B-School Teams Focus on Flickr in Cornell 2024 Case Competition for Family Ownership

Olin Business School team wins the Case Competition for Family Ownership, the only such contest where students interact with a family business.

By: Robin D. Schatz
One female and two male students dressed in business attire with two older men dressed in zip-up hoodies with the Flickr logo.

The winning team from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis (left to right) Jessica Timerman, Michael Roytburd, and Samuel Berger, with brothers Ben MacAskill and Don MacAskill, COO and CEO, respectively, of SmugMug and Flickr

In October 2017, SmugMug, a family-owned business offering online photo sharing and storage, made a risky decision for its future: It proposed to buy financially troubled Flickr, a much bigger and better-known photography platform, from its corporate owner, Oath.

Should they have gone ahead with the deal? And what should they do now to boost Flickr’s growth and profitability?

Six teams of students from leading business schools faced off at the Cornell 2024 Case Competition for Family Ownership, addressing SmugMug’s past and present challenges in front of a panel of judges that included the small tech company’s top executives. The event, hosted by the Smith Family Business Initiative at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, took place Feb. 16 and 17 at the Cornell Tech campus on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island.

The team from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis took home the $5,000 first prize for its recommendations to transform Flickr’s marketing strategy. NYU’s Stern School of Business team placed second with an idea for a new premium platform. The Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management team took third place, suggesting, among other things, that Flickr market its photo sharing and storage services to the scientific community.

Meeting directly with SmugMug’s owners

Two mean wearing zip-up hoodies stand smiling with arms around each others' shoulders.
Brothers Don MacAskill, CEO, and Ben MacAskill, COO, of both SmugMug and Flicker

In addition to analyzing the Cornell case study evaluating the Flickr acquisition, graduate students had the rare opportunity to meet directly with Don MacAskill, CEO of SmugMug and Flickr, and his brother, Ben MacAskill, COO, for more than an hour to learn how and why the self-funded family business, competing against the likes of Google and Apple in Silicon Valley, had gambled big to save the Flickr brand—against all professional advice.

“It’s really unique to have a family business share what’s going on inside of their business,” said Olin Business School team member Jessica Timerman, a 2024 MSW-MBS candidate. “Confidentiality is really important in this space, so it’s hard for students to have opportunities to learn hands-on.”

At the time of the acquisition, which closed in April 2018, SmugMug’s premium subscription service had a few hundred thousand paying members, including many professional photographers. To the MacAskills, Flickr, with its 100 million members, offered brand recognition, a vast social network and global reach—advantages their own business lacked. But, as the students learned, they also had to overcome technical, regulatory, and business challenges to restore Flickr’s profitability.

Enriching students’ family business experience

The event, sponsored by BanyanGlobal, Wilmington Trust, and Sam Seltzer ’48, is one of just two B-school case competitions in the U.S. focusing on family businesses and the only one that includes real-time interactions with the business owners, said Daniel Garrett Van Der Vliet, the John and Dyan Smith Executive Director of the Smith Family Business Initiative at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. “It’s helping us to advance the field.”

Most business schools don’t offer courses that focus specifically on family enterprises, Van Der Vliet added. “Many of our students come from family-owned businesses. It’s part of their identity. We feel it’s important to do anything we can do to better prepare them for the decisions that relate to them and their family businesses.”

Rob Lachenauer ’83 (Arts & Sciences), a partner in BanyanGlobal Family Business Advisers, sponsored both this year’s competition and the first one, held in 2022. “The workshop is full of learning and relationship building that deeply enriches the student’s family business experience,” he said.

The Flickr case is “a David and Goliath story one hundred percent,” said case study coauthor Wesley D. Sine, PhD ’01, John and Dyan Smith Professor of Management and Family Business at the Johnson School and academic director of the Smith Family Business Initiative. “The idea of a little family startup taking on Apple and Google is appealing. That’s why I offered to take the case.”

Family businesses are prevalent worldwide—and they’re complex

Worldwide, family-owned companies account for 70 percent to 90 percent of all businesses; they tend to have an outsized impact on their communities and higher employee retention rates than other businesses.

