Silhouette of a skateboarder. (Isaiah & Taylor Photography / Stocksy)
Like so many other industries involved in the contemporary "gig economy," stock photography has become, for many freelance photographers, a race to the bottom. As commercial platforms encourage competition among contributors to offset overhead costs, photographers must choose between an unsustainable wage and no wage at all—and clients pay a price in reduced access to high-quality materials.
Stocksy aims to change all that. Incorporated as a cooperative, the online stock photography platform offers a carefully curated collection of works from its approximately 900 artist-members. So far, the model is working: the company more than doubled its sales from $3.5 million USD in 2014 to $7.9 million in 2015. Much of that money went back to the artists, who receive 50 percent royalties on regular sales. In addition, Stocksy paid out dividends of $200,000 USD to members-owners who sold photos during 2015.
We recently spoke by phone to Stocksy CEO and Co-founder Brianna Wettlaufer and Vice President of Product Nuno Silva about the cooperative's early success. They talked about why Stocksy was founded as a cooperative, the growing pains associated with the transition from startup to industry leader, and the promise "platform cooperativism" holds for members and clients alike.
Why did you start Stocksy? And why, more specifically, did you found the company as a cooperative?
Brianna Wettlaufer: I've been in the stock industry for over ten years. I was one of the founding members of iStockphoto, which later sold to Getty Images. Having [seen] a lot of the things that made up the integrity and strength of the community get broken down with the bigger focus on profit margins—it was really disheartening.
I was out of the stock world for five to seven years. I didn't think I would be able to go back, because the experience was so painful. But having stayed in contact with a lot of people and talking about how dire a lot of things in the industry were—in the ways photographers were being treated, and how their royalties kept getting scraped back, [how] business decisions were never made in a transparent way—we finally, the group of us, realized we could do this again, and we could approach it in a way that puts the power back into the photographers' hands.
Knowing we could do it as a co-op was something we came to fairly quickly. I think Canadians are a bit more familiar with the model. It's different from the feel-goodness of a non-profit. With a co-op, you're obligated to have the voices of the people represented—they have to vote on how the business performs. Having all those checks and balances, we knew we could do something that was trustworthy to the people with whom we'd be co-owners.
Say more about the "dire" state of stock photography as you experienced it.
Nuno Silva: As Brianna mentioned, the royalties kept getting smaller and smaller for photographers. When you're dealing with agencies that are basically being run by investment bankers or shareholders far removed from the community, the photographers come second, if not third [after] profit margins and revenue projections. So, as a photographer, you saw your livelihood becoming more and more difficult, every year.
BW: Yes. [The company] kept trying to segment the way payment structures worked on the [stock photo] site, in a way that was really confusing not just for the clients, in terms of how much they were spending, but also for the photographers and how much they were earning.
[When] subscription models came onto the scene, the royalty structures literally turned into pennies in payouts. It's really hard not to let that affect the value of what you're doing
NS: Right. Which also affected the quality of the product. As photographers saw that they needed to produce volume over quality, the overall product suffered.
Stocksy CEO/Co-Founder Brianna Wettlaufer. (Courtesy Stocksy)
You mentioned having more of a culture of cooperatives in Canada. Did anything in particular about the Canadian legal system prove useful when you were incorporating?
BW: Yes. When we started Stocksy, we were living in Los Angeles. So we first looked into American co-ops. [The United States does have a history of agricultural cooperatives], but Canada had much richer documentation. Coming in as a tech company that's going to be owned by a virtual membership around the world, we couldn't really find a way to make that work with what we found in the States, because there's just a lot of dated language, that creates more hoops.
In Canada, we've worked extremely closely with the British Columbia Co-operative Association—in how we modernize what's happening, and how we go about conducting business. That means taking a lot of the existing documentation around co-ops, and taking out all the paper-language. All of our [meetings] are virtual events. Voting is virtual; it's not by hand or by a mail ballot. [The BCCA has] been incredibly flexible and eager to better meet the growing tech industry, which is seeming to be a really amazing fit for the co-op structure.
