Venture Voice – interviews with entrepreneurs

Entertaining Entrepreneurship

Jon Oringer of Shutterstock

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Jon Oringer is not a professional photographer. But when he needed images to market his growing internet business, the traditional stock agencies were still stuck in the world of print, so he took the DIY approach. What started as a way to fill a need for his own company turned into a side business that quickly gained traction. So quickly, in fact, that he turned his attention to it full time. Jon built Shutterstock on a “two-sided marketplace” subscription model that has its roots in Pop-Up Eliminator, a tool he built while he was still in college. While that app was disrupted out of existence when Microsoft built pop-up blocking into Internet Explorer, he’d grown it to a million dollars in revenue by that time.

In this episode, Jon shares how he started with a portfolio of app ideas that was eventually whittled down to Shutterstock. You’ll hear about the company’s rapid growth trajectory, Jon’s decision to take secondary funding in 2007 to accelerate the pace even more, and what it was like to take the company public in 2012. Although he stepped down as CEO in February 2020, he still owns 37% of the company today and spends half his time working on Shutterstock in his role as Chairman. The other half is spent with his business incubator, Pareto, where he’s looking for the next entrepreneurs and business ideas to invest in.

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Highlights from this episode:

“Computers give you a superpower.”

“The internet was starting to become something that was real, and I started to just think, like, what are the most annoying issues and problems I can solve.”

[Getting subscribers] “It was incredibly satisfying. I remember setting up a ca-ching sound to resonate through my entire apartment — or, initially, my dorm room.”

“If you think back to 1996, this was one of the most annoying things.”

“My ecommerce chops were starting to begin to form.”

“So basically my job at the time was to try and solve an annoying problem and create a recurring revenue stream.”

“Microsoft basically put me out of business, which was my first experience with disruption.”

“My limiting factor was the marketing. There was no place to buy images. So I started taking them myself.”

“It became a depreciating asset from there, but it continued to have a long tail of actual revenue.”

“My friends were wondering why they had to work at banks while I was working out of my house.”

“It was the really, really early wild west days of the internet.”

“Venture capital was harder to get back then, and honestly, I looked at it as a lifestyle business.”

“I had this profitability mindset at the beginning, and I was thinking, why am I going to kill that?”

“We’ve always had a pretty smart marketing strategy. We were able to spend a lot of money and get a really good return.”

“We were probably one of the first customers [of Google Ad Words].”

“SEM became a big part of Shutterstock, pretty much after 2004.”

“I realized early on that [marketing] was going to be the way to really accelerate the business through that growth marketing mechanism.”

“I made sure I had 40% EBITDA in those first years. Shutterstock was profitable from the beginning and also bootstrapped.”

“It was a very calculated risk.”

“It’s about keeping your eye on the ball. I mean, if you look away for a day, it’s not good.”

“Suddenly I had a good problem: I had a job.”

“I tried to surround myself with the smartest people I could find — people that are smarter than I am. And we did it.”

“I was an engineer. The management did not come naturally.”

“It’s a grind, being an entrepreneur, and that’s what we did, every single week, every single day.”

“A lot of trial and error. A lot of error.”

“We’re not a media company. We’re a technology company that sells media.”

“It takes time, but none of these things is impossible.”

Going public: “I think the consistency made us better. The focus on the quarter can be annoying, but it also makes you better.”

“I know I’m a product person…my role was going to be different as a public company CEO.”

“I like the fact that Miami is not obviously a place you start a company, but it’s a very viable place to start a company if you’re in tech, and I think we’re going to, together, make this a very obvious place to start a company.”

“When companies get big, shifting course completely remote is really hard…when problems get real, people have to get together.”

“A lot of studio models wind up not working because there’s one big company that takes up all the attention.”

“The best part of failing is that you understand a little bit more about what to do next.”

“I failed millions of times on my ideas…you need to fail in order to learn. The best part of failing is that you understand a little bit more about what to do next.”

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