One of the perks of being in publishing is getting to chat/hang out/grab a beer with famous people, influential artists, and that local band you have a mad music-crush on. One of the downsides is realizing that most famous people are just like the rest of us: equal parts extroverted, shy, awkward and sometimes not really all that fun to hang out with.
That’s why when I sat down with Brianna Wettlaufer, CEO/ Co-Founder of Stocksy, I was so delighted to meet someone who was equal parts inspiring, approachable, honest, and downright rad. Within the first 30 seconds of our chat, I wanted to be her new best friend, hanging out in Victoria eating vegan brunch on a sunny patio.
What makes Brianna so cool? Besides rocking black blazers with leather lapels, she founded a stock photography agency that is actually a co-op. That means that every photographer has a share of the company and retains 50-75% of the profits from their images. In addition to their dedication to creative integrity, fair profit sharing and inclusivity, they also have a section completely dedicated to film photography. SWOON.
Here is a little snippet of our chat, hopefully to continue on that sunny patio sometime in the near future.
Also, see a collection from Brianna’s favourite Stocksy photographers throughout.
SAD MAG: What’s your elevator pitch when you’re out at a cocktail bar and someone saunters up and asks the dreaded question, “Sooooo, what do you do?”
Brianna Wettlaufer: Oh no! (laughs) I’m unfortunately not one of those CEOs whose good at this sort of thing. Stocksy is an artist-owned cooperative and we specialize in hand-selected content that is 100% exclusive to our collection, so you can’t find it anywhere else. We pay 50-75% of every sale to our artists. Our goal is always to get as much money back to the creators as quickly as we can. This year, we were even able to pay out our first dividends to our artists [of $200,000].
SM: Why did you decide to go with the co-op model?
BW: We got to that conclusion fairly quickly. All of the co-founders came from previous stock agencies so we had been through the trenches and saw the things we really didn’t want to do. We realized we could do it differently.
Our goal was to give the ownership and the power back to the artists who had created the work. We were watching all these other agencies, stripping back photographers’ royalties, and not having a say in the decision making. So we knew with the co-op model, we had to be accountable to them, and we gave them that voting power so they would always have a seat at the table in our business decision making.
We all worked in the stock industry but all of us we're photographers as well, so it was really important to us to have this fair and democratic community.
SM: Absolutely. And actually I cruised some of your photographs on the Stocksy site as well--you’re clearly still a photographer. Can you tell us a bit about how you started out?
BW: I started out in graphic design, but if I go way back, before 2000, I was actually a self-taught photographer. It was right when DSLRs and point and shoot cameras just hit the scene. I was definitely one of those people who was completely mystified by the whole situation.
Working in design, I obsessively went through magazines and had already become very intrigued by stock photography and what is was it was capable of. I would hang out on stock photography sites and just analyze the photos that were there.
It was all about the excitement of DSLRs and what we could teach each other in the community--we were all learning how to do it together. So my background in photography is incredibly organic and has continued to evolve over the past 5-10 years.
SM: What are some of your favourite magazines?
BW: I think my favourite one is Frankie and Australia in general. SAD I obviously love as well, but honestly I don’t get to look at print as often as I would like to anymore. We get magazines delivered to Stocksy and our mantra is to only advertise with magazines who we actually would want to read ourselves.
Australia seems to have a really interesting trend in magazines right now where they’re not so targeted and segmented. Frankie and Smith Journal--Smith Journal is probably my most favourite--but it’s lifestyle and design. It’s every aspect of people’s personalities in this singular magazine which I really haven’t found anywhere else.
SM: Cool, I’m going to check them out. You mentioned in your cocktail/elevator pitch that all of the images are ‘hand-selected’. Is that something you are quite involved with?
BW: My background has been running the editor teams in the online community to bring in content. It’s always been something I’ve been crazy involved in. I was completely hands-on in the selection process of all of the photographers. I’m still really closely working with those teams even though I’m not actually in the queue.
Now I participate with weekly check-ins where we re-review everything we weren’t able to accept and do a gut check. We want to make sure that we weren’t biased or just in a bad mood (laughs). Was I just really off that day?? (laughs)
From the beginning I’ve been the sole curator on the site. So everything that’s coming through the curation feed on our homepage is me. It’s one of my favourite parts of the day: every morning going through the new acceptances and picking out the best ones.
