Shawn Rubel is the founder and CEO of Vecteezy, a creative marketplace that offers free vectors, stock photos, and 4K stock videos. As a graphic designer himself, Shawn started Vecteezy to help other designers find high-quality free and affordable resources to use in their personal and commercial projects.
Vecteezy launched in 2007, and today the site serves more than 100 million users per year. In August of 2021, Vecteezy was included in the Inc. 5000 list as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Although the business started as a creative outlet, it’s turned into a global brand with users in more than 180 different countries. Vecteezy is currently supported by a team of over 70 people. Some work out of the company’s headquarters in Bowling Green, Kentucky, while many work remotely.
How did you get started in this business?
After graduating Brock University with a degree in Visual Arts (2004), I worked as a graphic designer for a few years before taking a job in internet marketing. I started Vecteezy because when I was working as a designer, I always had a hard time finding quality free resources to use in my work. There were a number of good freebies out there, but they were scattered across the internet and there was no centralized place to find them. I launched Vecteezy in 2007 to provide a go-to resource for free vector graphics (icons, illustrations, patterns, etc.).
With a background in design and a growing interest in internet marketing, this creative outlet gave me the chance to combine those interests and build something of my own.
How do you make money?
Initially, I made money from ads and affiliate marketing. At that time, all the content on the site was free for anyone to download. In 2010, I launched premium content through Vecteezy Pro. I didn’t get rid of the free content (we’re still adding new free resources every day) but I added some exclusive resources that are only available through a subscription or download credits.
Today, we’re growing primarily from Pro subscriptions and advertising partnerships on the site. One of the perks of a Pro subscription is that ads are removed for subscribers, but the ad revenue from everyone else helps us to cover operating costs and allows us to continue pushing out new free content for our visitors.
Vecteezy Pro has changed a lot since it initially launched 11 years ago. The volume of premium content has increased dramatically, and we’ve also added stock photos and stock videos. Our subscribers are able to download an unlimited number of resources from our growing collection. The monthly subscription costs about the same price that you’d pay for one or two photos at some of the leading stock marketplaces.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
I only invested a few hundred dollars to start the site, so the business was profitable within the first month or two. The site started getting traffic immediately thanks to people who shared the links on social media or passed it on to friends and colleagues. Vecteezy was attracting thousands of visitors per day almost from the start.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
Since I started the site as a creative outlet, I didn’t have lofty goals. I thought it would be well received by designers because I knew there was a need for quality free resources, but I never planned for it to grow into the global brand it has become.
It wasn’t until the site’s audience was well established that I really thought about it in terms of becoming a full-time business. To be honest, at the time I didn’t realize how unusual it was for a new site to attract thousands of visitors every day.
Since the site was growing so well and I was really passionate about it, I decided to leave my job in 2009 to pursue my business full-time. It’s always nerve-wracking walking away from a stable job to branch out on your own. I handled it by looking to the future and considering what I could do to provide some added security. It was around this time that I decided adding the premium content would be a good move for the long-term stability of the site.
How did you get your first customer?
The first customers came in 2010 when the site was about three years old and the premium content was launched. Up until that point I had no customers of my own since the revenue was coming from ads and affiliate programs.
Because the site was already three years old and so many people visited on a regular basis, there was a sense of loyalty from some frequent users before the premium content was launched. That made it natural to get the initial customers because Vecteezy had earned trust and proven to be a valuable resource over the previous three years.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Email marketing has been a big area of growth for us over the past few years. For a long time, we didn’t put as much emphasis on email marketing as we should have, but it’s a major priority for us now.
We’re constantly testing different types of emails, timing, frequency, and other details to continue improving the results. Now that we have an active email list, we’re able to stay in touch with our audience, and whenever we have a sale or special offer, our promotions are far more effective.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
The toughest decisions have honestly been where to spend my time now. I can’t be everywhere anymore, so I’ve had to skip meetings I wanted to be in and be more selective about how I use my time and what we’re focusing on as a company.
When I started Vecteezy, I was involved in every little facet of daily operations. Today, it’s not possible for me to do that and still stay at a high level where I can guide the company forward. Saying no to meetings is something I have had to learn to do tactfully, and communicating support and guidance without being present is a new skill I’ve had to develop.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I think the focus on what’s best for the user has always driven Vecteezy’s success. We’re committed to providing free and affordable resources because that’s how we can best support our users. We view our users and customers as a community we want to serve.
Another significant factor that led to very rapid growth is the development of our team. I managed the site on my own for the first few years and hired freelancers when I needed help. When I started to build a team of employees with diverse skill sets, the business really took off.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
I’ve enjoyed seeing the success our team has accomplished together. Being included on the Inc. 5000 list in 2021 was a major milestone that shows how hard our team has worked. That’s definitely been one of the highlights for me.
I also love to see our contributors making money on our platform. Designers, photographers, and videographers can join our contributor program, upload their own creative content, and earn money whenever their resources are downloaded by our users. Seeing creators make money with their talents is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. It’s truly inspiring to see what they create! Some of our contributors are making extra money on the side, and for others it’s their primary source of income.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
We have some ambitious goals in terms of the amount of content we want to add to our site. We’re aiming to exponentially increase the number of vectors, photos, and videos we offer on our site, which will make the site even more useful for our visitors and subscribers.
I’m really excited about some recent improvements our team has made to the Vecteezy search engine. We’ve added powerful new filters, like an option to search by color, and improved the algorithm to produce better and more accurate results. This is huge for the user experience because it allows users to find the right resources quickly and easily.
We’re also going to be releasing a new Editor with monumental improvements. The Vecteezy Editor is a web-based design tool that makes it easy for anyone to create designs using the resources available at Vecteezy.
What business books have inspired you?
One book that stands out to me is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Working well with others is important in any business venture, and this book helps you to establish a mindset that will improve your professional and personal relationships.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would give myself the advice to be more aggressive at pursuing growth. Early on, I had a great lifestyle business and I enjoyed the freedom and flexibility that came with running an online business. The problem is, I wasn’t pursuing growth as aggressively as I should have been. It took several years before I decided to hire my first employee and really try to prioritize growing the business beyond just myself. The past few years we’ve experienced rapid growth in revenue as our team has expanded.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the time in my schedule at this stage to be a mentor.