Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer

Shutterstock founder shares his mantra for startup success

By Michael R. Malone

Shutterstock founder shares his mantra for startup success

By Michael R. Malone
Jon Oringer, who launched the first global subscription image marketplace, talked about his passion for new businesses and the qualities he looks for in budding entrepreneurs during a virtual conversation with the Miami Herbert Business School.

Jon Oringer, the founder, former CEO, and Shutterstock’s executive chairman, shared his mantra for startup success—learn and perform every facet of the company’s operation—in a lively conversation with Dean John Quelch and Michael Wilson, senior lecturer and director of entrepreneurship programs, as part of the Knight Venture Leader Series hosted by the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School. 

That advice has proved tried and true for Oringer, who singlehandedly managed every aspect of the startup he launched in 2003 while providing the funding from initial sales to grow the company to become a global provider of stock photography, video footage, music, and editing tools. 

“In the early days of Shutterstock, I was the first photographer, first customer service representative, first engineer, first customer research target, first marketer, first website writer—I did all the roles,” Oringer said. “These are things I thought about when I was hiring people and still think about when advising other entrepreneurs.”

Launching his technology career while still in college in the late 1990s as the internet was ramping up, Oringer developed a wide range of software products and sold them online. Despite the dot-com bubble crash at the time, he continued selling. 

“I was a one-man show with a bunch of contactors who would help me fix bugs, improve the product, and work on the next release—I was selling hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of the software from my dorm room,” he said. 

“It became addictive as I got more and more sales,” he pointed out, “but what haunted me was the need for imagery.” To provide for the growing online businesses, people were stealing imagery and getting cease-and-desist orders. He remembered thinking that model was not sustainable. 

“The need for images kept getting bigger and bigger. And when I started to get traction, I knew the bar was really low and I had to go with it,” said Oringer, adding “a subscription model just made sense.” 

He bought a camera and began taking his own pictures—thousands of generic, simple images suitable for e-commerce—and went about obtaining the model, property, and commercial releases. 

“I needed lots of them. And honestly they weren’t that great, but they did the job,” he said. He set his other projects aside to focus on company development, an area far more challenging for him than the product side. 

“Though it may have looked organized and deliberate, it was chaos just like it is for every other company,” he recalled. He started to build product teams; and a few years in, he hired a CEO, formed a board, and the company continued to grow. 

With close to 1,000 employees today, the company earned revenues of $667 million in 2020. 

After 17 years as CEO, Oringer handed over the reins of the company in April 2020 to become Shutterstock’s executive chairman, a role that allows him the time and energy to do what he most enjoys—guiding and mentoring startups. 

“Hands down, my favorite time is the start-up, the early building of a company,” he said. “In my new role I get the best of all worlds—I have a CEO and I get to start lots of companies on the side.” 

Oringer, who recently relocated to Miami, launched the Pareto Pre-Seed Program,  a technology incubator that aligns his unique skillset with Miami’s up-and-coming tech scene. 

“Miami is like New York was in the early 2000s, except that it’s moving a lot faster,” he said. “It’s that kind of fast-paced growth where every week you hear about a new company moving, a new funding round—when Miami has its first IPO it will be pretty amazing.” 

The company name stems from that of Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist of the early 20th century who developed the concepts of Pareto efficiency: 20 percent of the pea pods in his garden were responsible for 80 percent of the peas. 

Oringer highlighted that Pareto seeks to be as diverse as possible and has several female entrepreneurs as part of its investment group. He welcomes applicants with all types of ideas to apply. 

While Pareto is looking for smart applicants, Oringer said high grades are possibly not the best quality of an entrepreneur. He admitted that he was “not that great a student” and certainly didn’t get As. 

“What you do need is this grit, this persistence, and to know that the second you start, there are going to be three other competitors who are going to be well-funded,” Oringer said. “So, you have to stay focused, calm, have your strategy, and execute every single day—that’s the skillset we look for.” 

The Shutterstock founder said that when he first launched the global provider there were thousands of stock photographers who shot on film, and many saw his venture as devaluing the professional field. 

“There were some angry people—there always are when things change—but I believed I was democratizing photography,” he said. 

Shutterstock now receives images from approximately two million photographers, according to Oringer. “And that’s just scratching the surface of people who want to sell their images,” he said. “We created a marketplace for a lot of people to sell their photography and that marketplace just didn’t exist before.”