Shutterstock’s Jon Oringer turned his amateur photos into a $3 billion business

Jon’s now placing his bets on the next generation of entrepreneurs in Miami.

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 full time to that side business, Shutterstock.

In this episode, Jon shares the origins of Shutterstock’s subscription model and “two-sided marketplace” and talks about some of factors that helped give Shutterstock the edge as he went up against the big established players. You’ll hear about the decision he made to take secondary funding in 2007 to accelerate the company’s growth even more and what it was like to take the company public in 2012. Although he stepped down as CEO in February 2020, Jon 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. Listen now on Apple Podcasts, Overcast and Spotify. If you love it, please help more people find it by leaving a review!

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

Jon Oringer’s love of computers goes all the way back to elementary school. He was the kid who’d skip recess and sneak back into the classroom to get an extra hour on the Apple IIe. But he knew he didn’t just want to be a programmer. Like the tech idols of the era that he was reading about, he wanted to create something, a business that solved a problem. And computers, he realized, had plenty of annoying problems to solve.

By the time Jon was in college in the mid-1990s, one of the biggest annoyances for web surfers was the dreaded pop-up. Jon hit on the idea to crowdsource a database of the most offensive pop-up creators on the web and then create a subscription tool, Pop-Up Eliminator, that would block the offending urls on your computer. 

Turns out, a lot of people were annoyed with pop-ups. Jon’s dorm-based business became a hit, bringing in up $1,000 a day at one point (and forcing Jon to turn off the “ca-ching bell” he'd programmed to go off every time a new subscription came in). Along the way, Jon was building up his ecommerce chops. He’d solved a problem for users and also found a way to create a recurring revenue stream through a subscription-based service. 

“It was a great learning experience. I mean, I look back and I was thinking, this is probably the end of the world for me.”

Pop-Up Eliminator reached a million dollars in revenue and Jon was living in an apartment he’d bought in New York’s Gramercy Park when he got his first experience with disruption: Microsoft released a new version of Internet Explorer with pop-up blocking built in.

While Pop-Up Eliminator did have a long tail of revenue, by 2001 it was done. It wasn’t an easy experience, but Jon also knew it was coming eventually. With that in mind, he’d already started building an application to solve another annoying internet problem: cookies. SurfSecret was a personal firewall and privacy protector program that deleted cookies and other tracking while you’re browsing the web. 

“I was solving my problem. I didn’t realize it was a business.”

Jon originally had a few other apps in development as well, but SurfSecret was the main business, and things were going pretty well. He had the software. He had the programmer to keep developing and updating the back-end infrastructure. And he was able to travel all over the globe while continuing to build the business. The only problem, Jon says, was marketing. 

The big stock photo agencies at the time, Getty and Corbis, were still stuck in the traditional print mindset, and that model didn’t make sense for the internet. So Jon just started shooting his own photos. Before he knew it, he’d built a library of stock photography. “Shutterstock was the thing on the side,” he says, but as it started to gain traction, Jon realized there might be a market for legally cleared, royalty free stock photos. While SurfSecret paid for his lifestyle, he began testing Shutterstock. And then people started buying the images. 

“We were tripling month over month in those early days.” 

Jon had a profitability mindset from the beginning, and that enabled him to bootstrap Shutterstock, which he officially launched in 2003. Like Pop-Up Eliminator, it was a subscription service from the start — and unlike anything you could get from the big stock companies. He also applied what he’d learned about building a two-sided marketplace. With Shutterstock, he had people contributing content on one side and customers benefiting from the content on the other. And, as he notes, the more content you have, the more customers you get.

Shutterstock grew so fast between 2003 and 2005 that Jon decided to devote his full attention to it. He began staffing up, and by 2007, the company employed around 60 people. In our conversation, Jon shares some of the things that he believes propelled Shutterstock’s growth, including the subscription model, heavy investments in marketing and SEM, collecting the right data and making sure he was connected to every part of the customer experience. And then there was that profitability mindset. He says he made sure he had 40% EBITDA in the early years, running and lean and efficient operation. 

“That was when we really, really pressed on the gas.”

In 2007, Jon sold 25% of the company to help take some of the risk off the table and allow him to “think bigger.” Getting that $50 million check was life-changing, he says, but not just in terms of his lifestyle. It increased the pace of the business’s growth even more. He hired a CIO, started practicing quarterly calls and, in 2010, when the company reached around $100 million in revenue, he hired a COO. 

That hire was made with an eye toward the future. Jon was looking for someone to ultimately replace him as CEO. In 2012, with the company still growing 40% year over year, they took Shutterstock public. Jon shares what the IPO process was like and notes that while there are some annoying aspects to being a public company, he also believes “the consistency made us better.”

By this point, Shutterstock wasn’t just going up against Getty. New competitors had emerged and some were getting acquired by others. I can relate to that with my company Muck Rack, so I was curious to hear how he balances the tension between focusing on the customers and focusing on the competitors. Jon talks about how both are incredibly motivating forces in different ways.

“I think it’s fun creating companies...I like seeing people go from employee to entrepreneur.”

In February of 2020, when Shutterstock had grown to around 700-800 employees, Jon stepped down as CEO. He still owns close to 40% of the company, so he continues to spend half his time on Shutterstock. The other half is spent on his Miami-based business incubator, Pareto. In our interview, Jon talks about what drew him to Miami, what he’s looking for in potential business investments and why failure isn’t the end of the world. “It’s the idea, it’s the entrepreneur and it’s the timing,” he says. When one of those doesn’t pan out, you learn from it and figure out where you need to pivot next.

Got a great idea for a business? Hit him up!

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