Founder and CEO, Shutterstock
Address to the Class of 2014
Class Day — SEAS, Columbia University
Monday, May 19, 2014
“President Bollinger, Provost Coatsworth, Dean Boyce, distinguished faculty and guests, family and friends of the graduates, and, most importantly, the Class of 2014: Congratulations!
I’m honored to be your Class Day speaker, and to play a small part in your big day. But I’ll be honest: I’m also a little surprised I’m here. Like, shocked. You see, I wasn’t exact the model student.
During the late 90s, when I was a student here, I was coding websites by night, and sleeping by day. My grades were so bad that I almost flunked out of school. And then, when I got caught using Columbia’s servers to run an online advertising business, I almost got kicked out.
One day, I tried to log into my Columbia Computer Science account to hand in my homework, and a message flashed on the screen: “Your account has been locked. Please see the Dean.”
Thanks for not holding that one against me, guys.
What It Takes to Build Great Things: Failure
I share this particular — and embarrassing — story with you for a reason: It’s not that I didn’t like school, or that I wasn’t learning. I absolutely loved my time here. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if not for Columbia Engineering. It’s just that I’ve always been preoccupied with my lifelong passion: building things.
In high school, I spent hours writing code, building robots, de-compiling computer games, and taking apart and reassembling my parents’ VCR. My teachers thought I was distracted. My friends thought I was insane.
But, in reality, nothing was ever as interesting to me as the thrill of seeing an idea transformed into reality. I’m betting you feel the same way.
So, tonight, I’d like to tell you just one thing — the most important lesson I’ve learned about what it takes to be a successful builder: The only way to build something of value is to embrace failure.
I’m not talking about the possibility of failure, or even the probability of failure. No, I’m talking about the absolute, 100 percent certainty that you will fail. Probably repeatedly. At school. At work. In business. Even in life.
In one of my classes, a professor told us: “Your skills are in high demand, and many of you will get jobs and make a great living. But for those of you who aren’t afraid to take some big risks, there’s another opportunity to consider, another path to take.”
He said, “Even though the stakes are higher, if you can handle failing often, you’ll get a chance to do something really special: to create value of a magnitude that would have been impossible without leaping into the unknown.”
Those words have really stuck with me, and I’ve tried to live by them.
The Pop-Up Blocker
Take, for example, my tenth failure — which, ironically enough, started as my first huge success.
You may be too young to remember, but during the Internet’s early days, it was plagued by a swarm of digital mosquitos — distracting, persistent, and totally obnoxious pop-up ads.
So, like any aspiring innovator, I started a couple of businesses to fend them off — by my count, the ninth and tenth businesses I’d started. On one track, I built one of the first online pop-up blockers. On another, I built an email-marketing engine that would help me find new customers to buy it. Both businesses completely took off.
I paid off my student loans. I thought I was going to sell pop-up blockers forever. And then, just as fast as my business had taken off, it came crashing back down to earth, all thanks to one company. Microsoft.
While I was busy flying high on my ability to block ads like an online ninja, Microsoft had been busy, too. You see, in my popup blocking heyday, they built a pop-up blocker right into Internet Explorer. Overnight, I was out of work. And my business — had gone under.
I had a master’s degree from Columbia, but no job, no income — not even a brand I could leverage. Things were not looking good. And that’s when my old professor’s words really hit home: I had succeeded in failing!
Even though I was nearly broke, I was living my dream of building things. But I wanted to build something lasting, something of value. So I knew what I had to do: Double down on failure.
Four Swings, One Big Hit
Actually, I decided to quadruple down on failure by starting four new businesses at the same time: A dating site. Another advertising network. A stock photography agency. And my favorite, an online will creator. (i know, dark!)
My dating site didn’t pan out, though I did end up going on some lovely dates. My advertising network was a total flop. My online will creator? Two words: Legal Zoom. Hats off to those guys.
And then there was Shutterstock…
Here’s what happened: Remember that email marketing engine I built to sell the pop-up blocker? Well, when I was building it, I could never seem to find relevant images — stock photos that matched the messages I was trying to convey.
I thought, “Maybe other businesses have this problem, too.” So I decided to perform some fail-proof, high-quality market research. I canvassed friends, and talked to others who were working on other internet projects.
What I quickly realized was that there is no “maybe” about it. This was a real problem — and I wanted to solve it. First.
