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.
SmugMug wins Best Design at The Crunchies 2007 by Luca Filigheddu Photography
It looks like we’re probably eligible for a number of categories, but even if you don’t think we’re worthy, please go nominate your favorite startups. It really means a lot to the teams that work on these companies. Nothing like a little validation for all of our hard work… 🙂