You mentioned Mountain Equipment Co-op in an email exchange prior to this interview. To what extent did you use that company as a model for Stocksy?
BW: They're a completely different structure; they're an open membership, where anybody can become a member. Whereas ours is a closed membership; we have a 1,000-seat cap. And [membership is limited to] the workers who are providing our product—the artists.
In [MEC’s] case, they have a much broader audience who may not be as interested in how they go about meeting business goals. They [provide] extensive documentation to their membership base. And that's really where we took some cues from them: their amazing level of transparency.
We set the bar high with our 900 members, who are deeply invested in how we conduct all of our business. It's a matter of providing documentation, but also having them closely involved in day to day projects.
Tell me more about the 1,000-person cap on membership.
BW: There is, yes. We're at 900 photographers, right now.
We have some parameters in place. Of those 1,000 people, we want them all to be bringing something to the table.
Do you have a policy in place to ensure that all of your members are active members?
BW: Yes, it's a year cap. If you're completely MIA—not uploading, not participating in the forums—the first thing we do is reach out. We want everybody to succeed. But when we hit that 1,000-person cap, we want to be able to make space for people who're going to be strong contributors, or strongly involved.
NS: It's an ongoing process for us, to review the membership and work with our members. The process is collaborative with our contributors; it's not a guillotine sort of thing. We've been very fortunate in that we don't lose many members. It's just making sure lines of communication are consistently being renewed.
We did a [membership] review recently. [Much of it] was just reaching out and understanding what's going on [with our members]. A lot of our contributors have really stepped up.
Why 1,000 members?
NS: It was more manageable. Scaleable, too. Initially it was 500; then we expanded it to 1,000. We wanted to start smaller and then go bigger.
BW: I think it helped us grow sustainably. A lot of the other agencies have upwards of a million contributors, and at that point everybody's uploading the same thing shot in 10 different ways, and people are fighting over that one sale because the profit is so dispersed. We wanted to keep the numbers low enough that people's portfolios could sustainably grow, and their income could similarly grow.
NS: And also, we can have a very close and intimate relationship with each and every member. We're very hands-on with every single one of our members, and we want to make sure the communication is consistent and constant. We know every member by name; they know us. It's a very personal relationship.
Stocksy VP of Product Nuno Silva. (Courtesy Stocksy)
Would you consider expanding the contributor community if you had more support staff, and the business to sustain a higher volume?
BW: [That's] a sensitive topic with our members. It's come up in the resolution process. It's also an extremely complicated conversation. When you stagnate the growth of the membership, that also has an effect on how the collection is growing—on its originality. We want to always be evolving, and showing the client that each time they come back, there are fresh ideas to look at.
Once we've hit 1,000 people, with really strong memberships, I think growth is a conversation we'll have with our members, and ultimately get them to vote on whether they're comfortable expanding.
How do photographers become Stocksy members?
BW: So far, everyone has joined up organically. We have an open application process half of the year, from June until the end of December. On average, over the last three years, we've gotten about 5,000 applications each year. That is why we close it down for six months—to sift through all the applications.
Who evaluates the applications? Do existing contributors have any say in the process?
BW: Our editors are closely involved in reviewing the people that apply. In our first year it was anyone that had artistic merit and the same sort of visual goal that we were after. This last year, we've been looking for people who are going to grow what's in the collection.
That's an extension of the concerns of our members. If someone's shooting particular content in a particular style, and then we bring in someone who's doing the same thing, that's no longer going to be a collaborative relationship—it's going to get very competitive. So right now the focus is on finding people who expand the creative vision in some new way that doesn't encroach on what's already there.
Tell me more about your editorial staff.
BW: We've got a really tight team of five. It's run by one lead editor, who works really closely with me in maintaining the creative vision of the collection.
