SmugMug: The (Anti) Web 2.0 Company

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SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill, who has said “maybe I just don’t get this ‘Web 2.0′ term” in the past, is proceeding to teach those of us who claim to know exactly what it means a thing or two. The company launched a suite of stunning new features tonight.

SmugMug, which took its first customers in late 2002, is the go-to service for serious photography nuts. 100,000 paying customers have uploaded over 100 million photos. The company has 19 employees, is profitable, and has never taken outside funding. Revenues are in the $10 million per year range, MacAskill tells me.

There is no free version of the service. People pay a minimum of $40 per year to upload photos to the site. Pro accounts, which are $150/year, give photographers a number of tools to add watermarks, and sell downloads as well as prints of their work. The higher level accounts also allow customers to use templates, fully customize the look and feel of their albums (or “galleries” as SmugMug calls them), and even use their own domain names.

The site has most of the sharing and community features of the prototypical Web 2.0 company, Flickr. RSS feeds, tags, comments, a public API, etc. Yahoo, Flickr’s parent company, meets with the SmugMug team regularly and the Yahoo user interface team has recently sung the praises of SmugMug on a Yahoo blog. For many (but not all) serious photographers, SmugMug is simply a more powerful way to show their photos.

SmugMug has also become the poster child for Amazon’s S3 storage service, famously claiming to save at least $500,000 per year by switching.

New SmugMug Features

SmugMug launched a number of new features and architectural changes tonight that come close to constituting a complete relaunch – 95% of SmugMug’s page views are affected.

The key change is the complete re-writing of the photo viewing interface from HTML (with some Ajax components bolted on) to dynamic javascript. Clicking among pictures no longer requires a page refresh at all, speeding site navigation significantly and not bringing people back up to the top of the page after clicking on a new photo.

And like Yahoo Maps, SmugMug has gone through the painstaking process of updating URLs as people navigate the site. This is a problem that plagues Rich Internet Applications. Without a page refresh when navigating a Flash or Ajax application, the URL doesn’t update. SmugMug has solved that problem, even for Safari (which Yahoo still hasn’t solved).

SmugMug has also moved user comments to the same page as the photo (saving a click), and moved most of the metadata and photo options from the display area into a fly-out drawer. The effect is to highlight the photo content, but not clutter the page with lots of data and links.

SmugMug’s Future

MacAskill says he’s approached “constantly” by venture capitalists and potential acquirors. But his plan is to keep running the profitable company without outside interference. He wants to keep providing the best product for professional photographers, he says, and has no plans to sell out. That, of course, will just make those VCs and suitors want SmugMug even more.

Is SmugMug a “Web 2.0″ company? Yes, in almost every way…but you won’t hear MacAskill admit it. Not anytime soon, anyway.

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