Jeffrey Housenbold (IM ‘91) had already established a proven track record for success in customer acquisition and retention when he joined Shutterfly Inc. to become its president and chief executive officer. His move presented a new challenge, transitioning from internet giant eBay to lead a company that was an underdog in the ultracompetitive digital photo business.
“It has been a fascinating journey to be a little David competing against Walmart, Walgreen, Facebook, Apple, HP, Xerox -- lots of large companies,” Housenbold told students at the Tepper School of Business during his presentation as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series on Feb. 23.
“David beat Goliath,” Housenbold said, comparing Shutterfly, which has now risen to become an industry leader.
In the past seven years, Shutterfly has grown its revenues from $54 million to $499 million and its market valuation from $110 million to more than $1 billion. The 103-employee company has now expanded to 1,050 employees. In 2010, the Great Places to Work Institute named Shutterfly one of the top 25 mid-sized companies in America.
Known as a new media visionary, Housenbold, 42, helped forge a strong connection with Shutterfly’s consumer base. “Know your customers,” Housenbold told Tepper students. “Our prime demographic is women 30 to 40 with kids in the household under 10. That is when you take a lot of photos. People are telling their stories, passing it down generations -- their daughter scoring her first goal, her violin recital, and your parents’ wedding anniversary.”
In the world of online commerce, Housenbold said, companies have to build a bond with customers that is “inspirational and aspirational and beyond just transactional. People want to have authentic brands.”
Housenbold said Shutterfly is thriving partly because it hired the best and brightest. “I work in a valley where we compete with Facebook, Google, Yelp, Groupon, Zynga,” he said. “We became one of the best mid-sized companies to work with because we attract great people, give them resources and get out of their way.
“We hire people who want to serve the customer, even if it is at 3 a.m. That comes from within.”
Showing his trademark wit, Housenbold shared stories from the new media trenches culled from his early senior management positions. Before becoming vice president of business development and Internet marketing at eBay, he worked for Web pioneers RagingBull.com and AltaVista.
Housenbold gave this career advice to Tepper students: “All the stuff you learn in class is important, but you won’t remember it all. It all comes down to people. Try to fit in the softer skills -- organizational design, how to interview, how to hire, how to fire, how to motivate. Those things are more important than memorizing facts.”
He also told students to find a company that puts a premium on their skills. A marketing person in an engineering-driven culture, for example, might not get the recognition or resources to advance a career, he said.
He also advised students to find work they love, seek out good mentors and to ignore their weaknesses. “Turn your strengths into towering strengths,” he said.
Housenbold’s own drive to succeed came from growing up poor in Brooklyn. “Not being able to eat at night drove my hunger,” he said. He also was intent on proving the naysayers wrong, especially a high school guidance counselor who advised him to forgo college and study carpentry.
Ignoring that advice, he earned a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University. Its analytical and interdisciplinary emphasis provided the “perfect foundation” for his career. “I took liberal arts as well as economics and business,” he said. “That well-roundedness served me well.”
He also learned discipline at Carnegie Mellon and told students the demanding workload at the Tepper School would one day pay off. “You have a work ethic and stamina that will allow you to stand out from the crowd.”
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