VIC

Stocksy

Cooperative Stock

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It’s not about having some pinnacle of knowledge or a certain skill set. It’s how you look at what you do.

__Brianna Wettlaufer

Brianna Wettlaufer is the CEO and co-founder of Stocksy, an artist-owned, multi-stakeholder tech cooperative in Victoria, BC. Brianna has worked as an executive in the stock industry for over 10 years. She mentored startups in Canada, Korea, Japan, and the US, before finally settling back in Victoria to launch Stocksy in 2012. But Brianna is not your typical CEO, just as Stocksy is not your typical stock photography agency. It’s a community producing modern and inspired imagery that challenges the tired stereotypes of stock, making waves not only by their exceptional visual standards but by modeling empowerment and democratization in the tech industry at large.

How did you start out a career that led to becoming CEO?

I’d been working in the stock photo industry for going on 15 years. I did my time in other companies when microstock was first becoming a real thing. Digital photography was changing the landscape of what was happening in the stock world, democratizing it and making it accessible. I started at iStock, which was the first of its kind. Before we started it was just the behemoths that had been there for years and years. iStock was the first one to make it accessible to a wider community and bring down the price to an affordable level so people could experiment and try new things. That was definitely disruptive. The seniors in the industry weren’t super happy about what that did to the value of the work, which I understand where they’re coming from. But it made it a much richer community, and things are always changing. You just kind of have to accept that things will move forward. Values change.

So I was employee #4 at iStock. It was a very standard started-out-in-a-garage tech start-up. I came in to write and spearhead the community aspect but as I got more involved I started doing more creative direction and curating and mentoring the community. I got my hands in a little bit of everything, which is the awesome part of working in a start-up. It allowed me to create really deep relationships with that community and watch it grow and develop over four years. But as with any other start-up, after a few years you start to think you don’t know enough or have all the resources to take it to the next level. I’m predominantly a self-taught person, so I’ve learned to solve the problem at hand rather than relying on the foundation of what you might learn in school. I love to try and fix things in a new way, but you always have that doubt, like is this the right way according to people who have done this a lot longer. But regardless we were able to write the first creative and technical standards in the microstock industry, trying to qualify what makes a good photo for this space. Four years in we sold to Getty. We thought at the time that would be the best thing to take it to the next level. I was the naive 23 year old in the room with a bunch of 40 year old men, so I only lasted a year after the sale.

After that I took a four year hiatus. I was living in LA at the time which was an incredible hub for the artists traveling through from Europe and everywhere else. They just kept asking, do you think you want to do it again? It being this stock start-up, and I could only think, “Absolutely not.” Communities are a lot of work. But the more I thought about it, it wasn’t do we want to do a stock photography start-up, but do we want to create a business that shifts the power structures in play. That was what we lost when iStock sold to Getty. We had this loss of support and power for its members. What I did want to do was start where we left off.

I’ve always been obsessed with trends in photography, but I felt like after we left, the trends just stayed put. I wasn’t seeing any progression, it just became this cliche of what stock photography was, and didn’t represent anything modern or interesting. Artists had become bored with that work. They were just doing it to make money. So not only did we want to create a better community, we wanted to create a product people could believe in and be inspired by, and bring back the mentorship we had before, where everyone was building on one another.

How you were able to cultivate that kind of community at Stocksy?

The first year was really interesting. It was easy for artists to buy into this model of co-ownership. Everyone was really excited about what that represented. The co-op model means that as a part of the community you own part of the company, you have a say, you influence change, you always have control over things that are happening. At the end of the day the company itself takes only a bare minimum to keeps the doors open and profit is all paid back out to the members. When we started, we reached out to artists we already knew in the stock industry and told them, “hey we’re

going to restart this, and we want you to join but we don’t want your [existing] work.” We wanted them to start over and do something fresh and different.

In the beginning there was a lot of fighting, just figuring out what it meant to have a voice without feeling like your voice is the only right one. So the first year it was all about agreeing to the vision. We turned down every bit of cliche work submissions, which our community thought was crazy, like this still sells! They told us, you can’t just make client behavior change like that. But we said, yes we can. We’re just going to be patient, and we can. After that year of sticking to it, clients started to get really excited about it. They started to see Stocksy as something really unique to be a part of, where people were paid fairly and they were supporting a product they could believe in. That was when a cultural shift in business began happening. All of a sudden we became something that people were talking about in the tech community, especially from the angle of treating people – and the work – with integrity. That created a fork in not just what we were doing with the platform but how we were trying to influence change in the tech industry at large, to help more businesses take on this model.

