One of the most important developments of the past decade or so has been the democratization of many tools and resources that had once been available only to those who could afford to pay a hefty price. The cultural growth of the internet has been fueled by the creativity of countless individuals — creativity unlocked by easy access to what they need to make art and content.
Recently I spoke with Shawn Rubel, the founder and CEO of Vecteezy, which offers easy, affordable access to photo and video resources for designers and other creatives seeking to make their own stuff on a modest budget. In our interview, he talks about the unexpected growth of Vecteezy and of the satisfaction that comes from following your passion while doing good work.
Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based?
Shawn Rubel: My company Vecteezy is based in Bowling Green, Kentucky. About 60% of our team is remote, with team members scattered across the country (and a handful internationally). I grew up and after graduating from university in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, I made my way to Bowling Green, where I had friends. Bowling Green has been a great community to Vecteezy with local Western Kentucky University (WKU) as a wonderful partner of ours, as well. WKU has a tremendous photojournalism program which has infused significant creative talent into this community.
Juetten: When did you start?
Rubel: I’ve always been passionate about design and digital creative work. I majored in Visual Arts at University and after graduating, I got into graphic design and marketing. I caught the startup bug along the way and became fascinated with e-commerce.
I soon realized from my own experiences as a designer that there was a massive opportunity to provide affordable (and free) graphic resources. Stock photos and vectors, for example, were expensive everywhere I looked for them. Like many designers, I was working on a tight budget. I also talked with contributors who work with the giants in the stock creative industry, and they were struggling to get fair compensation for their designs.
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I wanted to solve both those problems. I felt like there had to be a way to democratize creative resources and better support the creative community that built the content.
So, I quit my marketing job and launched a website that offered free photoshop brushes. It gained traction, and I set my sights on expanding into more content, like images.
Vecteezy started in 2007 specifically focused on free vector graphics. Today, we are one of the largest creative marketplaces in the world with millions of stock photos, vectors and videos that are free and safe to use for personal or commercial use. Last year we surpassed 100 million user sessions on the Vecteezy platform—something I never would have anticipated from my side hustle nearly 15 years ago.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Rubel: Vecteezy helps to alleviate the hurdles of modern-day creatives, marketers and businesses by providing stock photos, videos and vectors at the best value. We’re passionate about delivering beautiful, professional-quality creative assets that are completely free to everyone. What’s more, our content comes with robust licensing and legal guarantees. In this regard, we stand out from our competition and we provide additional value to the creative and design communities.
We’re quite proud of the global reach we have amassed. Currently, users and contributors turn to Vecteezy in 180 countries and eight different languages. For some of our contributors, the content they create for Vecteezy is their only source of income. This is why it’s so critically important that we, as an industry, treat and pay our contributors fairly.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Rubel: Anyone and everyone who needs stock photos, vectors, and 4k video can be a Vecteezy customer. That’s part of the beauty of our platform. We’re seeing particular interest from marketers, freelancers, and small businesses now as budgets tighten amid the lingering pandemic.
We also have a global network of the world’s most talented creatives who contribute the photos, videos and digital illustrations that comprise our platform.
As we’ve grown, we’ve kept a focus on making this content accessible by providing the best value in the marketplace. For this reason, many customers come to us from other platforms after searching on their own for a better option in price and quality.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Rubel: The Vecteezy team is mostly remote, and spans two continents and all four corners of the U.S. We doubled in size as a company in 2020 and we’re particularly focused on boosting our content and technical expertise this year.
As our team grows, it gives us the opportunity to build a true community around those who have high-quality photos, videos and vectors to share. Because, as we grow, so can our network of contributors looking to generate income via their creative ability.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Rubel: We’ve considered it, but just haven’t needed to yet. We are a private company, bootstrapped and profitable. Vecteezy has grown and succeeded over the years because we are meeting a need within the marketplace for professional-quality content that is beautiful, easy and affordable.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Rubel: Every startup has a great story! Starting a business is hard work.
One story in particular that resonates with me is AirBnB. The founders were scrappy and innovative. They were struggling to pay their own rent, so they rented air mattresses on their floor. They realized the idea actually solved two major problems: a universal need for extra income, and an unmet demand for affordable, unique lodging. AirBnB changed the way people think about and experience travel. It created a new industry around individual resourcefulness.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Rubel: We measure success by what we help marketers, small businesses and the creative community do. Our goal is to provide designers, creators and entrepreneurs beautiful content that is completely free. We want to make the content of talented creatives accessible to those who truly need it. Also, with technology advancing like it is, anyone has the opportunity to make a profit in this field and we believe Vecteezy is the perfect conduit to facilitate income for those who truly need it.
Honestly I think my favorite measure of success is seeing the rapid growth of our contributor network. In the past year, our community of contributors has grown 400%. As more visitors come to our site and download files, our contributors earn more money. It feels good to be creating a supportive community with measurable impact, and deliver on the promise we’re making to our customers at the same time.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders or CEOs in growth mode?
Rubel: Use your passions and your strengths to achieve a balance between work you enjoy and a rewarding personal life.
Vecteezy started as my side project and I left everything else by the wayside when I realized its potential. I love design and being creative, which pointed me in the direction of an opportunity I enjoyed working on. If you don’t enjoy what you’re building, it will never reach its full potential and neither will you.
As entrepreneurs, it’s also easy to get distracted because we have no shortage of ideas. My advice is to pick an idea you’re passionate about, don’t get distracted and focus on it relentlessly. It’s all about focus.
Juetten: And of course, any IP challenges or horror stories to share?
Rubel: When I first started Vecteezy, there wasn’t really any other business giving away free vectors. Very early in my process of building the company, I received a call out of the blue from one of the major companies in the stock image industry. He accused me of taking images from them and giving them away on my site, and threatened legal action. It wasn’t even remotely close to the truth, so I invited him to provide examples. He couldn’t, of course. I contacted them again after the call and never heard back. I believe it was an effort to intimidate me.
It was at that time that I realized how disruptive my idea was. I was not even really making money, or having a major impact, yet the idea was threatening to a leader in the industry. I knew I was onto something.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Rubel: Vecteezy is on it’s way to being the biggest stock creative provider on the Internet. While 2020 was a difficult year in so many ways, it was a phenomenal year for us and our company’s growth. Our team is putting the pieces in place to scale our company offerings and our global reach. We are also dedicated to strengthening our contributor community by supporting them more as we grow. We’re not slowing down; we’re building around supporting designers by sharing their work with millions of people who put it to great use.
Thanks to Shawn for sharing his insight and story, particularly the advice around pursuing what you enjoy. The entire business community is all the better for having free quality resources available, without the worry of IP challenges. #onwards.