Creative workers in the so-called ‘passion industries’ are likely to have no control other their artistic work, experience precarity, and be poorly paid. While artist co-operatives have a long history, Stocksy, a multistakeholder co-operative, are combining an inclusive legal structure with a globally distributed membership.

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.

Illustration by Nick Taylor

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!

JGF: Voting rights are an important part of workplace democracy, and you’ve developed your own platform for members to discuss and vote on proposals. With Loomio now being used by city governments and other institutions, tools that enable distributed group voting are obviously becoming more important. What is your experience of working with a distributed virtual membership and how might it inform others working on these scales?

BW: I don’t think we’ve nailed it yet, and there is still a long way to go. Our platform is still the same as the day we launched, it is very basic but following that, I wouldn’t worry too much about the quality of the tools you are using, as long as they do the things you need: a place for people to talk, a place for your co-op to distribute information, to participate and vote on the direction of the business. Overall, we’ve relied less on the resolution and voting features, despite taking the time to custom build one, because we spend a lot of time in the forums talking to people. Since we’re having a constant conversation with members and doing our best, any business move we suggest that affects them financially or the direction of the business, we ensure we educate members about why we’re proposing it. The resolution and voting tool doesn’t actually need to be there if you’re listening to members on a daily basis and integrating it into your decisions.

You can spend way too much time and money trying to make the perfect tool, when it is really about the quality of conversation on whatever platform you decide to use.

NS: We explored lots of third-party software, like Loomio, and while it is a great product, it had a lot of features that we just didn’t need. In our baked-in product, the product we developed, coupled with our forums, it was good enough for the immediate problems we were trying to solve. If we decide to make it more complicated, we might look elsewhere, but as Brianna said, having open conversations on a simple platform has been the most effective.

JGF: What have been the most challenging proposals?

BW: The membership cap. And we still don’t have a solution here. We proposed creating a non-membership class, but even though it had a majority vote, after going to many co-operative events, we were told it was a very frequent mistake being made by co-ops, as you’re introducing classes for how to treat people, and is the antithesis of being a co-operative. So we had to go back to the membership and say, we thought this might be the answer, but this is often what seems like an easy solution, it is not, and we don’t think we should move forward with this proposal. And it is not sure what we should do next.

NS It was hotly debated within the community, from both sides. And we did have a majority vote as Brianna says, but it wasn’t unanimous, and there were many people who were very vocal against the proposal, so it gave us pause to consider that there might be a better way to approach the issue and a new vote to be considered.

JGF: How many proposal come from each class? Is there a good mix?

BW: No! No resolutions have come out of Class A. With Class B there have been some exploratory things of crossover in multiple classes, that they’ve had to put to a proposal. But in terms of direction of the company, they’re coming from Class C. Last year, I think we had about 20 proposals.

We’ve tried to make the resolution process work for us, too. At one point we brought in some external advisors who were trained in Italy. They reviewed all of the resolutions and rejected them all—these aren’t resolutions. That was horrible for the community. So if all of our resolutions are not meeting a resolution expectation, then we need to adapt how we’re receiving this feedback, so we’ve created three classes of resolutions. One is site suggestions and improvements to what we’re doing—this doesn’t require a resolution, just consultation with our product owner.  Two is an idea for discussion. One thing we observed with many resolutions were that they mainly solutions without identifying what they were trying to solve. Great idea, but we need to know why we’re doing it. Three is an actual resolution, the biggest one coming from the membership is video and that being approved.

JGF: Stocksy is one of the success stories of the Platform Co-op movement—you’ve been able to raise significant finance, and are now profitable. What do you think is needed within the sector for co-operatives to increase their market presence in the digital economy?

NS: A great product! One thing I took away from Open 2017 is that most organisations were co-ops first, and products or businesses second. I think we are fortunate for having a very strong product vision from the very beginning, and that the co-op structure worked for our business model. So someone looking to start a co-op needs to have a really good product or business plan first, then make sure that the co-operative model fits that secondarily. If you have no product, then it just becomes ideological and you lack a viable product.

Speaking to Nathan Schneider or Trebor Scholz, you learn that there are companies doing some amazing things, like Green Taxis in Denver, Colorado, who found a need and a business model that fit.

JGF: There are many well-known artist co-operatives, such as Magnum Photos and Pentagram, though they are not actively part of the movement. Is supporting new creative digital agencies to set up as co-operatives part of Stocky’s strategy for the future? And supporting the broader platform co-op movement?

BW: I don’t think our goal is to support competitors! We definitely get a lot of reach outs from other organisations about how to do profit sharing with people they are working with. Anything we can do to share knowledge, tell people about the stumbles and mistakes we’ve made, exploring the assumptions of being a platform co-op, since there are not many examples out there, it’s an incredibly important part of what we’re doing, supporting the platform community. At the end of the day, coming back to the previous question, I think it is about making it more easily understandable and accessible, I think there are many false assumptions that make people think co-ops are more complex and challenging than they actually are, when really it is only a way to approach business. It is not like it is some crazy, different way of doing business, it is just a commitment to investing in your people upfront, instead of having lots of resources to respond to an angry community that is misaligned with your product—which is what private business end up doing.

Brianna Wettlaufer is the co-founder and CEO and Nuno Silva is Vice President of Product at Stocksy United, an artist-owned, multistakeholder co-operative in Victoria, BC (Canada). With its stable of hand-picked photographers, Stocksy produces high-end and beautiful imagery.

Reposted from STIR Magazine

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