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The topics of financial independence and early retirement get a lot of attention in the personal finance community, and it’s easy to understand why. But you don’t have to retire early to enjoy life or live on your own terms.
Running a business is undoubtedly a lot of work, but it can also be enjoyable and rewarding. People of all ages and with any net worth can escape frustrating careers by building their own business based on something they love. The countdown to retirement fades into the background when work is more fun and rewarding.
And if you happen to make a lot of money running that business, even better.
Shawn Rubel is a designer who started a side hustle by launching his own website just a few years after graduating from college with a BA in Visual Arts. About two years later, he left his job to focus on his business full-time. For the past 14 years, Shawn has been able to work on projects he loves.
While there are plenty of inspiring side hustle success stories out there, Shawn’s is an exceptional case. Not only has he been able to run his business for more than a decade, but he’s also been highly successful. His website Vecteezy is a creative marketplace that provides stock images and videos, including a growing selection of free photos. The site brings in eight figures per year in revenue and was recently named as one the fastest-growing private businesses with inclusion on the Inc. 5000 list.
It’s helpful to look at Shawn’s story and the keys that have allowed him to build a massively profitable business that began as a side hustle. Others who are looking to build a business may find success by following the same principles.
Shawn’s side hustle began in 2007 when he launched Brusheezy.com. As a graphic designer, he often looked for resources like Photoshop brushes to use in his work. Many brushes were available online, but they were scattered throughout the internet, with no fast or convenient way to find them. So Shawn started Brusheezy as a passion project to consolidate the best free Photoshop brushes in one place.
When the site was brand new, Shawn reached out to designers and bloggers giving away brushes on their own sites, and asked for permission to share them at Brusheezy. Many people said “yes”, and Brusheezy quickly became the best collection of free brushes.
At first, Shawn didn’t have high expectations or lofty goals. However, designers loved the site and it was clear he was onto something.
Rapid Growth and Going Full-Time
Within just a few short months, Brusheezy was attracting thousands of visitors every day. Based on the immediate success, Shawn launched another site, Vecteezy.com, using the same concept. While Brusheezy provided a collection of free Photoshop brushes, Vecteezy focused on free vector graphics (like icons, illustrations, patterns, etc.). Following the same approach, Vecteezy quickly became a favorite site of many designers as well.
In 2009, about two years after launching his first site, Shawn was able to leave his full-time job and focus on his growing business. At the time, his sites were making money from advertising and affiliate marketing. All of the content was free for visitors to download.
Speaking about the growth of his sites, Shawn said, “People were excited to tell their friends and colleagues about my sites and the free resources available. We got a lot of traffic from social media early on, and people just kept coming back.”
Although Brusheezy was the first site Shawn launched, Vecteezy wound up becoming the more popular of the two and ultimately became the focal point of the business.
The Freemium Business Model
In 2010, Shawn added premium content to Vecteezy for the first time. The new premium content was available through a subscription model. All the original content remained free, but users could upgrade to a Pro account if they wanted access to the additional images and graphics.
Shawn hired several freelance designers to constantly create new resources for paying subscribers. With some patience and persistence, the Pro subscriptions led to significant growth in revenue.
Today, Vecteezy still operates using the freemium model. There are millions of free resources on the site that attract a large audience, and some of those users choose to upgrade for the additional content.
For several years, Shawn ran his business mostly on his own. He hired freelance designers to create resources and freelance developers when coding changes were needed, but he had no employees.
Eventually, Shawn ran into some problems that were magnified by having several different freelancers working on the site’s code. “The freelancers I hired had no vested interest in my business”, Shawn said. “They were looking to do their job, get paid, and move on. The site’s core wasn’t solid because several developers had worked on it at different times, and they were just patching the code to do what they needed for the moment, not concerned with long-term stability. After having a lot of issues, I eventually hired my first employee. It was one of the most important moves I made because now I had someone responsible for the development and making decisions based on long-term sustainability.”
