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.
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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 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.
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.