Why Stocksy United’s CEO is a Rebel With a Cause

High energy, big enthusiasm, formidable smarts — CEO Brianna Wettlaufer has led Stocksy United in a strategy that has disrupted the global stock photography industry — by doing the right thing.

Photography by Jeffrey Bosdet.

On a chilly day in December, I march into the rabbit warren that is Market Square in search of one of Victoria’s fastest rising entrepreneurs, the CEO of Stocksy United, the stock photography and video-footage sensation launched by industry veterans who set out to reinvent the highly competitive but endlessly derivative microstock industry.

A third-floor frosted door opens into Stocksy’s office space, which can only be described as old barn meets hipster warehouse. The space hums with quiet activity. Most of Stocksy’s 25 Victoria employees are clustered around a long bank of enormous screens that stretch across the centre of the room. In the foreground, two Gen-Xers share a late-afternoon conversation.

I’m soon joined by Stocksy’s CEO Brianna Wettlaufer, a tall, stylish thirtysomething who easily slides into the interview, her smile authentic, her laugh surprising in its depth — and its inclusiveness. When you’re with her, you feel like you belong.

Wettlaufer and her partners founded Stocksy in 2012. Just four years later, this artist-run cooperative has made a big dent in the microstock industry. Wettlaufer recently announced Stocksy had doubled its revenue in 2015 to US$7.9M, paid out more than $4.3 million in royalties to artists and paid its first dividends of $200,000 to member artists who sold imagery in 2015.

Making the announcement, Wettlaufer boldy said: “At a time when some stock imagery companies are slashing artist royalties and others suffer from bloated, outdated collections, Stocksy’s success proves that clients at the major design firms and Fortune 500 companies we serve agree that the combination of fair pay combined with meticulous curation equals a far better product. Our member artists are invested in the company’s growth and paid equitably, so they can spend more on photo shoots, making the Stocksy collection uniquely vibrant and current.”

No wonder competitors have taken notice. Stocksy has truly emerged.

You have a global outlook, but I understand you are an Islander?
Yep, I was born here. I did the usual: moved away. My mom was American, so I grew up between here and San Diego. But Victoria has always felt like home. I can’t live anywhere but Victoria. Everywhere else is ruined.

Did you go to university here?
I didn’t go to university [laughs]. I have no regrets. I kind of dropped out in grade 11, homeschooled myself for a year and then it was like, Do I finish this? Or do I just start my life? And the teacher I was working with was like, Dude, you’ve got this. Nobody cares if you graduate high school. And I was like, OK, that’s how I feel.

You were self-taught in graphic design, so how did you get into the industry with no formal training?
There was a place called PCN Creative at the time. I walked in and said, I think you should hire me and they were like, Yeah, just sit and wait. They let me wait for four hours, and I was thinking, Nope, I’m not going anywhere until I get a response. The creative director eventually came out said, All right, we’ll give you a chance. I worked my way up from the bottom. I was there a year, then got hired by one of their clients to be their creative director. That was a leadership consulting firm, which I think had a pretty big influence on my idea of leadership.

So you skipped over all those other levels of doing leadership wrong and got to work with experts whose role is to teach others how to do it right?
Yes, they let me take some of the tests they administered, too. I did one that was really traumatizing! At 19 or 20, you have this self-assured perception that you know yourself so well. No f-ing way you do. The results came back and showed I was insecure and constantly seeking validation. I’m like, What is this? OK, this is going to change NOW [smacks table]. I realized if I wanted to do things, I had to do them for myself.

So then iStock hired you as a writer. Did you bring those leadership skills to that position?
Possibly. I think I’ve always been very process-focused. I quickly came in and was like, Well, this is nice how you’re running this, but we’re going to fix it [laughs]. The photo process when I came in was pretty much a free-for-all — anybody could upload anything, the team was a mess, there were no standards. So I was like, Why don’t you let me take this over? They let me.

