Facing adversity at a young age can either build your drive or crush it. I grew up in Brooklyn, where my parents relied on welfare and food stamps to support us. Although there were times of self-pity, I quickly decided the only way to change my situation was to dream big. I was driven to take control of my destiny. I like to think my childhood helped me get to where I am today. In a strange way, I've always relied on adversity. These experiences have strengthened my fortitude and have given me the confidence to take risks. When my high-school guidance counselor told me not to waste $35 on a college application, I was all the more motivated. Part-time jobs and scholarships allowed me to attend Carnegie Mellon. Not wanting to squander a fantastic opportunity, I worked harder than most and graduated at the top of my class. That success led to a Harvard M.B.A., an Internet career with senior roles at companies including eBay and AltaVista, and now my position as CEO of Shutterfly, the leading online photo service.
My most powerful life lessons have come when things seemed impossible. In January 2005, when I joined Shutterfly, I inherited a company that had managed to survive the carnage of the dotcom crash but had a culture of "survivorship." We were not forward-looking—we hadn't even updated our home page in four years. At my first board meeting, I announced we weren't ready to go public—although I was hired with the expectation to do just that. To succeed, we had to reinvent the company, which would ultimately produce a better IPO. The legendary founder of the company, Jim Clark (who had already produced three Silicon Valley hits), was surprised, but he and the board supported me as we spent the next 18 months investing in R&D and forging relationships with new business partners like Target, Sony and Amazon.
While some CEOs might have angled to be acquired by another company at that point, I couldn't resist the idea of facing adversity head-on. We were embarking on the journey to build a trusted lifestyle brand. My early insight was that Shutterfly wasn't just an online photo service churning out four-by-six prints—we were really in the relationship business. People have an intrinsic desire for social expression: to capture and share their experiences, to relive special moments and to communicate their memories. As a result, we decided to take Shutterfly in a new direction. We would launch a next-generation personal publishing platform that would enable our customers to be more creative.
It worked. Today, Shutterfly has crystallized its mission: to "make the world a better place, by helping people share life's joy." Some potential investors laughed out loud during our IPO roadshow when I uttered that. But we believed in it and we made bold moves. First, we repositioned ourselves as a high-end brand with premium products and prices—an aggressive decision, since deep-pocketed competitors, including Hewlett-Packard and Wal-Mart, were then driving a price war. Second, we believed that advances in Internet and digital printing technologies would open up new product possibilities, and so we expanded our services. We focused on coffee-table-worthy photo books and personalized products such as greeting cards, invitations and calendars.
Our strategy required sizable investments in manufacturing and advertising. We also involved our customers, asking them to weigh in on such things as new colors and styles for holiday cards. I'm inspired by the creativity of our customers. We're making it possible for a family to transform a grandmother's recipes into a treasured cookbook, or for a sister to create a scrapbook celebrating her dying brother's life so her nephews remember the happy times.
This week we'll celebrate the first anniversary of our IPO. We're now the leader in market share. I can't help but smile when I think how Shutterfly is helping people share life's joy. As for my high-school counselor and the Wall Street skeptics, I hope they'll be smiling in coming months. Their mailboxes will be filled with Shutterfly holiday cards from family and friends—including one from me.