Integrity. Not really a buzzword when it comes to the stock photography business. What do you mean when say integrity in this context?

Creatively. We wanted to prove that you don’t have to accept things that aren’t inspiring or original just because it sells or fulfills an obvious need. We held out for what we thought would challenge and inspire people and make people love this product rather than just get a quick buck out of it. I think that’s a common attitude in the co-op mentality, like what is the long-term goal rather than the short term.

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How have you seen Stocksy grow and what has that been like for you?

From the very beginning I was very excited about what it meant to take a co-op model that’s normally in agriculture and transition it into a tech space. It seemed almost too obvious, actually. You have all these people who create products but aren’t benefitting from them. It seemed like a natural connection to put the power in their hands to drive the product. A lot of people underestimate the insight an artist has on what’s happening in the industry, what clients want. There’s this assumption that they’re just reactionary, but they’re incredibly business savvy.

That first year of turbulence of not knowing what it meant to be a co-op went through a “storming norming.” We were doing everything we could to understand how to do this, what it meant to speak democratically to one another. We wanted people to feel like there was a safe space to disagree and work through things together. We went through this cultural shift from polarized opinions to everyone becoming really invested in the direction of the whole company. We’ve seen an incredible pragmatism, with everyone asking how will this or that will affect the community long term. There’s always this issue of trust with a co-op community, but when you trust people and show that you’re willing to have that two-way conversation, it creates a stronger product. These people that bring their different perspectives and experience can drive the direction in a much different way than a room full of executives who think they know everything can.

Do you feel like there are a lot of eyes on you as a company?

We are the guinea pigs when it comes to forming this kind of community, so a little bit. Not in the way that we’re worried about people watching us, but we’re all very cognizant of moving forward and wanting to challenge what we’ve done, to keep pushing what can be done in a digital space and not to become stagnant.

How are you able to keep focus and make decisions?

I’m not the gatekeeper of what happens. It’s never just what I think. The challenge we face is making sure the members feel like they are co-owners, and that this isn’t just a novelty facet of being a part of this. We want to bring a level of investment that you understand you absolutely can influence what’s happening. That requires enough transparency to communicate what is happening. So once a week each executive sits down and gets on those forums directly with our members. I feel like we’ve done an adequate job of building up trust in this community and I don’t take that lightly. I don’t want to get complacent about people trusting us. I always want to be asking how we take this to the next level. There aren’t a lot of examples to look to of how you bring a membership that size to influence a single business direction. There aren’t a lot of standard tools or applications that do that. There are plenty that aggregate data, but not a lot that aggregate meaningful engagement.

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That whole idea of members have power and community first, it’s easy to say. Never did I ever want to sound authoritarian, but when you have a large community of people who are maybe upset about something, you feel the need to facilitate the conversation. In the very beginning we brought a lot of behaviors into the forums that we thought were being helpful, but they were still falling into that authoritarian tone that unintentionally came off as condescending. It takes a lot of humbling yourself to kind of shift that tone and admit that we don’t always know the best way to treat the community as equals. We’re still just learning how to live up to that co-op ideal and walk the walk. Humility is critical in doing that. If you want to be in a co-op, just go ahead and hang your ego up at the door.

At the same time, we definitely echo empowerment from the inside out. It’s easy to say that this kind of model is something you want to be a part of, but when you’re given that kind of power and responsibility and you don’t have that box to work in it can get stressful and a little overwhelming. We see people walk away because it’s just too much. Because we want everyone here to be leaders. No one is the leader of the group, it’s about bringing together everyone’s strengths. It’s not about having some pinnacle of knowledge or a certain skill set. If you’re engaged and excited and passionate, you’ll feed off of the people you work with and continue to get better. It’s how you look at what you do.

 

What would you tell people interested in using a co-op model?

I would love for people to become more familiar with the co-op model and shed some of the stereotypes that have been attributed to it in the past. Millenials being involved in tech means we’re all moving toward much more ethical business practices. Using the co-op model doesn’t mean we’re not interested in profit, it just means that the profit goes to the right people not just a select few at the top. I think in the political climate right now people want to support each other more than ever, and even though it’s still a little new and scary, the key to changing the stereotypes around co-ops is showing that it’s not just people coming together because we want to celebrate community. It’s been tried and tested.

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