You knew you could do more and do it better if you put parameters in place. That’s a big part of your heavy curation process at Stocksy too. You still have final say, I understand.
I had to fight everybody when we first started — even some of the other co-founders — about what my vision was. I wasn’t going to accept anything else. I put together the first creative brief for our membership: Here’s what stock looks like now. It’s a joke. Here’s what it should look like. It was photo-to-photo comparisons, good to bad. We would break them down into what was working and what was wrong. It didn’t make sense why stock had to have a different look in comparison to things that were in magazines. It was breaking down the patterns that people had fallen into. We spent a lot of time writing creative briefs and education pieces, and we’ve got a really hands-on editorial team. When you’re consistent with people while challenging them, once they hit that bar you’re trying to push them to, they’re usually really thankful that you did.

Stocksy is different because you hand-pick your photographers and pay them well. How did you decide on your business model?
Until we came into the scene, there was the notorious line where the industry was racing to the bottom. Subscription models had just taken over. When you have subscriptions, you’re literally paying pennies to the photographers. When we came in, the point of things being sustainable was really important. You can’t be sustainable if you’re not paying people the true value of what they’re creating … I think that’s what gave us a competitive edge. Everybody’s fighting with the subscription thing, saying you can’t bring value back — and I think we’re showing that you can.

The platform co-operative based on fair pay is a new and different thing. You give 90 per cent of profits to your artists?
It was a very deliberate choice of wanting to prove that you don’t have to take that much money away from photographers and artists in order to run your company. Run it on a shoestring budget, keep your staff low, be intentional — and when you give back to your community and your artists, they give back to you to create a stronger product. It creates a cycle and feeds the success of your product. It was a gamble that might not have worked out, but we’re lucky. I think we did validate that with the loyalty we have from our members. All the other agencies have gone through our member directory trying to poach [our photographers] and our photographers are like, I left you for a reason. This company is treating me well, I want to support them.

In your second year, you extended ownership to staff. What prevents other companies from doing that?
Even as I’m listening to other people wanting to set their companies up like that, they’re like, Well, we’re going to do it but we’re not going to do it as a co-op, and I’m like, Why wouldn’t you want to do it that way? and they’re like, Well, I’m not sure I can trust everybody. There are major trust issues. It’s not going to happen overnight. If you want everybody to be collaborative, working together, you have to share your information and invest in the education of everybody’s understanding. We’re accountable to everybody who is a shareholder, which is no different than a traditional business model. But we get the pleasure of being accountable to people who are actually invested in the product and the integrity of the product and its long-term success, versus a venture capitalist who’s just looking to cash out as quickly as possible. We get to be much more long-term focused.

Stocksy serves Fortune 500 companies, household names and even banks. How have you managed to work with such well-regarded companies?
I think we’re lucky in the executive team that came together to formulate the way we do things. We weren’t learning things for the first time; most large agencies have a fairly rigorous onboarding process with legal and accounting. Our goal was: how do we make that as easy and as personal as possible for them? We make sure we do everything we can to be excited about what [our clients] are doing. We have a full-time creative research person helping clients uncover photos quickly. We’ve made a very deliberate effort in our tone and in the way we talk to people. This is just how we do business, trying to keep it as human and sincere as possible.

How does Stocksy manage to compete against the “big guns” in stock photography?
The fact that we love photography and want to support artists creates a much different approach to our business versus just, How do we make a ton of cash? We have a really high ratio of photographers on staff, so we end up championing it …There is an infectious quality to that. Focus on quality over quantity and give clients the great stuff they want — that’s our edge.

I can’t let you go before you tell me what it was like to have Stocksy featured in the New York Times!
We met the writer at the first-ever platform co-operative event (which is testament to how much people are paying attention to the co-op model). We stayed loosely in touch, and when [the New York Times] was preparing to run the article, we got a call saying they were going to send a Seattle photographer up to shoot the team. Which was so strange! That they sent a photographer up from Seattle?! We were like, Wow. We were one of the most read articles in the New York Times that day. People care about the why.