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!”