What keeps me up at night.

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“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 growthhacker@shutterstock.com. 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 Shutterstock Year in Review

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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.

  1. 2013 was our first full calendar year as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. We introduced our premium image offering: Offset : easy to license Rights-Managed quality images, at Royalty-Free prices.

  5. 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.

  6. Contributor Payouts Surpassed $150MM. Yes – We’ve paid out over $150 million dollars to our amazing contributors since 2003.

  7. We celebrated 30mm images in our collection, 350mm licenses sold, and continue to sell on average three image licenses every second!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. We were the first stock agency to integrate into Dropbox Saver so that buyers can quickly download assets right into their Dropbox accounts.

  11. We celebrated 10 years. I started Shutterstock July 10th, 2003 with 30,000 of my own images.

  12. 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.

  13. We extended our iOS App to German and Portuguese and launched our first Shutterstock Android app.

  14. We opened our first international office in London, and shortly thereafter our European HQ in Berlin.

  15. We announced our Facebook integration where over one million Facebook advertisers will get access to Shutterstock’s images directly from the Facebook Ad Creator.

  16. 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.

  17. We partnered with Creative Mornings in 2013 and continue to support AIGA.

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

Data Driven Disruption at 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

Raw data needs to be interpreted with visualization tools. It’s not helpful unless people can quickly read and understand it. For the past 10 years, we’ve been building visualization tools such as Rickshaw, an open-source JavaScript toolkit for creating interactive time-series graphs and charts to help interpret data. These tools are the real enablers of disruption in our industry, because they allow us to give our contributors — the people who create our images and upload them to our site — the tools they need to make more money.

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.

Six Ways to Keep Entrepreneurship Alive in Your Company

innovateAt 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.

Business Man Image (c) Shutterstock / Leedsn

Shutterstock is 10 years old today

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10 years ago today, in my New York City apartment, I started Shutterstock. You’ve probably heard about how I needed affordable images for a business I was building, went out, bought a Canon Rebel and shot thousands of pictures to put on a site I coded myself. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, and it’s incredible to see how what started as a simple challenge has become a resource for so many people around the world.

There were moments over the years that were instrumental in shaping what Shutterstock has become, and opening the site up to other artists was one of the first. I had taken pictures of everything I could find (including my cat, Pixel), and decided creating a marketplace was essential to scaling the company and meeting demand. This meant Shutterstock was global almost from the beginning. It also resulted in much better images than I alone could produce.

I’ve met some incredibly talented contributors over the years, and we’ll be sharing an exciting program we’re launching to celebrate these artists later today. Thank you to all who’ve made the last decade possible, including our 262 employees. I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings for Shutterstock and our family of brands (FootageBigstockOffset & Skillfeed).

Gold 10 year image (c) Shutterstock / Stuart Miles

Entrepreneurs: Go as long as possible without taking venture capital

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Often I get asked the question: when is the right time to take venture capital? My answer is: Never. Unless you absolutely need to take a round, the best way to start a company is by bootstrapping it yourself.

When I founded Shutterstock in 2003, I decided to take a different route than most entrepreneurs. Way too typically, one would put together a business plan and find funding. What most people don’t realize, is that there are plenty of tools out there to start your own company with just a few thousand dollars. If you can figure out how to avoid an angel or venture round, you will have much more control in the long run. This isn’t always possible – but I would recommend trying everything you can to remain independent.

Eventually Shutterstock did a growth private equity round five years in. At this point in the company’s lifecycle, we had much more control than we would have in the venture phase.

What are the advantages to bankrolling and not taking venture capital?

  • You will fail faster. It took me 10 tries to get to Shutterstock. Most of my startups never made it off the ground. Being an entrepreneur means being able to pivot quickly, shut down a business that isn’t performing and move on. If you use somebody elses cash, you may be forced to continue even though you know it’s time to move on.
  • Every dollar counts. I was hyper-focused on ROI from the start when I was buying Adwords keywords. Since I could feel the money moving out of my own bank account, I was very sensitive to my return on investment. There was no room for error. This efficiency later translated into a complex lifetime value calculation that drove our acquisition model to this day.
  • You will concentrate on profitability from the start. All businesses need to create value at some point to survive. While some companies have had successful exits without profits, they are few and far between. By building profitability into your model from the start, you will be able to start scaling. Self-funding will force profitability thinking at every stage.
  • You will own more of the company later. The earlier you are subjected to dilution, the less of the company you will own in the future. Venture capital rounds often involve loss of control, and a majority of the company to be sold.

What are the advantages to taking venture capital?

  • I recognize that self funding isn’t an option for everyone. If a large amount of capital is required and not taking on a venture round will be truly detrimental to getting your company off the ground, then by all means do whatever you need to do.
  • Often venture partners provide support with areas that the company is weak in. If you need help hiring, scaling, or operating, often a venture partner can provide this help as part of the deal. If you don’t take capital, you’re on your own.

How do I make sure that my startup uses as little capital as possible?

  • Use as much open source software as you can. Use MySQL instead of MS-SQL/Oracle. use Linux (and specifically free versions like CentOS instead of Redhat). CPAN alone has over 120,000 perl modules that are already written – so why re-create the wheel?
  • Learn how to code. There are great affordable online learning platforms that can help you learn how to code, create html pages, link up databases, etc. Learn as much as you can because the more you can do yourself, the less you will have to hire.
  • Be every job. It may seem overwhelming, but it’s possible. When I started Shutterstock I was the customer service rep, the website developer, the first photographer. By making sure I gave each role a shot, I knew exactly how what I needed so I didn’t over-hire  I wasn’t necessarily good at each job, nor was my expertise even close to each job, but I learned a ton and got to delay some hiring. This culture of lean innovation is still very much alive at Shutterstock and has contributed to much of our growth.
  • Use your product as if you were the customer. Not only will you get to know your own product better, but you’ll be doing quality assurance work and testing throughout the process.

Bottom line is that it isn’t always possible or practical, but the longer you wait to raise money, the better off you and your business will be.

Businessman Sitting at Desk Image from Shutterstock / ollyy