We're all around the world—we've got a couple in the States, the Netherlands, Germany. They're all in a Slack channel with the rest of our staff, every day. And they all work consistent hours.
None of them are working in their own little vacuum where they're making decisions about what comes into the collection. There's a consistent vision maintained by keeping close communication within the team. And then on top of that, they review at the end of the week, going back through–collaboratively—all the images that were declined, just to make sure that we didn't miss any gems or make any bad calls.
Everyone we've hired as an editor has come from our community. We find that works well for us in two ways. You're bringing people in who are already on board with the vision [and] the co-op structure, as well as having an extensive background in photography, and already being close members of the community. So when they come in to start working in more of a mentorship role, they already have those established relationships with people. And when we can hire people from our community, it's an opportunity to put more money back into our members, and allow them to keep working in the photography field. It's worked amazingly for us, so far.
How many classes of shareholders does Stocksy have?
BW: There's Class A, who are our founders, as well as more senior advisors. Class B would be staff. Class C [are our] photographers.
What rights and responsibilities do the various classes have?
BW: That's still growing. The responsibilities of the Class A stakeholders includes the financial responsibilities of the co-op; managing the initial investment; the more high-level partnership management; and high-level decision-making.
The Class Bs are a recent evolution. Originally that was going to be a separate class of advisers. But [over this last year it became] clear that the people running the co-op are just as invested as our photographer-members. They needed a place and a voice for themselves, where they could be empowered and be part of how the business is being driven.
Class C we aim to have be as transparent as possible. Any decisions that affect the way business is conducted, or profit-sharing, or change in direction of vision—those we pose through our resolution process.
For example, we originally paid out 100 percent of all our extended licenses. [These licenses created] the most amount of work for us—it's very hands-on. It involves legal, finance, the client-relations person.
We realized that probably wasn't the best choice, and that we needed to have a big heart to heart with our members, explaining that in order for us to appropriately invest back into the co-op, we needed to take 25 percent, and could only pay out 75 percent to them.
[We told our] financial experts and co-op facilitators that we were going to have to have this conversation with our members. And they were like, "You're insane. You can't just do that. They're never going to support it." But we told them we were going to be really honest: show our members all the numbers, show what we need for the staff, and allow them to make the most educated choice possible.
We had an almost unanimous vote from our members to help us do this, and to put that money back into the company. There were no more than four people against the change, and 400 [people in favor of it]. It was a really proud moment—of everyone being truly committed to what was best for the company, and what was best for them.
Do you require unanimity on all resolutions?
BW: No. We need a majority vote.
NS: With a quorum participating.
BW: For the size of our membership, we tend to have fairly high participation. Around 500 of the 900 people is [typical].
Do you use technology to facilitate decision-making?
BW: Every year we've been trying to improve what the resolution process looks like. In the beginning [we used third-party software]. It was confusing, at best.
Now we've built custom tools in our back end. We have a way for people to submit a resolution. There's a voting mechanism contained in the co-op section [of the website], as well as tied to our forums, because it's really important to us to see that there's discussion, and a shared understanding on these topics, before we even consider the vote count.
NS: It was hard forcing everyone to make a decision on the spot. [Moving everything online] was really helpful to engage a much larger portion of the community that's spread all over the world, in different time zones.
Ice cream (Tatjana Ristanic / Stocksy)
What sets Stocksy apart from other stock photography marketplaces, from the client's perspective?
NS: That's a really good question. Because we are so selective in who are members are—because of the limited number of seats we have—we've taken great care to on-board photographers who are hopefully able to change the perception of what stock photography is.
Through Brianna's vision and curation, we've been able to differentiate ourselves on a product level. And being a fair organization that pays its photographers well is enticing to creatives who don't want to exploit other creatives. That's great, but the product really speaks for itself. It's through that sense of ownership and pride that we get the best out of our members.
BW: Because we're driven by photographers, and people who are empowered in how we do things, that inevitably comes through for the client. Everyone goes to the furthest level to ensure that everything the client gets is pixel-perfect.
