How to Build a Thriving Community of Designers: Interview with Shawn Rubel of Vecteezy

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One of the incredible things about being a designer is the fantastic online community and all the resources and inspiration available. There are community-oriented sites for showcasing your portfolio, getting feedback from others, finding jobs, downloading resources, learning through tutorials and courses, and more.

For entrepreneurs, the design community also offers plenty of potential to those who provide something of value. One of our favorite sites in the design community is Vecteezy. For more than a decade, Vecteezy has been known as a go-to resource for free and affordable vector graphics. 

Over the past few years, Vecteezy has experienced massive growth (they were included in the 2021 edition of the Inc 5000). While Vecteezy is still the leading source for vectors, they’ve also branched out by adding millions of stock photos and videos. Today, Vecteezy competes with a growing number of free photo websites and major stock marketplaces.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Vecteezy’s founder and CEO Shawn Rubel about how he’s grown the site into what it is today.

Tell us about your background and your motivation for launching Vecteezy.

I’m originally from Canada and graduated from Brock University in Ontario with a BA in Visual Arts (2004). After university, I moved from Ontario to Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2007 for a job in internet marketing. 

As a designer, I was always looking for free resources to use in my work. It was challenging because the best Photoshop brushes, vectors, and other resources were spread out on a bunch of different websites with no easy or convenient way to find them all. 

So a few months after moving to Kentucky, I decided to launch my first site, Brusheezy. I contacted people who were giving away free Photoshop brushes on their own sites and asked for permission to share the brushes at Brusheezy. Most people gave me permission and were happy to get more exposure for their work. The site took off really quickly, and just a few months after launching, I was getting thousands of visitors every day. 

Since people loved Brusheezy so much, I decided to launch Vecteezy to consolidate the best free vectors all in one place. Just like Brusheezy, Vecteezy took off quickly. Over the next few years, Vecteezy continued to grow much faster than Brusheezy, so it became my business’s primary focus. 

Initially, my motivation for starting the sites was to provide a resource that made life easier. As a designer and marketer, I always struggled to find high-quality free resources, and I figured other designers faced the same problem. Early on, I didn’t focus on how I would make money with the sites or grow a big business. Instead, I was just trying to solve a problem. However, once the traffic grew, I was able to monetize the sites with ads and affiliate programs. 

In 2009, about two years after launching my first site, I was able to leave my full-time job to focus on my sites.

Shawn Rubel
Shawn Rubel

What were some of the keys to growing the site so quickly right from the start?

The sites grew almost immediately thanks to people spreading the word. I got a lot of traffic from social media sites that were popular at the time, like Digg, Delicious, and StumbleUpon. That was a result of people who liked the sites sharing them with other people.

Visitors loved Vecteezy and Brusheezy because they could save a lot of time and money thanks to the quality resources. The sites solved a problem that many designers were facing, and as a result, they embraced the sites. 

If people love a website, app, product, or resource, they’re likely to tell others about it. That’s exactly what happened with Vecteezy and Brusheezy. Aside from social media, thousands of bloggers were linking to the sites, which led to a lot of referral traffic and boosted search engine rankings.

So almost immediately, there was a strong community of users developing. And since new content was added regularly, people kept coming back.

Tell us about the significant developments that took Vecteezy from a fast-growing new site to what it is today.

One of the most significant changes was building a team around me. Instead of running the site on my own with the help of a few freelancers, Vecteezy is now run by a team of 70 people. I was hesitant to hire my first employee, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. As our team has grown, the diverse skill sets and backgrounds have been invaluable.

Another major change was adding Pro content. Of course, we still offer millions of free resources at Vecteezy, with new additions daily. But we also provide a selection of resources available through a Pro subscription or purchased download credits. 

A few years ago, we opened up a contributor program that allows designers and creatives to make money on our platform. All the new content being added to our site now comes from thousands of talented contributors worldwide. Contributors earn money whenever their content is downloaded (even free downloads). Thanks to the contributor program, we’ve exponentially increased the amount of content on our site.

And last year, we expanded by launching stock photos and stock videos, in addition to vectors. Pro subscribers now get unlimited downloads of vectors, photos, and videos.

Vecteezy

Why did you choose to add stock photos and videos to the site after more than a decade of focusing only on vectors?

Ultimately, we want to make Vecteezy as useful as possible for visitors and customers. The designers who come to our site for vectors also need other stock resources — it’s actually been a common user request — so it was a logical move for us. Now, we’re able to better serve our users and offer the best value possible.

Just like the vectors on our site, some photos and videos can be downloaded for free, and others require a Pro subscription or download credits. 

How would you describe Vecteezy’s role within the design community?

We aim to be the go-to source for high-quality free and affordable creative content. We know many designers, freelancers, marketers, hobbyists, and bloggers need outstanding vector illustrations, stock photos, and stock videos, but they also have budget limitations. At Vecteezy, we want to provide the community with the best value, and I think we’re doing that right now.

Another aspect of our role is to inspire creativity. We don’t want to simply provide resources. We also want to inspire our users and help them to create their best work. To accomplish this, we’ve been producing content for Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and our blog.

Our contributor program also serves a separate role within the community. We have thousands of contributors earning income through Vecteezy, and it’s the primary source of income for some. This is one of our favorite parts of the business. It’s fantastic to see creative people get paid to do what they love.

Vecteezy is one of the only sites that pays designers/photographers for free downloads. Can you tell us more about your contributor program?

As you know, there are a lot of free stock photography sites out there. We also offer free photos at Vecteezy (as well as vectors and videos), but we take a different approach. Instead of only offering contributors exposure and the chance to give back to the community, we also pay them when their free resources are downloaded. 

Contributors are able to submit resources to be available as free downloads, or to be licensed as Pro content. We share the revenue from Pro subscriptions and Pro download credits with contributors using a subscriber share model. How much a contributor earns for a Pro or free resource depends on a number of factors: keyword quality, seasonal demand, talent, etc.

We’re actively looking for new contributors, so if people in your audience are interested in making some extra money, we encourage them to apply.

How have you managed to stand out in such a competitive industry?

Vecteezy stands out from other stock marketplaces in a few key ways:

  • Value – A Pro subscription is currently $9 per month (billed annually), and subscribers can download an unlimited number of vectors, photos, and videos. At most competing stock marketplaces, $9 doesn’t go very far. However, having unlimited access to millions of creative resources for that price is an outstanding value for anyone who needs creative content.
  • Free content – Aside from the Pro resources, we also have a massive collection of free resources. The free content has always been a critical part of Vecteezy, and we don’t have any plans to change that. 
  • Quality – Although value and affordability are essential to us, we don’t want to overlook the need for quality. Every resource submitted to our site, including free resources, is manually reviewed by a team member. Resources that don’t meet our standards will not be added to the site. So as a user, you can be assured that you’re finding the highest quality resources at Vecteezy and not browsing through a lot of low-quality content to find what you need.

What plans do you have for the future of Vecteezy?

Right now, we’re working on some major changes to the Vecteezy Editor, which is our online design software. The new Editor will be extremely useful and practical.

We also have some aggressive goals related to the amount of content we want to add to our site. The more high-quality content we have, the better Vecteezy will be for our users.

Of course, we’re also considering additional content types that might be a good fit for our site and our users. 

Final Thoughts

Thank you Shawn for taking the time to answer these questions and share more about how you grew Vecteezy into an Inc 5000 company. 

For readers, I hope Shawn’s story has been inspiring. It’s awesome to see a designer create and grow a successful business that’s an integral part of the design community. If you’re looking to start your own business, hopefully, there are some valuable bits of wisdom you can take from the details that Shawn shared.