (courtesy of gdgt’s excellent live blog), there was actual cheering at SmugMug HQ:
Steve’s absolutely right. We really want all of those things. Apple described the problem perfectly. Woo! Credit cards were literally out and people were ready to buy. But after the product was demo’d, the cheers had turned to jeers. There was an elephant in the room that squashed almost all of these lofty goals:
There were no Apps.
Why does the lack of Apps matter? Because we’re left with only ABC & Fox for TV shows. Where’s everyone else? I thought we wanted ‘professional content’ but we get two networks? Customers are dying for some disruption to the cable business, and instead we get a tiny fraction of cable’s content?
Then we’re left with Flickr for photos. Flickr, really? When Facebook has 5-6X the photo sharing usage of all other photo sharing sites combined? And heaven forbid you want to watch your HD videos or photos from SmugMug – we’re only the 4th largest photo sharing site in the world, clearly not big enough if Facebook isn’t.
WHAT APPLETV SHOULD HAVE BEEN
If only there were a way to seriously monetize the platform *and* open it up to all services at the same time. Oh, wait, that’s how Apple completely disrupted the mobile business. It’s called the App Store. Imagine that the AppleTV ran iOS and had it’s own App Store. Let’s see what would happen:
- Every network could distribute their own content in whichever way they wished. HBO could limit it to their subscribers, and ABC could stream to everyone. Some would charge, some would show ads, and everyone would get all the content they wanted. Hulu, Netflix, and everyone else living in perfect harmony. Let the best content & pricepoint win.
- We’d get sports. Every geek blogger misses this, and it’s one of the biggest strangleholds that cable and satellite providers have over their customers. You can already watch live, streaming golf on your iPhone in amazing quality. Now imagine NFL Sunday Ticket on your AppleTV.
- You could watch your Facebook slideshows and SmugMug videos alongside your Flickr stream. Imagine that!
- The AppleTV might become the best selling video game console, just like iPhone and iPod have done for mobile gaming. Plants vs Zombies and Angry Birds on my TV with a click? Yes please.
- Apple makes crazy amounts of money. Way more than they do now with their 4 year old hobby.
Apple has a go-to-market strategy. Something like 250,000 strategies, actually. They’re called Apps.
WORLDS BEST TV USER INTERFACE
The new AppleTV runs on the same chip that’s in the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. This should be a no-brainer. What’s the hold up? What’s that you say? The UI? Come on. It’s easy. And it could be the best UI to control a TV ever.
Just require the use of an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to control it. Put the whole UI on the iOS device in your hand, with full multi-touch. Pinching, rotating, zooming, panning – the whole nine yards. No more remotes, no more infrared, no more mess or fuss. I’m not talking about looking at the TV while your fingers are using an iPod. I’m talking about a fully realized UI on the iPod itself – you’re looking and interacting with it on the iPod.
There are 120M devices capable of this awesome UI out there already. So the $99 price point is still doable. Don’t have an iPod/iPad/iPhone? The bundle is just $299 for both.
That’s what the AppleTV should have been. That would have had lines around the block at launch. This new one?
It’s like an AppleTV from 2007.
Just read Tom Foremski’s Google Exec Says It’s A Good Idea: Open The Index And Speed Up The Internet article. And I have to say, it’s a great idea!
I don’t have hard numbers handy, but I would estimate close to 50% of our web server CPU resources (and related data access layers) go to serving crawler robots. Stop and think about that for a minute. SmugMug is a Top 300 website with tens of millions of visitors, more than half a billion page views, and billions of HTTP / AJAX requests (we’re very dynamic) each month. As measured by both Google and Alexa, we’re extremely fast (faster than 84% of sites) despite being very media heavy. We invest heavily in performance.
And maybe 50% of that is wasted on crawler robots. We have billions of ‘unique’ URLs since we have galleries, timelines, keywords, feeds, etc. Tons of ways to slice and dice our data. Every second of every day, we’re being crawled by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc. And those are the well-behaved robots. The startups who think nothing of just hammering us with crazy requests all day long are even worse. And if you think about it, the robots are much harder to optimize for – they’re crawling the long tail, which totally annihilates your caching layers. Humans are much easier to predict and optimize for.
Worst part about the whole thing, though? We’re serving the exact same data to Google. And to Yahoo. And to Microsoft. And to Billy Bob’s Startup. You get the idea. For every new crawler, our costs go up.
We spend significant effort attempting to serve the robots quickly and well, but the duplicated effort is getting pretty insane. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of the reason Facebook revised their robots.txt policy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see us do something similar in the near future, which would allow us to devote our resources to the crawlers that really matter.
Anyway, if a vote were held to decide whether the world needs an open-to-all index, rather than all this duplicated crawling, I’d vote YES! And SmugMug would get even faster than it is today.
On a totally separate, but sorta related issue, Google shouldn’t have to do anything at all to their algorithms. Danny Sullivan has some absolutely brilliant satire on that subject.
In my last post, I wrote that Apple wasn’t giving App developers access to the high quality 720p video recordings from your Library on iPhone 4.
I was wrong.
The documentation wasn’t clear and we made a bad assumption. And talking to other developers, they all concurred that they couldn’t get access to the high-quality Library videos, either. For years, Apple didn’t let developers get access to the full resolution photos from your Library, which they now permit, so we assumed that’s what was going on here, too. Thank goodness we were wrong.
Go grab the latest SmugShot and enjoy blur-free videos. 🙂