Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Stocksy United is a stock photography multistakeholder co-operative launched in 2013. This was a return to the sector after having been part of iStock, another stock photography provider. You initially considered setting up a trust, but opted for the co-operative model instead. Could you explain the decision to set up a co-operative?
Brianna Wettlaufer: After coming back into the sector, our goal was to put power back into the hands of artists. It was about giving people the control over their careers that had been lost at companies who were bullying them, where they had no rights over how their images were being sold, and were seeing their revenues clawed back. It was about the whole question of artistic integrity, which is an offshoot of the health of the community. Our goal was to bring that back into the fold, which existed in the early days of iStock but, as it scaled and was bought by Getty Images, was lost as priorities changed.
So knowing that we wanted to do that, we looked at nonprofits and a series of other business models. But at the end of the day, the co-operative model answered all of the questions. And with the legal background to ensure that we made these things happen, it wasn’t a long period of time for us to realise that it was the solution for our organisation. I think as Canadians we are more culturally aware of the model and Canadian laws are a bit easier to adapt for an online tech company.
JGF: Your co-operative has three membership classes: founders, staff and artists. What rights do these individual classes have within a multistakeholder co-op?
BW: Class A is founders, and also our advisors. This class is a maximum of five people, and right now we have three people. Their purpose is high-level business operations. Class B is staff, capped at 20 presently, with all positions filled.
JGF: Why are they capped?
Nuno Silva: It was determined by the original by-laws. When we were deciding on how many shares to issue for each class, we had to put a number to it. So when we first started, 20 seemed like a reasonable number.
BW: Honestly, there is not much difference between the rights of each class, basically the class indicates the level at which they are giving guidance to the organisation. 90% of the dividends is awarded to Class C, and 5% goes to Class A and Class B. Currently, it is divided equally. It is pretty simple. Overall, it is pretty simple in terms of our governance.
Class A, currently, is Bruce Livingstone, a co-founder, Brent Nelson, another co-founder. Many of us have worked together as experts in our domain for a really long time. In terms of governance for the company, it is a very close collaboration. There are not many gaps or surprises, where people are having to do resolutions to correct the course that we’re on. We want to make sure everyone is being heard in the company, so everyone feels good about the decisions we’re making, having additional governance laws or different laws about participation, doesn’t make any sense as it just creates more bureaucracy, which we are working really hard to avoid as we scale.
JGF: Multistakeholder models are becoming more popular, but more stakeholders means more governance costs, potential delays, and difficulties. How do you manage stakeholder participation so that it is both meaningful and also allows you to remain competitive?
BW: It has definitely been a process, and we’re still trying to find the right balance. We take the ethos of being a co-operative very seriously—empowering everyone from the inside out and ensuring that we’re being transparent and collaborative. But when you take that to too much of an extreme, not only is not functional, it is not enjoyable for the people in the organisation. We’ve found that it is one thing to empower people in what they’re doing, and another thing to expect everyone to operate at an executive level and carry around the stress that comes with that position—to be expected to come up with ideas and solutions, when it is not what they are particularly interested in doing.
There is nothing wrong with people focusing on their jobs, or particular areas. So our goal is that those within the organisation can provide enough research and information to justify the decisions we make for the business, so we’re transparent as possible, identifying why and what we’re doing, and the reasons for the solutions we propose.
So moving forward that’s the platform we want, constantly asking the membership if there is anything we missed, then integrating their feedback. Our priority is maintaining an open conversation, but not so democratic that it is not functional across the different skillsets of how we lead the company, or being blocked by a vote-by-committee approach We keep everyone involved, and by doing that, if there is a difference of opinion, it builds this constant trust between those involved. As we scale, we’re trying to figure out how to make these conversations more meaningful again, trying to segment the groups we’re engaging, the process of how we bring out new features on our website, and how we bring people into the testing process to support its refinement and adaptation.
NS: One advantage of having artists as co-owners means we can be really transparent. We don’t have to hide information from our members, we can release financial data, we can talk about confidential contract negotiations, we can get them involved from very early stages, open the books to them so they can have educated and informed responses. Whereas, if were a private company we would be much more guarded about the information we share with the artists. Thankfully we don’t have to do this.
JGF: A private company’s executives have the right to sell the company. Within your co-op, what control and rights does Class C have over a possible future sale?
BW: For us to move forward with a sale, it would have to go through a resolution process and be agreed on by the members. Full Stop.
You spoke about your background in the private sector. How much has it informed and enabled the business development of your co-op?
BW: We are really lucky with the team that started Stocksy, bringing around 15 years experience in specialised areas. We had the developer who originally built iStock, we have marketing experience, and business development. All of us share the experience of knowing how to grow companies in the private sector into profitable companies, but all of us want to do that with about being horrible, or evil, and selling people out. I think that’s a big reason why we've been able to get traction so far, is that experience, but using it to support people.
JGF: You’ve said that being a co-op is a secondary, if not tertiary, reason why photographers apply to become members of Stocksy. This obviously means that Stocksy has developed a financially rewarding business model. But beyond better remuneration, what other advantages are there to being a member of the co-op for your photographers?
BW: I think as a whole, people want to work with companies that they can believe in, and feel good about working with. So that’s being able to trust the company we’re working with, its having access to ownership and opportunities for collaboration, knowing how the business runs. For artists it is knowing that they will also be treated as people, as individuals, that is really important. Second to that, the health of our community, and the inspiration and mentorship that follows from it. It is that we are always looking to create the best work we possibly can, which can sometimes be demotivating: ‘I can’t hit this bar, it is too high’, but when you hit it, you are really happy and you are doing it with a group of people who are likeminded and wanting to do great things. Basically, all the healthy things you look for in a career.
JGF: Do you think the quality of the community within the co-operative has enhanced the business?
BW: Definitely. I’ve been working with companies for the last 15 years where the underpinning of the product is the community. But 15 years ago, as Friendster and Facebook were just getting traction, there wasn’t value in communities, there was value in address books. But the approach or attitude towards communities was that they were just a lot to manage, an annoyance almost.
I came out of the community to work at iStock, so I’ve been on the other side. If you don’t have a healthy community working with you, you don’t have a product. And you have a PR nightmare!