Tagged: entrepreneurship

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!

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!”