But family businesses also are very complex organisms.  “It’s not just about the profit and loss statement,” Sine said. “Emotions and relationships are central in these organizations, and if you get these wrong, everything goes wrong.

Students benefited from learning about the family dynamics that affected SmugMug’s business decisions, such as who to bring into the loop during highly secretive negotiations with Oath. But what’s the value for the company that puts itself under the microscope?

“We’re opening up our dirty laundry,” conceded Ben MacAskill. “We’re opening up what we do well, but also what we don’t do well.”

Even so, the competition also provided a “huge opportunity” to engage with the few B-schools that really focus on family-owned businesses, he said. And it gave the brothers a chance to hear some creative ideas for future growth.

“One of the things I found super-interesting and gratifying was how quickly many of you came up with ideas we had tried ourselves,” Don MacAskill told the students. “That was unexpected and impressive.”

Growth ideas for Flickr’s future

Olin’s team targeted Gen Z (“Zoomers”) and millennial customers with a marketing approach emphasizing the “lightbulb” moments that inspire Gen Z and millennial users to convert from a free membership to a paid one. They proposed a new student rate of $40 a year and they recommended marketing partnerships with Airbnb and camera retailer B & H, among others.

Two male and one female student dressed in business attire stand next to a podium and screen. The woman is gesturing and speaking.
Olin Business School students (left to right) Samuel Berger, Jessica Timerman, and Michael Roytburd present their winning proposal at the Case Competition for Family Ownership

Timerman, the joint MSW-MBA candidate who aims to advise family-run businesses, said the Olin team drew its strength from its diversity of skills and experience. Her teammates were second-year MBA students Samuel Berger, specializing in finance, and Michael Roytburd, who is focused on organizational development, change management, and leadership coaching.

Two male and one female student pose for a photo with the NYU Stern logo on a banner in the background.
The NYU Stern team took second place (left to right) Bennett Wanandi, Kezia Roesli, and Bradley Wo

The team from NYU Stern, which placed second, advised SmugMug to overcome slow growth and low profitability by introducing “Aperture,” a community and knowledge hub for Flickr Pro users. Their team members, all second-year MBA candidates, included Kezia Roesli, who plans to return to her family’s oil and gas business in Indonesia; Bennett Wanandi, who intends to work for his family’s battery manufacturing company in Indonesia; and Bradley Wo, who aims to advise family businesses on the intersection of business, philanthropy and impact.

one woman standing behind a podium points up at a screen while the other two women look on. The backs of two audience members’ heads are in the foreground.
The Cornell University team took third place (left to right), Rebecca Shao, MPS ’24, Mia Huang, PhD ’25, and Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24

One of the more novel ideas for a new market segment came from the Cornell team. Mia Huang, PhD ’25 (biomedical engineering), showed an artful picture of a mouse tibia from her own lab research and suggested that Flickr could expand its paid subscriber base by targeting the scientific community. Fellow team members Rebecca Shao, MPS ’24, and Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24, are both enrolled in the Johnson School’s MPS in Management program. Ben MacAskill said they would “definitely” look into Huang’s idea.

In addition to the winners of the case competition, other prizes recognized participants’ accomplishments in the event: Bradley Wo, from the NYU Stern team, was voted best presenter by the judges. Patrick Abouchalache, the Boston University team’s coach, was named coolest coach, and Cornell’s Anna Szekeres, MPA ’25, received the award for best student ambassador.

Carol Wittmeyer, a Smith Family Business Initiative Fellow at Cornell University, was named best judge. Wittmeyer was impressed by the students who took part in the case competition. “You see these young people just develop and grow right in front of your eyes,” she said.

Judges sitting at a conference table in the front row and smiling as they interact with presenters.
Some of the Cornell Case Competition for Family Ownership judges (left to right): Annie Van Fossan, Tugboat Institute; Ben MacAskill, SmugMug and Flickr; Katy Moore, BanyanGlobal; Petru Sandu, Elizabethtown College; and Kevin Omar Williams, Crimson Impact Investments

All photos by Shelley Kusnetz.