I bought a Canon Digital Rebel and took pictures of everything around me. I was a one-man Instagram machine, almost a decade before Instagram — and long before it was cool to take pictures of your pet, or random people on the street, or what you had for breakfast. (You know you all did it this morning.)
Starting four new businesses simultaneously was an enormous risk. You could say I was setting myself up for failure. Then again, failure was the only path I knew to success. Long story short, the strategy worked.
It didn’t happen overnight. But, today, Shutterstock is 11 years old, and we’re still building, experimenting, and doing what I’m most proud of: failing often.
I never imagined that Shutterstock would provide people in emerging economies with the opportunity to earn a decent living. I never imagined it would help photographers and artists around the world promote their work and pursue their own entrepreneurship.
Every single day, I am humbled to see our team of 400 people creating value for more than 55,000 photographers and illustrators — and for the 1 million customers who use our service.
My professor was right: If you want to create value of tremendous magnitude, you have to learn to live with — and to love — the process of failing. I’ve never forgotten that. And I apply the same principle every time I think about what our company should build next.
I also keep an eye on what Microsoft is doing. Those guys are sneaky.
But enough about my story. Let’s talk about yours. Because you are the most entrepreneurial generation in history. And you — yes, you — are in its vanguard.
Thanks to your Columbia education, you’re well trained to see and solve problems differently. And you know better than most that life’s annoyances are just amplified opportunities, especially if you’re willing to risk seizing them.
What does this require? The courage to experiment, knowing that you’ll probably — no, you’ll definitely — fail. If you’re not, you’re not taking big enough risks. If every annoyance is an opportunity, then every failure is a lesson, and a chance to test another hypothesis.
People talk about drive as though it’s an aspirational, lofty state. It’s not. It’s about gritty persistence. It’s about resilience — when you’re tired, when it sucks, when nothing is working.
It’s about doing the un-fun things: Checking and rechecking code. Spending hours in the lab. Staying in and fixing bugs when all of your friends are out having a good time. Drive is being lost, confused, overwhelmed — but picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying all over again.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Building is hard, failing can be deeply painful, and the reality is some people aren’t willing to pay that price. But if you are, then, take it from me, the sky is the limit.
And so, Class of 2014: Today, you should celebrate. Tomorrow, start building. Start a company that will create jobs. Invent a new platform that will change the way we connect. Discover a cure for an untreatable virus. Design a more efficient way of traveling to Mars. Build things.
As I look out at this audience of graduates, this much is for certain: You will fail. All of you. And nothing fills me with greater hope.
Thank you. And congratulations, Class of 2014!”
“What keeps you up at night?”
I get this question a lot these days. it comes from analysts, investors, journalists, our board, employees, and friends. The answer has become clearer over the years, and it has to do with the most important resource we have at Shutterstock. The answer to this question can be narrowed down to a single word: People.
Shutterstock has 345 employees and we’re hiring.
Everybody at Shutterstock is essential to our growth but lately I’ve been focused on finding more growth hackers to help us build and launch products and businesses. These people come from many different backgrounds and can be GMs, Engineers, Marketers or Product Owners and we encourage everybody in the company to think like a growth hacker.
What are the qualities of a growth hacker?
Product and Marketing are one. Not only does the product have to be something that truly changes the way people work, but network effects are crucial to the success of the product. Without a network effect, the product you create will eventually be too expensive to market because your competitors will have figured a way to drive behavior that attracts new paying users using gamification and behavioral economics. We have no problem spending money to market – but each dollar we spend goes much further than it normally would because we think about what the user does after we bought their attention. Our marketing methods are scalable, repeatable, and methodical and we don’t rely on a viral trend or a single moment of fame to drive our growth.
Be an Entrepreneur. Everybody at Shutterstock is encouraged to create. Being entrepreneurial means being scrappy, resourceful and creative. An entrepreneur isn’t afraid to fail and knows how to take calculated risks.
Focus on Execution: Instead of building a long Powerpoint presentation, try your idea on a small subset of users. Actions speak much louder than slides. Meetings take up time. Carve out 1% of your traffic and test something. Email 200 people with a creative to try to drive a behavior.
Iterate to success: We test, we refine, we learn, and we test again. At Shutterstock we aren’t always right.. and that’s ok. By formulating a hypothesis and testing it, we learn. Sometimes we’re right, but often we’re not. This process of experimentation is core to how we do what we do.
