Tagged: disruption

I accepted an honorary doctorate from Stony Brook University on 5/19/17 and here is my speech:

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President Stanley, distinguished guests, faculty, staff, students, and families.

I am very grateful to be here today among such remarkable honorees.

Today,  I want to share three lessons I learned here at Stony Brook, which have served me well throughout my entrepreneurial journey. I will be brief,  because I know you are all ready to be graduates – and most important to me,, I’m so ready to be referred to as Dr. Oringer – so I know the quicker I finish this speech – the quicker we can both achieve our goals.

I started my college education here in 1993 – graduated in 1996. I lived in Roth Quad and majored in Computer Science and Math. I really had a great time and learned a ton.  Thinking back on what I would have done if I were writing this speech as a student,  20 years ago – I would have probably started last night around 10pm, drank a lot of coffee, ordered a pizza, opened my laptop (which weighed like 12 lbs) –  and then begin to freak out.  Seriously, planning ahead was not my strength but the good news for me is that I was a quick learner.

Today, I  know that my address to you on this momentous day is filled with potential and possibilities.  Therefore, I have taken this responsibility very seriously –  started on my speech five weeks ago, and thought a lot about what I would have wanted to hear when I was graduating.

So I have three life lessons to share.   They are: Stay curious, take calculated risks, and embrace diversity.  So here goes:

Let’s start with Staying Curious

The one thing I always loved about Stony Brook was how accessible professors were. It’s one thing to be helpful – but what I found here was that  “office hours” didn’t really exist. For the curious like me, I could knock on any professor’s door and most of the time they were open to talking to me.

A great example of this was when my interest in computer graphics – and more specifically virtual reality and how it intersects with medical visualization, a topic that was cutting edge 20 years ago – led me on a quest to find out more.  Somebody had mentioned a professor named Ari Kaufman (he’s still here) who was working on exactly that. I looked him up in the university directory and found that he had an office high up in the medical school building.

Knowing I had to meet him and find out more, I walked into that building, went up to his floor, knocked on the door and he invited me in – and indulged my curiosity. I remember having a very long and involved conversation about this topic.  After that meeting, I signed up for his class.

We have modeled Shutterstock in that same way –  there are no office hours and people are free to find me (almost) anytime. In fact – At Shutterstock not only do we not have office hours – but we don’t have offices – we have desks out in the open so that we can collaborate better. Open collaborative environments –  like the one you have here – are rare.  I would make sure that that both professionally and personally you surround yourself with people who embrace your curiosity because with curiosity comes vulnerability and that is where breakthroughs happen

Curiosity opens doors – literally in this case –  it precedes discovery and invention, it teaches us new things – it makes us better than we could have ever imagined!  It has led me down an amazing path, helped me build an incredible company and find the most remarkable people to guide and inspire me along the way.

My second Stony Brook life lesson is Taking Calculated Risks.

I was sitting in a class called Operating Systems, and at that time a little company called Yahoo! was about to go public and it was starting to become clear to me just how powerful the internet was. My professor (his name is Larry Wittie – he’s still here) opened his lecture by astutely saying there are two ways you can go in life: “You can either help people create things and you will be very successful at it – or you can go out, take risk, and create something of your own and create a level of success much greater.”  He had my attention.

A calculated risk is one where you understand the downside and are still willing to take the risk because there is a large potential upside. A calculated risk is what you take when you put your cardboard and duct tape boat in the Roth Quad Pond for the Regatta – The upside is the glory of winning – but the downside is swimming in a pond for a few minutes. The risk is definitely worth it.

Today, it is so easy to start a company. You can create a website in a few clicks, gather global research, and test your product with live users, all while working at home in your pajamas.

Since I was young, I had always wanted to start a company – but what I didn’t realize until that day my professor said what he did, was how to balance the risk and the reward.

I wanted to build a company and take it public.  So that’s what I did. I resisted getting a job. I figured out if I could write some software and sell it, and hopefully pay my rent, I could sustain taking enough calculated risks to find success. That was company try #1. It took 10 more calculated risks, 10 more (different) bootstrapped companies, over a 7 year period, to get to Shutterstock.  It then took 10 more years – but in 2013, Shutterstock broke a $1B valuation as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.

You are young. It gets harder and harder to take calculated risks. You will fail sometimes.  You will learn things about yourself that will scare and inspire you simultaneously.  Taking calculated risks is a numbers game. Shutterstock was my 10th business – but the law of numbers will be on your side the earlier you start and I think you should start today.

So I would say if you are thinking about starting a business, pursuing a passion, or merely heading down a path with lots of unknowns –  take the advice I received from Larry 20 years ago and start sooner rather than later.

And finally, the 3rd topic I want to talk about diversity.

I truly believe that the most successful organizations thrive off of diversity. Shutterstock is a very diverse company.  Our team of 850 people is comprised of 40%  woman with an effort to keep that number growing.  This is just one fact about our diversity.  We want to attract the curious, the motivated, the passionate to be our colleagues no matter who they are or where they come from.   Our customers, contributors, and employees include people in nearly every country, of every religion and race. Diversity is not a program, it is a requirement.  I’m sure of these three facts:

  • First, The most successful universities will be the ones that search for talent no matter where that talent is.
  • Second, the most successful companies will be the ones that make diversity a priority.  
  • And, third, the most successful countries will be the ones that have immigration policies that attract, retain and truly embrace the smartest people on the planet while at the same time serving those people most in need, wherever they may come from.   

Stony Brook is, and always has been, very diverse and welcoming – and I know it’s one of the values that the university strives for. This is one of the reasons why all of you received an amazing education.

At Shutterstock, we have expressed our opposition to the recent travel bans that our current administration has tried to enforce.  We regularly sponsor H1B visas to attract talent from all over the world – and have seen our sponsored employees go on to get green cards and even become full citizens of the United States.

So – to wrap this up I want to go back to the 3 things I started with:

  1. Stay curious. Ask Questions – and make sure you get the answers.
  2. Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. – But at the same time make sure you understand both the upside and the downside.
  3. Embrace diversity. Only together can we truly make the world the best it can be.

Thank you for sharing your graduation day with me.  And

Congratulations, Class of 2017!

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.