Tagged: startup

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!

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