FOLLOWING OUR HEARTS

FOLLOWING OUR HEARTS

From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Following Our Hearts

The only way to do great work is to love what you do.

Steve Jobs

I looked out the window and saw hundreds of troops pouring into the streets. When they saw me through the glass, some pointed their guns at my chest. A hotel attendant opened my door and directed me downstairs to the lobby where the glass was bullet-proof.

Funny how you think of your family at times like that. For eleven days there wasn’t much else to think about; I couldn’t go outside, there was no Internet or television, and I had one book.

How do you explain to your young children why you’ll miss trick-or-treat despite your promise to be home? How can you explain why you spend so much time away to a cocky young teen who can’t relate to your career?

I kissed the ground when I came home. And then we held a family meeting.

It was a huge moment of truth. Six years of college, ten years of rising through the ranks in a specialized field—and my family wasn’t happy about it. My cocky young teen had written a book report on Steve Jobs. Why couldn’t I work in computers like him? It’s what cool people do. No chance of that. I was a geophysicist, in Houston, age thirty-seven. The sensible thing to do was to say comforting words and explain that Dad needed to pay the bills.

But somehow we made the landmark decision during that meeting that would change the rest of our lives: I quit, we packed a U-Haul, and we drove to the Silicon Valley in California without a job. There was no Harvard MBA–like analysis. We simply followed our hearts.

Following our hearts meant listening to computer conference tapes in the U-Haul so we could speak the language when we arrived. It meant reading everything about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. It meant somehow persuading a computer company to take a chance on a geophysicist, a very tough sell.

We had read that Steve Jobs would break the rules and hire passionate people other companies wouldn’t. Joanna Hoffman left Middle Eastern archaeology to become the first Macintosh marketer. Steve hired Randy Nelson, one of the founders of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, jugglers who performed on the world’s most famous stages, to teach computer programming. Randy is now dean of Pixar University.

Passion was the key that got me into NeXT, Inc., the company Steve started after being fired at Apple, and I suddenly became the coolest dad ever. I told breathless stories of Steve’s legendary tantrums and magical demos, and my children hung on every word as they used to when I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to them.

I was there when the first Internet browser software, written on a NeXT computer, was demo’ed to Steve. We were solving computing’s most vexing problem—making the world’s most powerful operating system (UNIX) simple enough for mere mortals. We had no idea it would eventually be the driving force behind Apple’s renaissance. We were just following our hearts.

But there was a nagging problem. The Silicon Valley has a way of consuming your life, and we had moved there so we could spend more time together. Obviously, this wasn’t happening. That cocky son of ours, Don, did something bold that changed our family’s dichotomy again: he started Smugmug.com, an Internet-based company that offered customers a Web site for sharing digital photos. And then he hired me.

Once more we followed our hearts into what seemed like the jaws of death. We were hopelessly in love with the Internet and digital photography. What’s better than priceless photos of life’s best moments, summoned with a click? Everyone has a shoebox in the closet where irreplaceable photos decay, alone and unseen. We believed in our souls that a photo online is worth ten in the closet.

It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to recognize a problem. The world’s most trusted brands offer Internet photo sharing, and they have good reasons to give it away free, as it helps them sell more cameras or more ads. Are you going to entrust an unknown brand with your priceless photos when so many trusted brands will store them for free?

It was a moment of truth for our belief that passion is the most important thing in business. We all know passion explains why Apple, Harley-Davidson and Starbucks thrive, but I swallowed hard when I considered the odds against us. Our competitors would be Microsoft, Sony, Canon, Kodak, Yahoo and HP.

But if you really care about your baby’s photo, do you want an ad alongside it? You wouldn’t clip ads from the paper and place them in your photo albums at home. The big brands can’t resist inserting ads in your albums, or asking your visitors for their e-mail addresses so they can send spam. Our hearts led us to design ad and spam free albums. One point for passion.

They won’t let you hide their logos and decorate your albums like you can at home. Two points for passion.

They won’t let your mom in Atlanta download high-resolution versions of your photos to print at home. Three points for passion. No full-screen slide shows. Four points for passion. And there would be many more.

Three years after starting, SmugMug has become the Internet trustee for the priceless photos of fifty thousand families, the equivalent of a medium-sized city. Gone are the sharing sites of many trusted brands.

We did it without taking debt because we felt a great sense of responsibility for the photos we store. Our pay in the beginning was huge: the joy of working with each other doing what we love and the bonds that form when you struggle for a great cause. Delayed gratification was worth the reward.

Along the way the contagion spread to the rest of the family. They left their promising careers and two SmugMug MacAskills became seven, solving the Silicon Valley problem of not enough time for family. Our favorite activity is to work long hours together on exciting new features. The rest of the SmugMug team has become family, too, and even our customers consider themselves part of the family. We revel in seeing their photos of weddings, newborns, Peace Corps assignments, athletic triumphs, restored cars, dogs and travels.

It seems too good to be true.

I almost choked when I heard Steve Jobs would give the commencement speech at my alma mater, Stanford University. Had he ever been to a college graduation? Not that I knew of.

But he said something powerful there that I knew he believed: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

That’s how my family’s dreams came true.

Chris MacAskill

EPILOGUE: The father-and-son team of Chris and Don MacAskill are legends in the high-tech industry; besides working at NeXT, Inc., Chris’s past includes creating the legendary online book-selling site, Fatbrain.com , one of the Internet’s first (and few) success stories. Fatbrain.com grew from the MacAskill family garage into a $100 million publicly traded company before it was purchased by Barnes & Noble in 2000.

Don was the first nonfounding employee at Best Internet, the earliest, most respected and most successful Internet service provider in the Silicon Valley, which was eventually purchased by Verio. Don designed the networks at Best Internet that hosted Hotmail, eBay and Fatbrain before launching his sights on creating the current family business.

Smugmug.com was founded in 2002 because the MacAskills could not find an industrial-strength Web site free of clutter for photos, where, as they say, “great sharing is the center of gravity.” Besides being able to post digital photographs, the company allows customers to either print photos at home or via their high-quality lab at a reasonable cost.

To fully appreciate the magnitude of this company and its offerings, a trip to the SmugMug Web site is a must. Over 53 million photos are displayed, free of obnoxious advertising and pop-up ads. As of last count, the site had over 50,000 customers.

To learn more about Chris and Don MacAskill and SmugMug, please visit www.smugmug.com.

Dahlynn McKowen

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