Picture Perfect: Being Evergreen Means Having the Power to Help

Don MacAskill, SmugMug

January 30, 2017

One of the things I value most about being an Evergreen CEO is that I can make decisions that I think are right for my company — without having to check with a fleet of investors. Being Evergreen gives us the independence that helped us make one of the best, if not the most profitable, decisions we’ve ever made.

Here at SmugMug, photos are our passion. We were first a family of photographers; now we are a family business that cares for billions of other families’ photos.

So when I heard through the grapevine last year that online photo storage service Picturelife had suddenly shut down, I wanted to help. More than 220 million photos and videos were completely lost to customers when Picturelife went under.

Picturelife CEO Jonathan Benassaya agreed to let us help, after he’d convinced his own investors and creditors this was the right thing to do. For more than two months last summer, my employees and I worked with technicians to recover the lost photos. We gave every Picturelife patron a free SmugMug account for 30 days, no credit card required. That gave them time to download every one of their photos using SmugMug tools and then choose to remain with us or move on with their memories. Tens of thousands of people took advantage of this offer.

The only reason we were able to do that was because we are Evergreen.

If I had even suggested such a proposal to a board or to investors who valued financial returns above all else, the deal would have never seen the light of day. Having run the numbers ahead of time, it was clear that SmugMug would lose money in this process. It took a lot of human effort, bandwidth, servers and storage costs to move these photos somewhere safe so people could get them back.

But many of our 135 employees agreed to work overtime — nights and weekends if necessary — as volunteers on this project. For them, it was a no-brainer because this is our Purpose — saving priceless memories so they can be celebrated.

Their enthusiasm stems from our efforts to always put our People First (another Evergreen principal). It’s an idea I’ve championed since I started SmugMug 14 years ago with my father. We consider our employees superheroes. Last year we even did a photo shoot where we turned our Support Heroes (who deal with customer concerns) into actual superheroes, on top of a San Francisco skyscraper, with costumes and everything. The resulting photos, all done without green screens, were a remarkable testament to the people who work with us. In 14 years, only three of our Support Heroes have resigned.

Taking the time to care for your employees mixed with the independence that comes from refusing all outside investments gives Evergreen CEOs tremendous opportunities.

While we’ve offered our help to lots of failing photo-sharing sites over the years, many have asked us to buy them for more money than we can afford. Picturelife just asked for our reassurance that we could help its customers. While we did end up with a few new paying customers from the effort, it wasn’t enough to make up for the money and time we spent saving those photos, and we never expected it to be.

I don’t want to downplay the effort this took. I don’t know that it’s something we could repeat over time. But when we assess the true financial cost of saving the Picturelife photos, I know that everyone at SmugMug would agree that if given the chance, they would do it again.

Don MacAskill is the CEO & Chief Geek at SmugMug.

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