Shawn Rubel is the founder and CEO of Vecteezy, a creative marketplace for free vectors, stock photos, and 4K stock videos. Originally from Canada, Shawn studied Graphic Design at Niagara College for two years before graduating from Brock University (2004) in Ontario with a BA in Visual Arts. In 2007, Shawn relocated from Ontario to Bowling Green, Kentucky and began working in internet marketing.
That same year, Shawn launched his own company as a creative outlet after recognizing the opportunity to provide affordable (and free) images and graphic resources. As a designer himself, Shawn was very familiar with the daily challenges creators face, including the struggle to find beautiful imagery on a tight budget. With a mission to provide better support to the creative community, Shawn quickly grew the business and left his full-time job in February of 2009.
For more than a decade, Vecteezy has been a go-to source for millions of designers, marketers, freelancers, and hobbyists who need high-quality visual resources. Vecteezy, which is headquartered in Bowling Green, Kentucky, now relies on a team of 70 workers from four different continents, as well as thousands of contributors who create resources for Vecteezy’s users.
In his role as CEO, Shawn directs the company’s strategic vision, builds teams, and influences many aspects of company culture. Under Shawn’s leadership, Vecteezy has become an industry leader that reaches millions of visitors each month.
Where did the idea for Vecteezy come from?
Design has always been a passion for me. After graduating with a degree in Visual Arts and beginning my career in graphic design and marketing, I caught the start-up bug with a special interest in e-commerce.
Based on my own experience as a designer, I recognized there was an opportunity to provide creatives with affordable and free images and graphic resources. Whenever I needed resources like stock photos and vector graphics, I had a hard time finding options that fit within a limited budget.
At the same time, I was also talking to friends and colleagues who were contributing to some of the leading sites in the stock creative industry. They were struggling to get fair compensation for their work.
I knew there had to be a way to solve both of these problems. My first site was Brusheezy.com, which offers Photoshop brushes and some related graphic resources. There were a handful of free resources out there, but they were scattered across a lot of different sites and hard to find. I created Brusheezy so designers would have a go-to site for free brushes.
It was immediately obvious that designers and creatives liked the idea, so I followed the same approach to create Vecteezy.com. With both sites, the goal was to make designers’ lives easier by providing high-quality resources for free or very affordable prices.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Now that our team has grown to more than 70 people and most of us are working remotely, I spend a lot of time video conferencing with company leadership and our team members. We have a leadership team that meets at 8:48 AM every other morning. It’s a great way to align, touch base, and motivate each other. From there, I’m in and out of meetings to help different teams move forward, reviewing proposals and designs for new product launches, and working with our development and marketing crews to improve our current product experience.
We’re currently the fastest growing brand in our space right now, and on track to be the largest. We’re getting there by setting ambitious milestones: We set SMART goals for the year, back those out into quarterly priorities, and break those down into tasks for each week.
I try to get away from the hustle and bustle a few times a week so I can focus on strategy. Sometimes it means going offline for an hour so I can focus on the big picture rather than the details.
Aside from work, I also try to get exercise or spend time outdoors. I put in a lot of miles on my bike, I love playing hockey, and I also coach youth sports to have more time with my kids.
How do you bring ideas to life?
As a designer, I’m creative by nature. When it comes to business and entrepreneurship, I think one of the keys to success is simply taking action and getting started. Having an idea is just the start; You have to be willing to put yourself out there, put in the work to see it through, and get honest feedback from people you trust. It’s also a lot easier to make improvements on a rough idea than to try and make it perfect on your first attempt.
Today, having a team of creative people around me helps a lot. Our team includes people with a wide variety of strengths, backgrounds, and skill sets, which makes it easier to bring ideas to life.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited by the growth of the freemium business model. At Vecteezy.com and the other Eezy sites, we offer millions of free resources that can be downloaded by anyone. We also offer premium resources to our community of Pro subscribers. The freemium model allows us to provide something of value to our audience at no cost to them. We make money when users have had the chance to experience our product, and build trust in what we offer. We’re able to prove our usefulness before customers pay anything.
The freemium business model is becoming increasingly popular in a variety of industries and I think that’s beneficial for both businesses and users. Everybody loves free stuff. As a business owner, you can get exposure and build a community by providing value first and gaining the trust and confidence of your users.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I try to put myself in the shoes of our users or customers: Why is what we’re talking about valuable to them? As a designer, I can relate to the challenges they face on a daily basis. I started the business because I saw a need and I was trying to overcome the same challenges myself.
It’s easy to become obsessed with details related to the business like revenue and growth. But at the end of the day, Vecteezy’s success depends on our ability to help our customers and users.
By focusing on our users, I’m able to ensure that we’re doing the best job we can at serving them.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would advise my younger self to build a team earlier. I ran the sites by myself for a while, then with a small team of freelancers, and eventually hired a few employees. Currently, we have a team of about 70 people and that number has grown significantly just in the past couple of years. We’ve been able to grow much faster as our team has expanded. Looking back, I probably could have grown the business more effectively by developing a team earlier on in the process.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Bitcoin will hit $1 million per coin within the next 10 years. The scarcity and finite supply will continue to increase demand as more corporations and investors hold it for the long-term, pushing prices higher.\
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Set SMART goals. I cannot stress enough that your goals need to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. You’re flying blind if you don’t know what your measuring stick is.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Provide value first. During the early years of the business, all of the resources on my sites could be downloaded for free. I made money with advertisements and affiliate marketing, but every single file was free for users.
Even now that we offer certain resources through a paid subscription or credits, we still aim to provide value first. Many of our paying customers came to our sites because of the free content. After they’ve used our resources and seen the value, many of them decide to upgrade. We’re able to earn the trust of our customers before they spend any money.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Very early on, I was not very thoughtful about accountability. I hired out critical parts of our product to freelancers, and it backfired in a massive way. Major functions of the website were resting in the hands of people who really didn’t have skin in the game. At one point, the site fell apart and I couldn’t get in touch with freelancers I had hired to build and fix the problems.
I overcame this by building a full-time team that owns responsibility for key functions of our product. Now, we have a chain of command and accountability within it to stay ahead of issues and fix them before they ripple outwards.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
There’s a lot of potential for an Upwork-style marketplace exclusively for Facebook and Instagram ads creative work. More and more businesses are recognizing the potential of advertising on major social networks. Getting quality, on-brand creative seems to be the biggest challenge for many brands. Once you nail it, it works like a charm and the ROI can be through the roof, but creating effective ads is a specialized skill. A marketplace that helps brands find talented ad managers would be very useful.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Easy – Tickets to hockey games. I love hockey, I enjoy competitive events, and I’m thrilled to support my local team. Also, this was slightly more than $100, but I purchased a masterclass with Wayne Gretzky (my childhood hero) and I’m pretty thrilled about that.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
We use Slack for communicating with team members. With remote team members spread throughout the world, we need an effective way to communicate, and Slack provides that. Whether I want to share something with the entire company, communicate with a specific department, or talk to someone individually, Slack makes it very convenient. We’re able to stay well connected despite being in a lot of different locations. I also love that you can pause and snooze notifications, make it clear that you wont respond immediately, but remove it as a distraction for a bit.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It could be categorized as a business or career-oriented book, but it’s also extremely relevant for your personal or social life. It teaches timeless principles that you can start putting into practice right away.
What is your favorite quote?
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky
- Provide value first.
- Think like your customers.
- Build a strong team and surround yourself with quality people who have different skills and strengths.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.