Today, Shawn is quick to point out that hiring a talented team has been a significant factor in the growth of the business. Vecteezy now relies on a team of 70 people. Some work from the company’s home office in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but most work remotely.
Another significant factor in scaling up is that Shawn no longer hires freelancers to create the Pro resources. Instead, Vecteezy’s contributor program allows creatives to sell stock photos and other resources (contributors are also paid for free downloads).
How Did He Do It?
Shawn’s story of going from side hustle to eight figures per year in revenue is certainly inspiring, but let’s highlight the factors that led to success. If you’re looking to build your own online business, these principles may be helpful to you as well.
Initially, all the content on Shawn’s sites was available for free. It’s no secret that people love free stuff, especially when it’s genuinely helpful. Visitors are far more likely to tell their friends about a website or share a link on their blog or through social media if the product or service is free.
Offering free resources can be a fantastic way to attract links to a site and get more exposure. Visitors are also more likely to return because they’ll come back to see what else has been added. Vecteezy attracted hundreds of thousands of links and millions of visitors because of the free resources.
Although Vecteezy now offers Pro content, free content is still added daily. So users who don’t want to pay for the Pro content can still find plenty of outstanding vectors, photos, and videos on the site.
2. Solve a Problem
Shawn’s motivation for starting Brusheezy and Vecteezy began with his own frustration trying to find quality free resources. Of course, he wasn’t the only designer facing this challenge. His sites provided a solution to a common problem for designers.
Today, Vecteezy still solves the same problem. Instead of doing it only with free content, they also offer professional-quality resources at far more affordable prices than most stock marketplaces. As a result, millions of designers turn to Vecteezy each month because they know they’ll find high-quality resources that meet their needs.
3. Understand the Audience
Shawn was a graphic designer before he was an entrepreneur. He’s always understood the needs of designers and the challenges they face in their work. That experience as a designer has helped Shawn relate to his audience in a way that not all entrepreneurs can.
4. Irresistible Offer
For the first few years, all the content at Vecteezy was free. Visiting the site was a no-brainer for graphic designers since it provided a fantastic collection and everything was free. But even with the Pro content, Vecteezy has continued to provide an irresistible offer for those who need high-quality creative content.
Today, visitors can purchase credits for downloads at Vecteezy or buy a subscription that provides unlimited downloads. The Pro subscription is by far the best value for anyone who uses more than the occasional vector, photo, or video.
The price of a Vecteezy Pro subscription is about the same as the cost of buying one or two images per month at some of the leading stock photo websites. It’s an excellent value for designers, freelancers, marketers, and bloggers who consistently need images or videos.
Although Vecteezy competes with major stock photo websites and other creative marketplaces, it’s not a replica of any competitor. Instead, Vecteezy manages to stand out in a few different ways:
- Unlimited downloads. Many stock marketplaces offer subscriptions, but the plans typically limit the number of resources you can download, and the prices get very high. Vecteezy stands out by providing unlimited downloads at an affordable price.
- The top resource for vectors. For more than a decade, Vecteezy offered only vectors and no other types of resources. As a result, their collection of icons, illustrations, backgrounds, patterns, and other vectors is better than what you’ll find at other stock marketplaces.
- Freebies that are safe to use. Most free photo websites allow contributors to upload images without signed model releases. The photographer permits you to use the photo, but how do you know that the model has approved? Vecteezy requires contributors to submit signed model and property releases, even for free resources.
6. Built a Team
As Shawn has pointed out, hiring his first employee was a major turning point for the business. If you want to maximize the growth of your own business, building a team with diverse skill sets is essential.
Side hustles are not only ideal for making extra spending money. They can also grow into significant businesses that wind up becoming something much bigger. Reading about success stories is inspiring if you’re considering a side hustle of your own. I hope Shawn Rubel’s story about growing Vecteezy has shown you some specific principles to follow if you want to build your own online business.