Shutterstock: How Shutterstock Changed the Face of Marketing

Shutterstock houses so many images, videos, and songs that everyone in the U.S. could have their own unique one.

Today, Shutterstock is worth over $1.5 billion. But, in 2003, the firm was born from its founder’s “need for a product that didn't exist.”

Using a Canon camera, Jon Oringer took 100,000 pictures of anything he could find. He cut the number to 30,000 and put them on a website.

Oringer says he was “always looking for images, and they were $500, or I had to call people to get the rights.”

Shutterstock started with a subscription model and a $49 starting price. Speaking on the model, Oringer says, “I was trying to go with a sort of old media model, of trying to collect and put up as much content as I could and buy photos from other photographers.”

One of the most exciting things about Oringer is his reliance on DIY. He says, “In the early days, start-ups make the main mistake of hiring people to do the work they could do themselves.”

Oringer was a one-person show. In his words, “That was my way to learn. I needed photographers, so I became a photographer. The first customer service e-mails that came in, I answered those myself. I programmed the site in Perl.”

Unlike many startup competitors, Oringer didn’t use seed money to fund Shutterstock, knowing he “had to take a risk.”

When demand for his images grew, Oringer hired other contributors. The shift happened organically, and he “started getting other photographers interested in contributing their own content. I turned my one contributor account into an entire upload system for anyone.”

Shutterstock’s brilliance is in its simplicity. The marketplace created a contributor community of novice and experienced photographers. “Anyone could give stock photography a shot.”  

Shutterstock’s early growth was unparalleled. By 2006, It boasted 570,000 images and claimed the title “The Largest Subscription-Based Stock Photo Agency in the World.” In 2007, it more than tripled that number, offering 1.8 million images.

The firm was primed for expansion in 2009 when it purchased Bigstock, a rival microstock photography form. The deal placed Shutterstock on an even playing field with Getty Images, a key rival.

Shutterstock’s 2012 IPO fueled the firm’s growth. More than its competitors, Shutterstock is “always thinking long-term.”

Oringer says, “After going public, we continued to focus on what was most important — our customers. It's easy to get distracted by the noise of going public and to succumb to the extra attention from media and investors. We are in constant communication with our customers every day and gather insights on an ongoing basis.”

The firm used its cash infusion to invest in new technologies and expand its offerings, including reverse image, editing, and filtering tools.

Shutterstock’s focus is always on two things: speed and simplicity. Their tools are easy to use, and their accessible approach fuels their success.

Over the coming years, Shutterstock expanded its language offerings and began posting videos and sound bites to its site. In 2013, it launched Offset, a marketplace for high-quality photos created by established artists.

Strategic partnerships with Google and IMB Watson in 2016 and 2018 allowed marketers to use new, innovative tools, expanding the firm’s customer base.

Their most recent partnership with OpenAI was announced in 2023. This allowed users to access generative AI tools for photo editing.

Today, Shutterstock is worth $1.7 billion. Their legendary subscription model allows users to download bulk images.

Shutterstock’s contributor strategy ensures the company is well-stocked with new images for its corporate and individual customers.

Their contributors post with enthusiasm, forming a Pinterest-like social group. In many ways, Shutterstock is both a social media platform and a tech firm.

With a net profit margin of 12%, up to 40% of an image, song, or video goes straight to the contributor.

Here’s what we can learn from Shutterstock about partnerships, diversification, and lean business models.


Form complementary strategic partnerships with other firms. Shutterstock focuses on community, facilitating “the network effect of our business.” Strategic alliances with other similar and dissimilar firms allow Shutterstock to strengthen its network and provide customers with a broader range of tools. Shutterstock formulated this strategy in the mid-2010s. In 2015, they partnered with Penske Media Corporation to exclusively offer fashion images, which took “a key provider of fashion and entertainment photos and video away from archrival Getty Images.” A year later, the firm partnered with Google, allowing marketers using Google ads to access Shutterstock’s image tools. The firm partners with Tencent Social Ads and IBM to offer a vast range of exciting products for their B2B customers. According to Oringer, the strategy gives Shutterstock access to “cutting-edge technology and…new and innovative product offerings,” ensuring they’re “meeting the demands of existing customers while also attracting new users.”

