Picture Perfect: Startup Success Lessons From Shutterstock Founder And CEO Jon Oringer
He’s been called “Silicon Alley’s first billionaire,” and he’s also been called “the coolest person in New York tech,” but ask Shutterstock founder and CEO Jon Oringer what he thinks about all of these titles that have been bestowed upon him by the press over the years, he seems eager to dismiss them, and direct our attention to his company instead. “Although I love to see Shutterstock in the news, I don’t pay much attention to what people say about me,” Oringer says. “I am focused on growing the business, and making sure that we are delivering the best possible product we can to our customers and our contributors.” At first glance, Oringer’s response might seem a tad too humble coming from an entrepreneur as successful as he is, and hence, a little hard to believe (yes, we journalists are a cynical bunch), but consider his statement with Shutterstock’s current standing in the market as the backdrop. For a company founded only in 2003, Shutterstock’s growth has been truly exemplary- it was once just another New York City-based startup, but today, it is a global media marketplace (valued at US$2.5 billion in April 2015) featuring more than 70 million pieces of content, an admirable collection that includes images, videos and music, with the website having enlisted more than 500 million paid downloads to date. With numbers like that to boast of, Shutterstock is easily one of the better startup success stories out there- and it’s safe to say that this wouldn’t have been possible without Oringer’s singular vision for his enterprise. By keeping his focus consistently on the company, its products and its clients, Oringer has seen Shutterstock through more than a decade of success, and once you reflect on that for a bit, it’s hard not to nod along to his above proclamation.
Shutterstock’s origin story has become somewhat of a legend now, but it bears repeating again because it remains an excellent example of how entrepreneurs need to be solving a specific need when it comes to setting up an enterprise, and also of the importance of being persistent in one’s road to achieving success- Oringer is a serial entrepreneur who founded ten companies before Shutterstock turned out to be the hit he was looking for. “I always knew I wanted to run my own company,” Oringer remembers. “It was just a matter of figuring out what that company was. I toyed with different ideas, and some seemed to really take, until they didn’t- an online pop-up blocker company I ran was toppled overnight when Microsoft Explorer introduced a built-in solution into their browser. But the one commonality to all of the companies I founded was that options for affordable stock imagery for marketing or websites were incredibly limited. So I set out to take my own pictures and to license them to others at a nominal cost. I shot 30,000 images in the first year alone. I coded the site myself, and we were off and running, back in a time when there were not a lot of tools out there to help you start your own business. As an entrepreneur and a business owner, I knew who my customers were, and the challenges they faced trying to find the right image to market their business.” And we all know what happened afterward. “I am proud to say that Shutterstock revolutionized the stock image industry by throwing out all the complex rights and offering a simple subscription model,” Oringer declares. “It wasn’t just that I understood the pain points in the process- I learned from my own frustration trying to use a traditional stock-imagery company, and I looked for ways to make it better.”
And Oringer did make it better- that is essentially why Shutterstock today has over one million active customers in 150 countries around the world. But it’s important to note here that Shutterstock isn’t resting on its laurels- on the contrary, the company is keeping a close tab on whatever is being said about it or the industry around the world, and is on a seemingly relentless pursuit to better its offerings for its customers. I realized this first-hand when an obscure tweet I made about the difficulty of finding the right stock image led a member of the Shutterstock team to get in touch with me, and further, give me a potential solution to the problem I was facing as well. This whole episode took me by surprise- a pleasant one, of course, but it bears testimony to the importance of companies, be it startups or conglomerates, keeping an ear to the ground in terms of customer feedback. “We have a healthy feedback loop with customers,” Oringer says. “They tell us through research we lead and customer-service inquiries they initiate what they want more of. Our tech and UX teams are responsive to what we’re heading, working in tandem with the support teams to ensure that customers are a major component of what drives our decisions and innovation. Then we hear again from the same customers about how satisfying it is that their suggestions and messages were heard and acted upon. As the CEO, that commitment to customer service starts with me. I learn something new on Twitter every day, paying close attention to what people are saying about us and our products. If you run a company from inside a closed-off world where the only people you interact with are your own executives, you’re not doing your job right. Everyone here is responsible for customer service to some degree.”
