Recently I met Bruce Livingstone as a shared friend of Guy Kawasaki, and asked him some advice for a friend regarding the photo market. After learning about each other, he asked to interview me for his site, istockphoto.com. I thought, "Why just interview me? Why don’t I interview him?" This is the first interview he’s given.
Bruce created iStockphoto.com, a profitable photographer / designer community site.
Let’s see what this Canadian CEO has to say for himself…
How did you learn what it takes to succeed?
Through my experience it’s broken down into tenacity, trial and error — but more importantly, interpretation. The first being easy notions, where there is a formula for utilization of interpretation made up of three simple parts:
a) Listening to what your suppliers and customers want
b) Intuitive predictions for your supplier’s and customer’s immediate and future needs
c) Taking advice and criticism with the same value
What books have you read that embody your core principles…so much so that you wish you wrote those books?
I honestly don’t read a lot of business books that embody my core, but two in particular from Guy Kawasaki really speak to me. I wish I were born 5-10 years earlier so I could have had the opportunity to have worked at Apple and shared the same experience as Guy. It sounded like a life shaping experience.
Give me 1-3 expand-your-mind book recommendations?
The Forged Coupon and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy
What are the three most important experiences or skills that are invaluable as a CEO?
a) DIY: Do it yourself, and do not pay anyone to do it for you
b) Community Mindedness: Get lots of help. Turn and hire the squeaky wheels and anyone else who truly believes
c) Failure: Everyone needs to fail (preferably more than once)
Why did you start istockphoto? Why is it succeeding?
iStockphoto was part mistake, and part art project. It started because my first stock photography company, publishing by CD-Rom, was unable to successfully go to market with its limited funds. As an experiment I started giving away my photographs. Members to the site suggested that they would also supply photographs if we built the mechanism. Jeffrey Zeldman and I were chatting about the old subscription models like ArtToday.com and how iStockphoto could be different. iStockphoto started as a simple photo sharing system for designers and photographers. The first few instances were an intentional rip on Apple’s "iXXXX" products. I was bitter (http://www.istockphoto.com/bitter) because I underestimated what it would take to bring a product to market. We built a critical mass of members after a couple of years and turned commercial in 2003.
What makes iStockphoto different from other photography sites? For the photographer and the end users?
Innovation is key in what we do. iStockphoto was the first to market with a community-based, open market system for buying and selling images which gave us the technical and marketing lead. For both photographers and designers, there is a massive audience and a constant supply of new images. The community interaction is what makes iStockphoto as strong as it is. Anyone can copy the iStockphoto model, but it would be difficult to create a community like iStockphoto today. The real secret at iStockphoto is the openness and connection between photographers and designers. iStockphoto is tangibly nothing but systematic code and formulation of ideas. The true movement is the interaction that the web site facilitated. Numerous private deals happen through the website. People get hired for all sorts of interesting projects. Other websites haven’t reached the ease of communication within the community.
In hindsight, could you have reached profitability earlier, and if so, what would you have done differently?
I don’t think I could have reached profitability earlier. We needed to create the market we’re currently serving. There are many other websites that have borrowed our model – I’m proud to say it didn’t exist before we launched in April 2000.
How do you grow your business?
During the first few years, it was like a snowball rolling downhill. It grew with it’s own momentum. Each member was an evangelist. It was in their best interest to augment/build their own business with iStockphoto. The website was designed to be viral and it has spread like a disease, a nice disease…a nice disease. In 2003 we had our first marketing budget and we’ve been partnering with great organizations like the National Association of Photoshop Users (NAPP). It’s been a great relationship and it’s much more effective than just buying media. In 2004 our marketing budget has quadrupled and we’re leaning heavily on our new marketing manager, Kelly Thompson, to accelerate the momentum we’ve provoked.
How do you make sure your business is continuously improving, pushing the envelope, meeting customer needs and putting the hurt on competition?
If iStockphoto.com were a crown, we would hire the shiniest jewel of talent for each position. Pedigree is of no concern. Most of my team is made up of people I’ve worked with: teachers, ex-bosses – generally anybody who taught me anything valuable. For example, I used to work with Aaron Springer (http://www.istockphoto.com/jester) at a pre-press house. He taught me about developing film, making color keys and printing plates. That was in 1995. Now he’s one of our best programmers. I don’t think he has any training – I didn’t ask. He’s been a spectacular colleague.
Other than employees, what people have made the biggest impact to your success and why?
Mentorship. I’ve had some of the best mentors in the world from a wide cross section of industries. My mentors were also friends and angel investors. I’ve relied upon their experience and networks. Currently I have about a dozen that help me on a daily basis.
Bruce Livingstone has spent his career in the graphic design/marketing and photography industries for over 10 years. The last seven years he has acted as his own entrepreneurial incubator as the ex-President and now CEO of iStockphoto.com, iStockpro.com, Webcorelabs.com and Evolvs.com. In the past decade he worked for Image Club Graphics, Aldus Corp., Adobe Inc. and a handful of advertising agencies and pre-press facilities. Bruce founded his first media company, Frequency Labs Inc. in 1997 (now Evolvs Media Inc.). He spends most of his days in the marketing, editorial and application development departments.
The Story of iStockphoto.com: iStockphoto.com was founded in May 2000, but the groundwork was laid in 1999 with Frquency Labs Inc., my first attempt at launching a stock photography publishing company. As a boutique studio, Frequency Labs produced and retailed 4 CD-Roms, (which can still be found in the iStockphoto.com web store). I decided to give away all 1600 or so images from the CD-Roms on a web site. As an independent stock photographer I wanted to re-invent the traditional model of stock photography sales. I worked off some ideas I had when I worked at Image Club Graphics from 1994-1996. The commerce model was loosely based on an arcade, micropayments with mechanisms for contribution and accessibility. On May 10, 2000, iStockphoto was born. Today, iStockphoto is the world’s fastest growing collection of original, independent, royalty-free images in the world.