Your GPA and Degree do not matter – it’s what you’ve created that does. Whether you’re a designer, an engineer or a marketer, do you have what it takes to be a growth hacker at Shutterstock? I personally look for people with these qualities – and if you would like to apply directly to me, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. I will read whatever comes to this email address and I invite you to send me the reasons why you think you would be somebody we should hire.
2013 was a great year for Shutterstock in so many ways. Today is the first day of 2014 and before we start a new year, I wanted to look back at all the amazing things we accomplished during 2013.
2013 was our first full calendar year as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.
Our website now services 20 languages – 10 of these were added in 2013. We added support for Turkish, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Korean and Thai. We now cover more of the world than ever before.
We introduced Spectrum : a search tool designed and built in-house that allows customers to search millions of high quality commercially released images by color.
We introduced our premium image offering: Offset : easy to license Rights-Managed quality images, at Royalty-Free prices.
We incubated Skillfeed inside of Shutterstock. Skillfeed operates like a startup inside of Shutterstock and allows creative professionals to continue to learn the skills they need to get better at their jobs. It’s essentially a two-sided learning marketplace where anybody can create a learning tutorial and get paid based on how much it’s viewed. Skillfeed works much like Shutterstock does – the more popular your content is, the more you will get paid for it.
Contributor Payouts Surpassed $150MM. Yes – We’ve paid out over $150 million dollars to our amazing contributors since 2003.
We celebrated 30mm images in our collection, 350mm licenses sold, and continue to sell on average three image licenses every second!
We introduced Keyword Suggestions for our contributors to keyword their images faster than ever. Now contributors can use data we have on other images to quickly tag their own images.
We surpassed 1 million stock video clips and welcomed expert filmmakers Robb Crocker, Daniel Hurst, Luke Miller and David Baumber to our fast-growing video collection. In celebration of their arrival, Shutterstock has compiled a video reel featuring the filmmakers’ work.
We were the first stock agency to integrate into Dropbox Saver so that buyers can quickly download assets right into their Dropbox accounts.
We celebrated 10 years. I started Shutterstock July 10th, 2003 with 30,000 of my own images.
We launched Shutterstock Stories – a creative grant program. There were a total of seven creative grants: five $5,000 winners and two $25,000 winners, including one who was selected by the public. Winners were announced on October 8th.
We extended our iOS App to German and Portuguese and launched our first Shutterstock Android app.
We opened our first international office in London, and shortly thereafter our European HQ in Berlin.
We announced our Facebook integration where over one million Facebook advertisers will get access to Shutterstock’s images directly from the Facebook Ad Creator.
Our Bigstock brand continued to grow and partnered with Constant Contact. Through this integration, Constant Contact customers will now be able to search, select, and license from more than 15 million Bigstock images directly within Constant Contact’s interface.
Every year at Shutterstock has been better than the year before. I’m looking forward to continuing that tradition in 2014.
Photo: Tom Wang / shutterstock
Lately I’ve been spending some time thinking about how we use all the data available to us at Shutterstock to drive disruption. I’ve given presentations on this topic, and decided it was time to put the talk into blog format.
At its core, Shutterstock is a technology company. Forty percent of our more than 300 employees are technologists — programmers, product specialists, and data scientists. People all over the world depend on us every day for images, videos, and instruction, or as a source of income for licensing their own creative work. Essentially, we’re in the business of building two-sided marketplaces driven by network effects.
Our business leverages data and network-effect mechanics to disrupt and grow. We use them as a feedback loop to iteratively improve our customer and contributor experiences, and to increase the velocity at which data moves between the two sides of our marketplaces.
Living and breathing data every day makes Shutterstock employees in every department — from content and business intelligence to PR and human resources — more effective in their roles. We collect everything we can, and we use data for every decision we make.
As a result, we’ve identified three ways data drives digital businesses today:
1. Data is your product, regardless of what you sell.
Smart businesses drive their core interfaces and decision-making based on user data. The more data you have, the better your position, and the bigger your competitive edge.
Many internet-oriented companies collect and use large amounts of information to automatically optimize and personalize their customer experiences. Netflix recommends what you should watch. Spotify tries to figure out what song you’ll want to listen to next. Amazon aims to predict what you’ll buy. Foursquare tells you where to meet your friends for a beer.
These businesses collect all the information available to them because they know consumers increasingly expect companies to read their minds and improve their experiences. Enabling customers to search a bit faster or knowing a little more about them than the competitor creates an advantage.