SM: What’s it like being out in Victoria? Why Victoria?
BW: I was originally born here, so I’m a Canadian at heart. When Stocksy first got started we were living in Los Angeles and we were looking at the co-op models and felt that the Canadian bylaws were better written to do what we wanted to do.
Having lived in Victoria and travelled around Canada--spending time in Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto--and they’re all wonderful, but for me Victoria has the best lifestyle of anywhere I’ve ever been. It has all the greatness of a big city: amazing restaurants and beautiful downtown, but without the stress and bullshit of a big city. (laughs)
SM: How much has Stocksy grown since you started?
BW: Our first year we were 4 people huddled around a picnic table in the middle of the room. We had a dev, a sys admin, Bruce and myself. I’d say that we didn’t really have a culture in our first year. We were just so small and so stressed out. We were heads down, you know!
It’s funny because at other start-ups and tech companies there’s a ping pong table and everyone’s having a blast. For us, it was make or break times.
So now we’ve moved through 3 offices and now we’re 20 people and we have a big open floor space where everyone can collaborate together. Now those 20 people are so involved in the product and we’ve carved out our Class B shareholders so our staff are also shareholders for the co-op.
SM: Ahhh, that’s the best!
BW: It’s definitely a big family here now.
SM: Something that I noticed about the photos on Stocksy was that they didn’t feel like your typical stock agency photos. They don’t look staged and there’s a definite sense of realness to them. Is that something that’s intentional? How do you go about finding those images?
When we first launched, it was a much different landscape in the industry. That was a big motivator actually--having worked in the industry and suddenly Pinterest happened and Instagram happened and there was so much content happening everywhere. And then you go to a stock site and it’s like, “What is this shit?” (laughs) “This doesn’t look like anything that’s happening, anywhere.”
I was really motivated by what was relevant and what was inspiring.
Lately I’ve been hearing that my taste is quite quirky. It’s that balance between the lifestyle content that is very applicable in the world of stock and this very deep love for the art world and how it affects you.
I think we’re always looking for things that inspires us and surprises us and makes us love life. There’s a lot of content on Instagram that makes us feel shitty.
“Oh look, they’re a better mom, they’re doing this better, oh they’re better at adventuring…” It’s demotivating and that’s what I’m trying to work against. I don’t want people faking lives to prove a point. That’s why we’re always looking for people that are motivating and inspiring.
SM: Can you speak a bit to the balance of diversity and alternative lifestyles in Stocksy’s imagery.
BW: This is something that we’re working on and we’re always trying to do better. Lately we’ve been seeing a nice hole being filled in the LGBTQ scene on our site. We’re seeing more gender neutrality and people being represented in ways where they are just people.
I think it’s always been one of our goals to show really interesting people. And that’s where we’re headed as we grow our community--being much more focused with the new members that we bring on that we are representing more and more diversity of different kinds of people around the world and different cultures.
SM: Tell me a bit about your current photo community--where are they from? What are they like?
BW: Actually I think our highest concentration of photographers is in Serbia. I haven’t been to Serbia, but clearly some amazing things are happening there and I need to go. There’s probably 30-40 photographers in Canada, 30-40 in Australia, there’s a lot in the States, but we really touch the majority of countries that are out there. We’re really based everywhere.
SM: How many members do you have?
BW: Right now we’re sitting at 904. I think we launched with about 500 and worked our way up. We’ve had over 10,000 applications. We want to be growing as aggressively as we can, but it’s definitely really important to us that we are scaling in a way where we’re getting to know every person that we bring on. And 900 is a lot, but we really do know all of their names and can recognize their content on the site.
We want to make sure that as our client base grows that we’re not adding members too quickly. We want each member’s income to grow at a steady rate.
SM: So let’s loop back to the beginning of the conversation. We’re at the cocktail bar, you’ve said what you do for a living and the person you’re chatting with says, “Oh really! I’m actually a photographer!” What do you normally tell folks?
BW: We open our application process once a year. Usually we open it through the summer, but we actually haven’t opened it yet because we’re trying to be more selective of who we’re bringing on. If you have amazing work, there’s no harm in sending it in. If you think you would be an amazing fit, we definitely want to hear from you.
Stocksy is the official photography sponsor for the Secrets Issue and they are pretty rad in general. When you pick up your issue at the Secrets Launch, make sure to peek in your bag for a secret gift from Stocksy.