Seed money is overrated. Former CEO Oringer “started Shutterstock without outside funding; I believe in creating a lean startup. By not taking outside investors early, I was forced to use every dollar I had as efficiently as possible. And I was able to keep a large part of the company.” Without seed money, Oringer was in survival mode. He was forced to make solid and accurate decisions. Unlike “Many entrepreneurs [who] think that cash is the ultimate solution to all of their problems: the one thing standing between them and their dreams,” Oringer’s zero-debt philosophy allowed him to leverage a lean business model with less risk. Shutterstock expanded only when “the demand was so big that [Oringer] couldn't fulfill it.” After a few years of operation, the firm  “took a small [private equity] round in 2007. It wasn't because we needed it (the company pretty much funds itself). It was just a risk-offsetting move, plus, I was looking for a smart investor to help me scale up the management team and build out the processes for growing a 40-person company to a 200-person company.”

Don’t overhire, do-it-yourself. Oringer says, “Working with limited resources is an excellent way to hone skills that will serve you well for the rest of your career. You will prioritize profitability from the start.” One of the most critical factors contributing to Shutterstock’s success is its ‘DIY’ attitude. Former CEO Oringer says, “I didn't want to get outside money, so I was doing everything myself. That was my way to learn. I needed photographers, so I became a photographer. The first customer service e-mails that came in, I answered those myself.” At the beginning, Oringer was the CEO, CFO, CCO, COO, and everything in between. As a result, the firm didn’t rely on investors and could easily navigate low sales. Today, the firm keeps staff small, cutting operations and HR budgets to a minimum. The success of their recent hiring strategy lies in their location. New York City is diverse, offering the firm access to “bi- and tri-lingual staff…who have the skills we need to execute our plans for global growth and product development.”

Selling both B2B and B2C can be a profitable method of diversification. As Oringer says, “We realized we had high-volume marketplace as a platform. Anyone can come in and buy with a subscription.” Shutterstock sells images to small businesses, big businesses, individuals, and massive marketing agencies. While speaking on their customer base, Oringer says, “We sell to businesses who sell other stuff, so we're just going to concentrate on doing that.” Shutterstock focuses on corporate professionals and organizations, media firms, and small businesses lacking the headcount to do their photography. The firm offered tailored packages for corporate customers and integrations with content tools and partnerships to strengthen offerings. Shutterstock constantly scopes for more customer products. Oringer says, “We recognized early on that media consumption was evolving, and customers were looking for moving images to include as part of their advertising campaigns, website designs, and corporate presentations.” Though its primary focus is B2B, Shutterstock’s diverse customer platform is vital to its success.

Ensure a consistent stream of products with a simple supply chain. Shutterstock’s brilliance is in its simplicity. Shutterstock leverages a platform for photographers eager to share their work with the public. Camera phones further simplify the process, and Oringer says, “Instagram is great for us because it's encouraging people to shoot more stuff. Some of those snappers will become professional, and they may choose to sell their photos through us.”The firm’s online marketplace provides suppliers or contributors an easy way to sell their products. Compensating artists was Oringer’s priority; he says, “We were paying our photographers right away….The seller gets between 25 cents and a few dollars a download, depending on the type of account they have.” Shutterstock uses proprietary screening software for their images to ensure consistent, quality products. Contributors can access Shutterstock’s consumer insights and contributor tools as a unique value proposition. Oringer’s trick was to put himself “in the shoes of both the content creator and the buyer.” Contributors and the firm have the same goal: Make money and market valuable content. The former CEO says, “The growing demand for content across our platform delivers bigger payouts to our contributor base and encourages them to upload fresh content to Shutterstock.”  Today, Shutterstock has rewarded valued contributors with over $1 billion in compensation.



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