They're approached and treated with the same sort of respect that we bring to our members, because that is just the way we do business. If a client has feedback for us, it's important to us as a co-op; it's important to us that they feel heard, and that their ideas are incorporated into how we do business, so that it's enjoyable for everyone.
When we first started, we kept the fact that we're a co-op on the down-low, because we were entering into a competitive industry and didn't know, at first, if that mattered to people. We focused more on the product. It's only in this last year that people are finding out that we're a co-op, and they're so excited. We're seeing a real shift, now that we've established ourselves as a competitor in the industry. People finding out we're a co-op—it just strengthens their loyalty with us.
Is the "platform co-op" label a good fit for Stocksy?
BW: I'm really excited at the popularity [of platform cooperativism] emerging as a term. It represents a way to shift power away from just a few people, into the hands of all of the members and all of the staff.
In terms of how Stocksy represents that: we're empowering our photographers, and working closely with them in the business and having them drive the ways they want to see the business transform and shift. We also do that with our staff. We have a more flat hierarchy. Everybody's working as a collaborative team, where they're empowered to execute projects in ways that make people accountable to each other, and they set the bar for where they're going to go with that. It's been amazing. I think the fact we're coming at it that way, we're representing the platform well.
I’d like to hear more about your experience crafting Stocksy as a co-op. You mentioned some challenges during the first year.
BW: Yes. Everybody had a lot of ideas, and everyone wanted to see them happen all at once. But we were an incredibly small team. There was also a lot of education that had to happen. It wasn't enough for someone to have an idea; there was a resolution process. We had to temper what could sometimes be a recklessness, where someone understands their ownership in the co-op as, "I have this idea, why aren't you doing it?"
We had to explain we'd love to add people's ideas to the site, but there were basic things we had to do first. And we had to learn, organically, how to be more and more transparent. So that they could feel comfortable and trust us.
You say you want to be transparent, and you say you want to represent the people, but you have to be consistent and bring that to people and earn their trust. It doesn't happen overnight. We do everything we can now to show people what we can do, and what's happening, and what they can expect next, and then include them at every possible point.
How has the situation changed as as you've scaled up?
BW: At around 750 members, we were starting to see that conversations as a whole were becoming a bit too broad. There were too many perspectives—they weren't getting that momentum.
Likewise, it was really hard to get meaningful feedback talking to 750 people at once. You either get too much feedback all at the same time, or you don't get any feedback. There's a constant pull and push.
We had been speaking with the community for a long time [about] creating committees within the membership where people can be involved in specific things, and bring meaningful representation to the community as a whole. Because I don't think there's any way for every person to do everything all at once.
This year we've launched Australian localization. Trying to be genuine in everything that we do, we didn't want to come in as stocksy.au and call it a day. We have really amazing members in Australia, and we're trying to push deeper ownership for them.
We formed a committee of—how many people is it, Nuno?
NS: I think we're at about seven.
BW: They're working with us on where we're marketing, on what the marketing looks like. We're headed over there [this month]. We've teamed up with a design conference, and we're setting up an art show [to connect] our photographers with artists and graphic designers, as well as working with them on a deeper level, so that they can build their portfolios and drive the tone of the collection, [with a] style that is distinctly Australian.
That is one of the more interesting things we're doing to maintain the intimacy that we all loved in the beginning. And that is our constant focus. Yes, we want to scale, and we want to continue to be a really competitive company in the industry, but we want to do it while maintaining that [intimacy].
What advice would you offer other would-be co-op founders?
BW: That's a tough one. I guess it would be knowing what goals you want to achieve, and knowing that you can't achieve them as a co-op overnight. You have to grow it within your own company and within your own membership culture, and know what it means to your members.
Focus on incremental improvements. As long as you stay consistent, you'll end up on the same page.
Portrait. (Rachel Bellinsky / Stocksy)