Bruce Livingstone, the man who can be credited with our modern concept of microstock photography, has for the past year been trying to reinvent his own wheel.

Livingstone a decade ago founded iStockphoto, one of the first online mass-stock-photo sites, which specialized in selling photographers' images in great quantities (and low prices), and incentivizing artists to post more photos, by linking pay rates to download numbers. He sold the company to Getty Images for $50 million in 2006.

Where Livingstone--along with a core group of iStockphoto's management team--went from there can provide an interesting lens into the seemingly crowded online photography industry. It also illuminates the value of recognizing and doggedly sticking to a good idea, once you recognize it.

Trying Again

After the sale to Getty, Livingstone worked at the company for a couple years. But after departing, Livingstone, along with Brianna Wettlaufer, who'd been VP of development for iStockphoto (and whom Livingstone would later marry; both are pictured at top right) decided in 2012 to get back in the game. Yes, they'd build another stock photography site. 

It might seem like a risky move, considering the industry, still only in its adolecence, is quite crowded. Competitors, in addition to Getty and iStock, include Fotolia, Veer, Fotostock, and Shutterstock, a bootstrapped upstart that in 2012 went public, along with many others.

Still, Livingstone, 43, and Wettlaufer, 32, dove in. The company, based in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is called Stocksy United, and it's in part an attempt by the pair of entrepreneurs to correct some of the conventions that evolved at iStockphoto (now called iStock), and other stock-photo sites, in terms of paying photographers who contribute images. Not only are micro-stock-photography sites notorious for not paying photographers much in general, but in 2011, Getty changed how iStock calculated its contributors' royalty rates. That's just one of several moves over the years that have angered photographers, including allowing Google to license hundreds of photographers' images for use, and ostensible reuse, far and wide, through Google Drive. 

Stocksy doesn't want to make moves like that. It refers to itself as an artist-owned digital-licensing co-op, and its business model is based on charging customers flat rates for its royalty-free photos--on average, $50 for a fairly high-resolution image. The photographer behind that image receives half that price--far more than the dollars (or pennies) other sites pay.

"We wanted to create something that gave back to artists after the events that occurred with iStockphoto," Wettlaufer, as of Tuesday the company's CEO, says. "I think the thing we are most proud of is that we're giving a 50-50 payout in terms of royalties. We want to make as many sustainable careers as possible."

A Berlin-based photographer named Michael Jay posted last month on his blog an analysis of his success on Stocksy (in the middle of a pretty gushy ode to the site), noting that while he's posted only 3 percent of his total stock work on Stocksy, "on average they pay more than double what I make from the rest of my images."

It also hopes to correcting something aesthetically egregious: The fact stock photography looks like "stock photography," and that that phrase has become synonymous with dry, staged images of improbably cheerful collar-shirted young professionals. The banner at the top of a not-quite-white-shoe law-firm's website. The smiling couple in the insurance commercial.

Visit Stocksy's site, and you'll find images that seem to my amateur eye to more closely reflect the actual diversity of nature and of humans. Under the "Lifestyle" section, you'll see people with tattoos and head-scarves; a pair of music-festival-ready teenagers, with hair like Lorde and a dreamcatcher necklace. There are same-sex couples, people of all ages, and very few collared shirts. 

Staying 'Soulful'

Over the past year, Stocksy has grown to employ eight people, and its cooperative is composed of more than 600 photographers. The company is looking to hire several positions over the next year, and hopes to expand its pool of photographers to more than 1,000 by the start of 2015.

Upon the company's founding a year ago, Livingstone told CNET that the startup wouldn't be seeking venture capital, and wouldn't look for an acquisition by one of its rivals in an increasingly crowded online stock photography industry. 

"It's foolish to launch a company with the big boys out there, but I think it's the time is right for a soulful company like this to be created," Livingstone said. 

Internally, the company is still evolving. Last month, Livingstone announced he is stepping over from CEO of Stocksy to chairman of the company's board. Wettlaufer is taking on the CEO role, and the company is naming Richard Brown, an experienced manager of IT teams and veteran of iStock, chief technology officer.

With Wettlaufer, an enthusiastic and optimistic leader, at the helm of Stocksy, the company will have some internal adjusting to do. Wettlaufer has learned most of her management skills over the past decade within this narrow industry where she's now trying to forge a new strategy. ButWettlaufer says early in her career, she got some advice that stuck, and helped her realize not every day is sunny when you're the boss.

"A leadership coach I worked with once told me you have to be able to take people to hell one day and heaven the next," she says. "They might not like you that day, but then when you get to rise up and grow, they will love you for pushing them."


Published on: Apr 3, 2014