My 2015 Letter to Shutterstock Employees

TO: All Shutterstock Employees

It’s Sunday. The first Sunday of 2015 and I woke up excited to start a new year with the Shutterstock team.

We’re at an exciting crossroads in our journey as a company. While we have done a lot in the past decade, we still have a lot left to do. Shutterstock started in 2003 with a single small business; today we are several businesses all working together toward a larger mission that gets larger every year. We used to serve creatives with one asset; today we supply several creative assets and services. In the near future we will be a part of the entire workflow of a creative professional.

We have the entire Internet ahead of us – and it’s an exciting time to be a profitable public platform. We have a unique chance at something revolutionary here. The number of companies that have gotten to our point is very small.

Decade of success? Check.
Multi billion dollar valuation? Check.
Profitable & No Debt? Check.
Founder/Owner Operator? Check.
Ability to juggle several business units at once? Check.
Ability to both build and buy businesses? Check.
The drive to do more and more no matter what challenges we face? Check.

We’re the unicorn when it comes to business. We are in an elite class – and we need to stay there. But it isn’t going to be easy. With more success comes more competition. With more success comes more people looking to take the leadership position. In the past couple of weeks I’ve had time to reflect on who we are, what we do, and where we are going. Nobody knows the future, but I can tell you a few things:

We can get bigger this year. But we have to keep our level of efficiency – and become even more efficient.

We can get stronger this year. And yes, we have to prioritize, but we have to continue to push ourselves to do more and more – and take on more than we think we can.

We can set ourselves up for another decade of success. To do this, we have to be the best and most efficient in everything we do.

We will continue to be the leader. But we need to push ourselves to think differently. What worked last month may not work today. We have to be open to change. We have to be ready to adapt.

I couldn’t be more excited to start a new year with all of you. See you tomorrow, the first Monday of 2015.


Look back at 2014

20132014As we cross into 2015, it’s a great time to celebrate the fact that 2014 was another amazing year at Shutterstock. It continues to be clear to me that we are just getting started as a platform for creatives and businesses. While the company continues to grow in several different directions at once, we continue to set our sights on bigger and bigger goals.

Shutterstock started in 2003 with a single mission: We wanted to figure out a way for businesses of all sizes to get the images they needed for all their commercial and creative needs. A decade later, not only are we the leader at this, but we continue to advance further and further into the workflow of over one million creative professionals all over the world. As our company grows, so does our mission. Before we fully embark on the new year, I would like to share 10 highlights from 2014.

Contributor royalties surpassed $250M. Shutterstock has paid a quarter of a billion dollars out to our contributors. Today we have content creators that are hobbyists generating supplemental income all the way to actual businesses that have been created on our platform. Every contributor has a story – and we plan to tell you about some of them in 2015.

  1. We acquired WebDAM. As we learned more and more about our enterprise customers, it became clear that large companies need help managing the huge number of creative assets they deal with every day. We purchased WebDAM in 2014 to help us help our enterprise customers.
  2. We have licensed over 400 million images – and continue to license 4 images every single second. The speed at which images move from our creators to our buyers is important. Armed with the powerful data generated by this marketplace dynamic, our contributors have the information to create the images our buyers need.
  3. We launched Shutterstock Music. To further our commitment for new content types, we launched Shutterstock Music. Music licensing is hard and while we learned a lot in 2014, it’s going to take some time to make headway into this business. It’s still extremely difficult for businesses to find commercially released music for their projects. We plan to make more progress in 2015 and pave the way for Royalty Free music to be available to any business that needs it.
  4. Palette and Sequence were introduced to Shutterstock Labs. We use Shutterstock Labs as a place we can expose innovative content search and editing tools to our customers. We plan to release more features like these and get the current ones out to more customers soon.
  5. Our collection surpassed 46 million images. The secret is out – Shutterstock is the best place for contributors to sell their content. Not only is Shutterstock often the first place contributors put their content, but more and more it’s only place photographers trust to sell their content.  Because of this, there are millions of files on Shutterstock buyers will not find anywhere else. You can watch our collection grow as we add hundreds of thousands of images every week. The updated number is on the footer.
  6. We surpassed 2 million video clips. Video consumption and creation is on the rise and Shutterstock has become the place that creatives come for motion content. We will continue be the leader in this area. One habit I got into in 2014 is watching movie credits – because Shutterstock is mentioned more and more as both an image and a video source for filmmakers around the world. It’s exciting to see momentum build in video content.
  7. Our contributor site launched in Brazilian Portuguese. Our contributor site now supports 7 languages, and our customer site supports 20. We plan to support many more languages in the future for our contributors. It’s easier than ever for photographers and videographers around the world to sell their content with us.
  8. integrated Bigstock via our API.  Our Shutterstock and Bigstock API has become a business in itself. Companies like Facebook, Constant Contact, and CafePress trust Shutterstock to power their websites with the imagery they need. Our plan to become the platform companies use to power imagery in their products became a reality in the past couple of years and 2014 was a banner year for our API.
  9. People continue to be our most important asset. At nearly 500 employees, many of whom we added in the past year, we continue to hire and search for amazing people to help build our products and services. If you think you have what it takes to join Shutterstock on our mission, submit your application today!

I would like to thank the entire Shutterstock team for all the work they did in 2014. I’m looking forward to what our employees, contributors and customers create in 2015 and the decade to come.


The Myth of Venture Capital

We’ve all heard the story: Brilliant founder raises millions of dollars in venture capital and attains new heights of wealth and success. While this has been true in a few exceptional cases, I’m fascinated by how often this narrative is portrayed in today’s media. It has become commonplace in the tech industry for companies to be considered successful (or on a path to success) only if they have the validation of raising millions by venture capitalists.

That’s why, when I get asked, “When is the right time to take on VC funding?” my answer — “In a lot of cases, never” — is often met with surprise.

Read more here:

Columbia University 2014 Engineering SEAS Class Day Graduation Speech

Jon Oringer
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 me up at night.


“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 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.