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A focused family business

Picture this: an online photo-sharing site with a loyal customer base and no corporate ties run by a close-knit clan out of Silicon Valley.

December 24, 2007|Jessica Guynn | Times Staff Writer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. — Ever the proud father, Chris MacAskill screens 20-year-old home movies of his sons -- Ben singing about a stegosaurus, Mark getting a mohawk -- on his laptop.

"This is the negative of working with family members," a red-faced Mark, now 26, says before retreating to his cubicle.

Meet the MacAskills, Silicon Valley's version of the Waltons: seven members of a close-knit clan, ranging in age from 23 to 63, who run SmugMug Inc., which helps families share their own Kodak moments online. They are holding their own against photography services on the Internet run by corporate giants even though they have never taken a dime from outside investors.

They started on a shoestring budget in 2002, not moving into real offices in Mountain View, Calif., until April. Before that, the MacAskills and their employees set up shop in the five-bedroom home of Chris and his wife, Toni. Engineers bunked two to a bedroom. Blow dryers and vacuums routinely blew circuit breakers. Barking yellow Labrador retrievers chased tennis balls up and down the stairs.

Toni, the SmugMug matriarch, referees family squabbles. When things get out of hand she sometimes jokes that she'll send everyone to their rooms for a time out.

The MacAskills deftly blend business and family -- a radical concept in the youth-obsessed Internet industry, which admits adults, particularly of the gray-haired variety, only reluctantly.

The company now employs 28 people -- all MacAskills, family friends and SmugMug customers they hired -- in five countries. The MacAskills have signed up more than 100,000 paying subscribers despite mounting competition from free services, in part by emphasizing their family-friendly approach. They post their own family photos and home videos on the website, spend countless hours chatting up their users in the company's online forum and send lively customer service e-mails such as "Who loves you, baby?"

They also reward customer loyalty. Two years ago, when SmugMug raised its prices, it grandfathered in all its current customers. Every year, SmugMug organizes "shootouts" for its customers: roving expeditions to national parks with expert instruction on how to get the perfect shot.

And once, as payment for photo services, the MacAskills accepted livestock.

That personal touch has won over customers, some of whom traveled from as far away as Boston to attend SmugMug's recent fifth-anniversary party, where they dressed up in colorful costumes courtesy of SmugMug and mugged for the camera. Others have been so taken with the company that they quit their jobs to work there.

"Google went to great lengths to create a dorm atmosphere," said Don MacAskill, the 30-year-old chief executive and "chief geek." "We work in earnest to create a family atmosphere."

At the head of this Mormon family is Chris, 54, a Stanford-trained geophysicist and lifelong shutterbug. After a stint at Steve Jobs' Next Software Inc. in the 1990s, he caught entrepreneurial fever. With his family pitching in, he built Fatbrain.com, an online bookstore for geeks, and took it public in 1998. Barnesandnoble.com bought the company in 2000 for $62 million. The money was distributed among the many stakeholders, with most of it going to outside investors.

SmugMug employees and customers know Chris as "Baldy," not because his hair is thinning (it is) but because he once shaved it off during a motorcycle ride in Mexico -- a trip he took seeking catharsis after he witnessed from a New York board room the collapse of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.

In 2002, Chris became the first to join his son Don, a programming prodigy then working on his seventh start-up, which soon became SmugMug. Together, they recruited Toni, 56, a motorcyclist like her husband. In addition to helping customers and coining the company's name, she handles SmugMug's finances as she did in the early days of Fatbrain. She calls herself the "countess of cash."

Before long, Don's brothers dropped out of college to lend a hand. Ben, now 28, was going to school to pursue a career in biotechnology, and Mark was eight months away from a degree in actuarial science. Ben, the "czar of testing," hunts down software bugs in new features. Mark, the "stats geek," is in charge of figuring out how people use SmugMug's site to improve it and draw more users.

They were followed by their sister. Anne MacAskill Bean, who is 23 and expecting her first child, provides customer support (her specialty is printing) from her home in Columbus, Ohio.

Chris' sister, Robin MacAskill, 63, of Bethesda, Md., telecommutes part-time as a customer service representative.

The MacAskills have found family to be a competitive advantage. SmugMug's revenue has doubled every year, this year reaching $12 million, and the company turns a profit.

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