Shutterstock’s dedication to its customers is also reflected in the acquisitions it has made in the past few years. In January 2015, Shutterstock acquired Europe’s largest independent photo press agency REX Features for $33 million, and stock music and sound effects service PremiumBeat for $32 million. “Our first major acquisition was WebDAM, which gave our customers a better tool to keep track of and collaborate with all the imagery and assets they purchase from us,” Oringer remembers. “As I looked to scale our business over recent years, we identified the areas we wished to pursue, and when we assessed the landscape, these were the companies that shined. We bought Rex Features and PremiumBeat because they’re the best at what they do- editorial imagery and music. REX (now REX Shutterstock), and our partnership with PMC have quickly allowed us to ramp up the editorial content we are able to offer our customers.” In the meantime, Shutterstock continues to innovate from within as well. “Moving forward, we are growing Shutterstock to include workflow tools for busy marketing and creative professionals,” Oringer explains. “In December, we released Shutterstock Editor, a fast and simple way to edit photos. The response to it has been fantastic. And we’re just scratching the surface with tools that can help our customers have a better experience.”
As for Shutterstock's presence around the world, Oringer says, “International growth has been key to Shutterstock’s growth strategy. We want to be everywhere for everyone. That takes time. But we’re on the right track: 70% of our business comes from outside the United States. Authenticity is the name of the game these days when it comes to marketing materials and showcasing your brand. Our data shows that the demand for images of Middle Eastern people is the fastest-growing change among searches year over year. The Shutterstock collection is constantly adapting to reflect diversity and the world we live in today. We need to offer local content to our customers, no matter where they are. We’re always actively recruiting new contributors to help us, asking them to shoot their friends and family and their regular lives. We’re making strides to get to know the local traditions and creative preferences. These artists know their craft and their region best of anyone, and we leave the camera in their hands. It’s our job to find them, bring them aboard, and to showcase their beautiful imagery. We work closely with Dubai-based photographer Daniel Cheong, as an example, whose architectural images from Dubai and surrounding cities can be found on Offset.”
Oringer’s drive to continuously innovate at Shutterstock –and succeed at that too, by the way- is particularly interesting when you consider that the company is, well, no longer a startup. So, one has to wonder: how has Oringer managed to maintain that entrepreneurial mindset with which his company was founded in the first place? The answer: it’s all thanks to the people at Shutterstock. “I always say I want to hire entrepreneurs,” Oringer says. “These are problem-solvers by nature and self-starters by habit. You can never have enough people like that in your company, whom you trust with the work that needs to get done, but also with the vision to foresee where we should go next.” Oringer also points toward diversifying a business as a way to stay true to its startup origins. “You can also maintain the small-business feel by launching other arms of your business,” he explains. “Our enterprise sales team kept on hearing from clients that they wanted higher-end photography to license, so we decided in 2013 to create Offset. This team of 10 sits among us, shares resources and support from Shutterstock, and helps remind us of how much you can get done on a given day if you work together. Offset, in some ways, resembles the early, scrappier years of Shutterstock. In addition, every summer we host an annual hackathon for our employees, where they have 24 hours to form teams, develop an idea, and collaborate on a tool or feature that they can show off to a judging panel of executives. I served as a judge for our inaugural hackathon; however, I really wanted to be out there hacking with the rest of the people. These events are a great opportunity to get back to basics. This year we launched a product, Shutterstock Tab, that was a direct result of one of our hackathons.” What about Shutterstock’s competition in this space? Oringer doesn’t seem too worried, and brings it back to Shutterstock’s culture. “If we’re committing to the right strategy and innovation, we don’t need to pay any attention to what the competition is doing,” he says. “We focus on executing our plan, and moving forward.”
Start Up Like A Pro: Shutterstock Founder And CEO Jon Oringer’s Tips For Entrepreneurs
1. Start building: “Whether you’re an engineer building websites, or a photographer building your portfolio, there’s no excuse for not getting started right away. You’ll learn more at the beginning of the process than at any other time.”
2. Love the unknown: “The best business ideas come out of seeing what’s not there, what’s not available. Think about why it’s missing. Is it actually impossible, or has nobody gotten there yet? That’s the key question to success.”
3. Believe in yourself: “Each time one of my businesses failed, I dusted myself off and looked for the next big opportunity. Blame timing, the idea, other factors, really anything else, but don’t blame yourself. I actually launched four businesses at once, figuring that might increase my odds at finding the big idea that would carry me. Dare to be daring.”
4. Trust market research: “Ask your friends what they think about the problem you’ve identified and listen to their feedback. If you can find people who are directly impacted by the problem, that’s even better. I wasn’t a born photographer, but I grew into it because I was witnessing the passion and enthusiasm photographers carry with them every day. I wanted to be a part of that.”
5. Take big risks: “Don’t be disheartened by failure, embrace it. Have the courage to experiment and the willingness to stick around when the odds are stacked against you.”
Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.
Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.