The terabyte of user-behavior data Shutterstock collects every day includes what our visitors click on, how they search in 20 different languages, and the hundreds of thousands of images and videos they download daily. We look at how many pages they view and what they did to reach the image they downloaded. We store all of this because it holds clues to what people want out of our website.
The more we store, the better we get. I believe all companies must track and keep behavioral data that can drive their user interface and product if they want to succeed in the coming years.
2. Data is your lens into your business.
Invest in data access
Allowing access to data will change how your team thinks and approaches challenging problems. We empower our employees with data so that everyone at Shutterstock can be productively disruptive.
Experiment with visualization and interpretation
Test, Test, Test
Nothing goes live on Shutterstock without A/B testing. We built our own internal testing system called Absinthe, and we always have several experiments running. Whether it’s a button color, the text on a link, a page layout, or a banner image, every detail is tested. Rather than debating personal opinions, we allow data to guide us to the best possible decision. If you’re not testing, you’re missing out on valuable information.
Use resources wisely
It’s important to know when to buy pre-packaged tools instead of building customized ones in-house. Look at your resources, decide what your team and customers need, and when you can, try tools that are already available.
Feel the pulse of the business and iterate
I get an email every few hours right to my phone with key business-health metrics. I can feel the pulse of the business from anywhere, and can make tiny changes throughout the day that help push us forward.
3. Data creates your growth.
Most successful businesses make a data-driven science of attracting and keeping users. If you pay to bring users to your site and aren’t utilizing data, you’re missing an opportunity to master a virtuous cycle that will be difficult for competitors to match.
This is how we look at the data-driven growth cycle at Shutterstock:
1. Attract traffic to your website (typically via SEO, SEM, or other marketing)
2. Test what you do with that traffic (create different checkout flows, vary messaging)
3. Select the best approach based on the results of testing tools such as Optimizely, or your own
4. Convert user traffic to sales based on what you’ve learned
5. Invest more in attracting traffic
6. Outbid your competitors when the cycle begins again by attracting even more visitors
While you’re doing all this, collect everything. Every single raw request to your website includes a lot of information. Every visitor who comes to your site provides an opportunity to learn and build your growth cycle. Taking advantage of traffic to test and improve is critical to success. Each cycle gets more and more efficient, leading to a better ROI.
Constant learning and improvement allow us to keep attracting loyal customers and contributors and delighting them with an experience that keeps getting better. We sincerely believe that the responsible and intelligent use of data provides a competitive edge, and is the key to success by disruption in today’s digital economy.
Would love to hear any thoughts you have by providing comments below.
At Shutterstock, we work to foster a culture of entrepreneurship within our business. For me, in-house entrepreneurship means we continue taking calculated risks in order to keep delivering cool new products for creative professionals. Here are some ways we accomplish this.
1. Hire disrupters.
When hiring, we try to identify people who are disruptive, but not reckless. I ask questions like, “If you were going to start a business right now to make $1 on the Web, what would you do?” We want people who will think creatively and change our business in a productive way.
2. Organize small teams.
We keep our teams small—usually 6 to 10 people—and do whatever we can to minimize meetings. Our product teams work in two-week sprints, setting goals up front, sharing daily updates within the team, and presenting their accomplishments to the wider company every two weeks.
3. Encourage a culture of hacking.
We have hackathons several times a year, and they’re pretty fun. We set aside a day when our staff can aim a 24-hour burst of creativity at projects they’re personally passionate about. Hackathons yield dozens of great ideas, many of which evolve into full-fledged releases. For example, the idea for our search tool originated at a hackathon.
4. Take bite-size risks.
There’s no entrepreneurship without risk. But we are looking for small, calculated bets, not mad gambles. We aim to be 1% more successful today than we were yesterday.
5. Don’t be afraid to be your own competitor.
In addition to Shutterstock, we also run Bigstock, an image site with pricing that’s attractive to small businesses, and Offset, a new site for prestigious, hard-to-find images. We much prefer to be driving changes in our industry, rather than reacting to disruptions from outside.
6. Incubate new businesses within your business.
Within Shutterstock, we have teams dedicated to new business. Our newest brand to emerge from this process is Skillfeed, an online learning site with crowdsourced video tutorials. The Skillfeed team is small and relatively autonomous within the company, which gives them the freedom to innovate.
As a company gets bigger, it’s becomes more and more important to encourage innovative thinking. That’s why we keep the engine of entrepreneurship spinning at Shutterstock.